Meebo, which makes a multinetwork IM Web service, is launching a chat-room service called Rooms tonight. Like the company's other embeddable component, MeeboMe (review), it's simple to embed a Rooms viewer in a blog post or Web page. But Rooms is a full-on, multiparty chat room, which makes it a lot more interesting. MeeboMe, in contrast, allows only one-to-one communication between a Web site visitor and the Meebo user who created it--useful, but not as fun.
I've embedded a Rooms widget further down in this post. As you can see, there's more to it than just chat. Rooms makes it easy for users to share media and Web sites. All you have to do to embed a YouTube video or a Flickr photo (or media from Metacafe, Google Video, PhotoBucket, or MySpace) is paste the URL into the chat window, then other users will be able to play media directly, without leaving the chat session.
Room owners can make their forums open to everyone or by invitation only, and they can separately lock down the posting of media and links if they want (I didn't, so please keep your links clean). The media feature of Meebo Rooms reminds me of Kyte.tv (review) and of YouTube's Active Sharing experiment.
Meebo Rooms is not the only embeddable group chat. We've covered several competing products: Weezu, Me.dium, Dai.sy, Chatsum, Yakalike, Planet Minibox, Yackpack, Yaplet, and Zpeech, for example. Meebo Rooms does take advantage of Meebo's slick, Web-based instant message service, though. You can easily invite people into a room by just dragging their name from your buddy list into the room. But Meebo doesn't force the chat/IM integration on you: If you want to invite people via e-mail, that's cool. And people who chat on the service's embeddable widgets don't have to be Meebo users at all.
Meebo Rooms users can also private-message the room's owner, who can then respond back to them in kind. This is a common feature in chat widgets, but I found Rooms' implementation of it exceptionally clear and intuitive.
In addition to providing Rooms as an embeddable service, Meebo is also going to put a directory of public Rooms on its IM service, hoping to get its users into the habit of group chatting.
So where's the money?
I like Meebo's services--the company has a very strong Web-based IM client, a nice person-to-person embeddable chat widget that's good for customer service, and now a slick group-chat widget that could help build online communities. I'm a little less sanguine on the company's business model, which goes like this, according to Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg:
1. Achieve IM parity. (Done, says Sternberg, although the individual IM clients do offer more features than Meebo does.)
2. Build cool stuff on top of that. (In progress.)
3. Figure out how to make money.
That's almost an Underpants Gnomes business model, and in the real world, it'd be completely backwards. But today, in the Web 2.0 world, it just might fly, because it costs so little to build a company these days and because, to be fair to Meebo, the company is actively pursuing business-to-business deals with companies that understand how important it can be to get their most passionate customers talking to each other in real time.
Hopefully Meebo will figure out Step 3, because Meebo Rooms is a very nice group-chat product that works well for both Meebo users, and for everybody else, too.
Disclosure: Martin Green, Meebo's VP of business, was previously employed at CNET.
Update: I had nothing to do with it, but CNET TV just launched its own Meebo Room. Check it out.