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Google wants people to hang out at work

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Google is keeping a free version of Hangouts as it does for Gmail and Docs.
Google is keeping a free version of Hangouts as it does for Gmail and Docs.

Google yesterday released an update to its Hangouts Internet chat tool, aiming to make it suitable in workplaces so the Alphabet unit can compete with business software makers including Microsoft and Slack Technologies.

Hangouts Chat supports instant messaging across devices between workers, including group conversations. It also allows users to integrate widgets to access data from other corporate software in a chat window.

Google announced the service last March, but told Reuters it would be available to all customers for the first time on Wednesday.

Hangouts Chat sits in Google's G Suite, a workplace software package that includes e-mail and word-processing tools, for which more than four million businesses globally pay as much as $25 per user each month.

Hangouts launched as a free service in 2013. But Google began tuning it for businesses when the company expanded enterprise sales efforts and sought to bring customers many of the same features it has internally.

"We want to move toward helping people move faster at work," said Scott Johnston, director of product management at Google.

But businesses have other options. Chat app Slack has signed up 50 000 paying teams as workers adopt more robust alternatives to e-mail for long-distance communications. Microsoft's Teams provides similar functionality in its Office 365 package, which is well ahead of G Suite in customers.

Microsoft held about 37%, and Slack about 5%, of the nearly $2 billion global market for collaboration software in 2016, according to research firm IDC.

Google is keeping a free version of Hangouts as it does for Gmail and Docs.

The paid version of Hangouts supports group conversations with up to 8 000 participants. Messages save indefinitely by default, though granular controls are available.

Companies can link their databases with Hangouts Chat. For instance, teams at Google have integrated their bug-tracking, employee directory and IT support systems.

Or customers can pick among integrations with software from Salesforce.com, Dialpad and Kayak.

They can also use Google-developed artificial intelligence services, such as a meeting scheduler tool that sets group meeting times based on its understanding of individuals' work habits.

Google is bringing similar artificial intelligence to its calendar software, with a system that suggests a meeting location after analysing a company's conference room listings and seating chart.

Hangouts Chat also pairs with Hangouts Meet, teleconferencing software that Google released last year.

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