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Free Zoom alternatives for the new remote work era

(TECH NEWS) Many small teams already work remotely but the COVID-19 outbreak has forced many more to do so, but how do you communicate without spending anything?

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Communicate with a small team

As more American cities go into lockdown or shelter-in-place orders, teams across the country are having to find new ways to communicate. Zoom is the most popular tool on the market right now, but for some teams it means a new expense that they are not in the position to make at this time. Contrary to what Twitter may have you believe, Zoom is far from the only video conferencing option on the market. There are options for every size team and many of them are free. You will have to sacrifice some of the snazzier features, but in a time when many are contemplating layoffs, every dollar saved helps.

Google Hangouts
In times of crisis Google has come through for its global user base. Starting last week, users will be able to access the advanced Hangouts capabilities for free. This means users will be able to hold meetings with up to 250 participants and livestream for up to 100,000 viewers. Google Hangouts also has the added bonus of being able to record meetings and save them to Google Drive. This could be an invaluable feature for team members who are need to work off-hours or evenings in order to accommodate childcare.

Discord
Discord has been a popular communications app among the gaming community for a long time. This powerful, free tool allows users to create “servers” that can be organized by topic. This is a great way to break up conversations about different projects so important points don’t get lost in a huge, never-ending chat stream. Each “sever” has the ability to do video and voice calls. Users can also pin a message to the top of a chat, similar to a pinned tweet. The video options are limited with only 9 people being able to be on a video chat/screen share at once. Still, if you have a larger company but only smaller teams need to video chat at once, this could be the one.

Facetime
Just because Facetime is the tool you use to talk to your grandmother and make silly faces at your nieces and nephews, doesn’t mean you can’t use it to communicate with your team. In fact, if everyone on your team is issued an Apple device, this may be your best option. Facetime is only for iOS and can support video calls of up to 32 people. Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one.

WhatsApp/ Facebook Messenger
Facebook owns WhatsApp and plans to integrate it with Messenger down the line. At present, they have similar enough interfaces that if you understand one, you’re set for both. This isn’t the most sophisticated option and it’s easier to set up if you are Facebook friends with the person, which might not be normal in your company culture. WhatsApp or a Facebook Messenger video call is a good alternative to Facetime if you need to have a one-on-one with a team member but one of you is not an Apple user.

Skype
While Skype does have an enterprise plan, the free option is just as good if you are trying to communicate with a small team. It supports up to 50 users on a single video call – not that you want everyone talking at once. This could be the perfect solution for small companies that need to have company-wide meetings to update employees as the current situation changes.

If your team is small and trying to keep the costs of adjusting to a remote work environment low, any of these free alternatives are a great choice. Decide what your team really needs in order to communicate effectively and get creative with the options available. There are so many chat and video tool available for free that any one, or a combination of some, could be exactly what your team needs to make it through this difficult time.

Staff Writer, Natalie Gonzalez earned her B.A. in English and a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a writer and social media nerd with a passion for building online communities.

Tech News

Google begins evolving Hangouts into Google Chat

(TECH NEWS) Google is transitioning from Hangouts, and Meet to Chat to offer what they think consumers want. No more competing with themselves.

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Google chat

What is your favorite instantaneous way to communicate with your team these days? Phone call, text, video call, group text message, email, or instant message?

It might depend on the team members and their preferences, but organizations and business owners run the gamut on IM (Instant Messaging) software: Slack, Skype for Business, MS Teams, and Google Chat to name a few. There have also been several that worked well for smaller companies and startups like HipChat by Atlassian. These are often used in addition to still meetings, conference calls, and emails but depending on the culture of the organization, they may love IM, and require it to have a wider range of capabilities that just copy (i.e. photo and file attachments, groupings, privacy settings, focused team, or group channels)

To be fair, there are varying degrees of interest by employees in instant messaging. Some love the idea that you can quickly reach out to a coworker and ask a question, and some find it bothersome and would prefer an email so they can file and sort topics easily (or if it’s really that quick, a phone call or stopping by to ask – if they are in the same space – not COVID-19 alternative working).

This begs the question, does IM allow for more remote working capabilities, and does that mean Google is on to something that they may have just hit the right time and need? The truth of email is that we are becoming less and less interested in reading long forms of copy, and want the information quickly.

Google consolidated their people working on communications tool to one team and is moving Hangouts to Google Chat as well as quickly integrating Google Meet for everyone (you can start a video meeting from within your Gmail, so think Zoom but not having to leave your email – assuming you’re on the G-suite).

If timing is everything, this could be a really smart move for them. Do you even remember Google Hangouts? This was a product launched originally as a feature of Google+, and then became a stand-alone product in 2013. It incorporated video and voice call capabilities for individuals or groups. The thing is, in 2013, I think many people were still using IM through their work email (which was dominated by Microsoft Outlook and PCs). For whatever reason, people just weren’t really using it that way. Most likely people could use it with their internal teams, but would have to use Chat for external users.

