February 07, 2014, 10:32 AM — First there was the Chromebook, then the Chromebox. Now, Google has added a $999 videoconferencing package that combines a Chromebox and a video camera to enable inexpensive videoconferencing for businesses.
At this point, Google is just calling the system "Chromebox for meetings." Caesar Sengupta, vice president of product management for Google, said that the system was designed and is used internally at Google. "We've found that this works quite well for Google, and we're happy to bring this to other companies," he said.
Gilt Group, Eventbrite, and Woolworths UK have all trialed Chromebox for meetings, Google said.
The system includes four components: a new, more powerful Chromebox, based on the Intel Core i7; a 1080p HD camera module; a combination microphone/speaker; and an RF remote control. Samsung's existing Chromebox uses a Core i5 chip; the new Chromeboxes, from Asus and Hewlett-Packard, were necessary to permit the multiple, simultaneous HD streams that the new system enables--up to 15.
Essentially, Google has taken the low-cost, minimalistic approach of Chromebook hardware and applied it to the market for unified communications. Although low-cost, face-to-face videoconferencing options are available--Google's Hangouts, Microsoft's Skype, and Apple's FaceTime among them--stepping up to a unified videoconferencing system can run into the thousands of dollars, depending on how much a business is willing to pay.
Naturally, the new system is designed to work with Google apps and services, including Hangouts, Google Calendar, Gmail, and others. (Google is also working on a simple extension for Exchange, Sengupta said.) Users who walk into the conference room can click the remote once to be joined to the conference, without needing to enter a username or password. Within the interface, users can type in the name of the conference they wish to join, using some sort of identifying name. The initial screen also displays a subset of the user's calendar, as well as recent Hangouts. Google+ is prominently displayed in the upper left.
Once joined to the conference, participants will see a Hangouts-style interface, according to a demonstration by a Google representative. Users will also be able to type in a special URL, g.co/present, which will allow participants to "volunteer" to share their screen. The participant will then be able to open a Google app in a separate tab and launch a presentation, for example.
A Google representative said that each Google system (what Google refers to as a "meeting room" will include its own management account, that users will be able to connect to and "schedule" a meeting on their own calendars.
Participants who are working from home, or don't use the system, can be connected to the meeting via Gmail, using Hangouts from a PC, Chromebook, Android phone, or another device that supports Hangouts. Vidyo will also provide a special tool to connect to its videoconferencing systems, and users can also join via a number from UberConference.
There's a bit of a catch: Each system will also come with a $250/year management fee. The first year is included, Sengupta said. In return, Google will provide an undisclosed level of SLA guarantees, continue to provide software upgrades, and other improvements, Sengupta said. "Over time, you'll see more and more management features baked into this," he said.
Google's Chromebooks have quietly emerged as a force in the low-end computing market. Will this videoconferencing capability be what the Chromebox needs to make the same inroads into the business market? Microsoft and its partners will be guarding their territory jealously.
Updated at 11:28 AM with additional details.