Watchitoo Opens Video Chat Playground to Take on Google+ Hangouts

Almost anyone can start a video conference nowadays, thanks to the ubiquity of computer webcams and mobile devices equipped with cameras. No longer the province of elite corporate meetings, video chat services are accessible through social networks and telecom providers. Now New York’s Watchitoo believes its new service can challenge Google+ Hangouts for its share of the video chat market.

On Wednesday, Watchitoo unveiled Playground, a leaner version of its primary Watchitoo video conferencing platform. CEO Rony Zarom says Playground is designed for small and midsize business, but he believes it may appeal to an even broader audience. The platform, he says, combines video conferencing with a variety of collaboration features, and the ability to watch video on demand together. “It’s a business tool on one hand, but it is straightforward and easy to use,” he says.

Playground is browser-based and—much like the Watchitoo platform—can connect up to 25 active participants over the Web for live video conferencing. It also lets users in each conference collaborate on files such as PDFs, presentations, photos, and video clips. However, Playground is streamlined, Zarom says, for the layperson to operate without much hassle. For example, the Watchitoo platform lets users share their videoconferences live on the Web with potentially thousands of viewers who can simply observe or be rotated into the conversation. Playground does not include such a feature.

Cloud-based Playground is available directly through its website, as a service offered by Internet service providers, and through resellers who bundle it with customer relationship management software. Playground is accessible through a freemium model; up to 11 users can chat with the basic videoconferencing features for free. Customers pay $3.80 per user per month to give access to up to 25 participants and to unlock the file sharing service.

By keeping prices within reach for small businesses and making the controls simple, Zarom hopes Playground can win over users from Google+ Hangouts, which lets up to 10 friends video chat together for free and share their conversations. Though Playground does not have its own social network, the platform can connect to Facebook and Twitter and is integrated with YouTube.

Taking on Google may sound overly ambitious, but Playground’s big brother Watchitoo has been used by “The Dr. Oz Show” and “Dr. Phil” television programs to communicate with the shows’ fans. Zarom says the focus on commercial use helps set Playground apart from its rivals. Google+ Hangouts “competes against us in different segments,” Zarom says. “We are geared more towards business than consumers.” Playground also has cash and experience to support its efforts.

Zarom previously founded eXalink, a developer of a platform for delivering Web content to mobile devices, which he sold in 2000 to Comverse Technology in a stock deal worth some $500 million. He established Decima Ventures in 2001 and then founded Watchitoo in 2007 with $10 million from that venture fund. Zarom says he is considering raising another funding round to help Watchitoo hire more staff and expand into new territory.

The idea for Watchitoo, and by extension Playground, emerged from Zarom’s dissatisfaction with the incumbent videoconferencing services. He wanted to improve the interaction between the people communicating onscreen with each other. “I was trying to use Skype but it didn’t have features to share things in real time like watching the same YouTube video,” he says. “I was trying to create a platform that served this purpose.”

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