The history of Instant Messaging is kind of fun to review – starting with AOL in 1997 when they launched AIM. Now pretty much every platform has a version of the instant message, and people are extremely accustomed to short exchanges and ways to reach out quickly. People frequently use text, Twitter, iMessage, GroupMe, and Facebook Messenger among other ways to quickly reach out, break through the clutter, and hopefully hear a response back pretty quickly.

It appears that Google hopes to offer the capabilities that their users need – when they realized it seemed that business users were using Chat within their organizations, but having to use Hangouts to speak to those outside of that company. Right now, this is only for business users, but they are likely to see how to roll it out to all customers now that they’ve added the Meet capabilities.

According to Android Police, “Furthermore, it’ll soon be possible for G Suite users to message other G Suite users from outside their organization starting May 26. Anyone not in your company will have an ‘External’ label next to their name in the Google Chat UI so there’s no confusion. You’ll also be able to add any contacts to group chats so long as you designate them as ‘External.’ This will only apply to new rooms, though — any you’ve already created will have to remain internal-only rooms.”

It looks like Google is working on getting rid of Hangouts for good, and broadening Google Chat, but there could be some other products in the meantime. Will this change how you use your G-suite?

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Tech News

A look into why AI couldn’t save the world from COVID-19

(TECH NEWS) AI is only as powerful and intelligent as the teams building it, but we just don’t have the data yet. So perhaps, we just aren’t there quite yet.

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COVID-19 AI

Even in the best of times, the human race can hardly be defined by our patience in the face of uncertainty. COVID-19 has rocked our feelings of safety and security. Hospitals have struggled to keep up with demand for care, and researchers are working tirelessly to create a vaccine. Early on in the fight against this virus, some looked to artificial intelligence technology to lead the pack in finding a solution to the global health crisis, but science takes time and AI is no different.

Over two months ago, when COVID-19 was still most prevalent in China, researchers were already attempting to use AI to fight the virus’ spread. As Wired reports, researchers in Wuhan, China attempted to screen for COVID-19 by programming an AI to analyze chest CTs of patients with pneumonia.

The AI would then decipher if the patient’s pneumonia stemmed from COVID-19 or something less insidious. This plan failed for the same reason many pursuits do – a lack of time and data to pull it off.

The United Nations and the World Health Organization examined the lung CT tool, but it was deemed unfit for widespread use. The lung CT tool, and all other AI driven projects, are limited by the humans designing and operating them.

We have struggled to collect and synthesize data in relation to COVID-19, and as a result tools, like the lung CT scans, cannot hope to succeed. AI is only as powerful and intelligent as the teams building it, so perhaps, we just aren’t there quite yet. Our tenacity and optimism continue to drive AI forward, but progress can only be sped up so much.

Like all science, AI has its limitations, and we cannot expect it to be a miracle cure for all our problems. It requires data, experimentation, and testing just like any other scientific pursuit. There are many problems to unlock before AI can be a leader in the driving force for positive change, but its shortcomings do not outweigh its potential. AI couldn’t save us from COVID-19, but as researchers continue to learn from this global event, AI may still save us in the future.

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Tech News

Chrome can now group and color code your open tabs

(TECH NEWS) Do you have too many tabs, and can’t tell what’s what? Google has tab groups that make it easier to find what you’re looking for.

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google tabs group

Are you a tab collector? That’s Google’s name for people who have tabs upon tabs upon tabs open on their Google Chrome browser. And while third party apps are already available to help collectors manage tabs, Google is now stepping in with Tab Groups.

Tab Groups, try it here, allows users to color-code, group and add text or emoji labels to separate clusters of tabs in their browser.

Right-click on any tab and choose Add to New Group. A gray dot will appear to the left of the tab and outline it in the same color. Clicking on the dot lets users update the color, label and name the group. Once grouped together, the tab groups can be moved and reordered. They’re also saved when Chrome is closed and reopened.

Google said after testing Tab Groups for months, they noticed people usually arranged their tabs by topic and that appeared most common when people shopped or were working on a project.
“Others have been grouping their tabs by how urgent they are, “ASAP,” “this week” and “later.” Similarly, tab groups can help keep track of your progress on certain tasks: “haven’t started,” “in progress,” “need to follow up” and “completed.”

Of course, this new feature does nothing to dissuade users from opening too many tabs, despite research that says multitasking may change the structure of your brain and Chrome is notorious for using too much RAM. So now you can’t concentrate, and your computer is running hot and slowing down.

A solution? Use Chrome extensions such as The Great Suspender, which suspends tabs that have been inactive for a specific amount of time. Don’t worry, you can whitelist specific websites so if you always need a tab for Twitter open, it won’t be suspended.

Another tip is to focus on one task at a time using the Pomodoro Technique, breaking tasks and your workday into 25-minute bursts of productivity with five-minute breaks in between. FocusMe uses a timer and website blocker to reduce the risk of getting distracted. You’re on the internet, after all.

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