If you do office work, you’re probably very familiar with Zoom right now. Even if you’d never heard of the app in January, you’ve become an expert in the months since. It’s become the de facto standard for group conferencing. Zoom is used by everyone from first graders to grandparents, and it’s easy to say that it’s the most important app of the year. But Zoom has some serious competition, and that competition has deep pockets.
There was teleconferencing before Zoom, to be sure. In the early days, businesses maintained dedicated internet lines and used hardware designed for the purpose. Remember this was before most laptops even had cameras. It was more common for groups of people to sit in a special room and start special conference calls.
The next generation of conferencing was two-pronged. Until very recently, most internet connections couldn’t support multiple video streams. So if you wanted to have a bunch of people talking, you went audio-only. Services like GoToMeeting, Webex, and FreeConferenceCall let multiple people join over audio, and often let a host share their screen so that everyone could be on the same page.
This is what we had to live with
For two-way video communication, the answer was to limit participants to two. Apple’s FaceTime and Microsoft’s Skype both offered video fairly early on, but this was more like a video phone call than a meeting. Only two devices could connect at once.
According to the FYI blog, Eric Yuan was a VP of Engineering at Cisco (owner of Webex) in 2011. He tried to convince his superior that videoconferencing needed to evolve. It needed to be easy, it needed to be available to any device, and it needed to show multiple video streams. Apparently, the folks at Cisco disagreed, and Mr. Yuan left and formed his own company. That company was Zoom, and I hardly need to tell you what happened next.
Is Zoom’s dominance short-lived?
I first wrote about this subject in June, which seems like a very long time ago. At that time I asked if Zoom would go the way of TiVo. By which I meant, will it be thought of as a pioneer who was crushed by much larger concerns while at the height of its success. That question is even more important now as we continue to rely on teleconferencing to get a lot of our work done.
Two major competitors have arisen, backed by deep pockets, and they threaten to make Zoom a distant memory. I think the time will come when we’ll all be glad to never make another Zoom call but for now it’s something we all need.
Teams is Microsoft’s group teleconferencing product. Until very recently it was only used by enterprise-level customers, but it’s been added to the subscription for anyone who has any form of Microsoft 365 (formerly known as Office 365.)
Teams’ big strength is that it’s more than a videoconferencing solution. It’s almost a CRM. (For the uninitiated, a CRM is a customer relationship management system, a way to track everything about your interactions in a way that helps that information have a life of its own.) Teams not only has robust chat — better than any competitor — but also allows file sharing, long-term collaboration, and versatile group setups. It even replaces your office phone.
Doesn’t quite hit the mark
But really, for a videoconferencing app, if that’s all you want, it’s not great. The other features are super powerful but there’s nothing there for regular folks. As a grandparent, you’re not going to set up a collaborative workspace for your grandkids. At best maybe you and your friends would use it to share and keep files, a task that cloud storage is more than good for.
As a video product, it’s… ok. It takes a little while to get used to the way that it sizes different video streams automatically and there isn’t anywhere near the amount of flexibility in setup that Zoom has.
As I said, Teams was limited to the enterprise until very recently. Regular folks were expected to use Skype, a product which probably has a limited lifespan now. Teams does everything Skype does and does it better.
But Teams doesn’t do everything Zoom does, not yet. It’s not as good at working with large numbers of participants. While it has less audio and video lag than Zoom and the video quality is better, it doesn’t scale well enough to use it for a classroom or seminar.
Google Meet is Google’s latest attempt at collaborationware. The company has had terrible luck with any sort of group communication. Their social network, Google Plus, was an almost instant failure, and since then they’ve tried without success to create a chat or video calling app. It seems like almost every year they pivot to something new.
The latest pivot is Google Meet. Like Teams, it was only available to enterprise customers before 2020. Then, Google introduced it to anyone with a Google account.
Google Meet has the advantage of the Google ecosystem, meaning it is already closely tied into Gmail, the most popular email system in the country. Google Meet also leverages the technology it uses for YouTube to create much better video sharing than Zoom and has almost eliminated lag. If you want your choir to rehearse together, and you couldn’t do it over Zoom, you’ll love Google Meet.
That is, if your choir has only 16 people or fewer.
Meet has a baked-in problem (for now)
Google Meet’s big problem at the moment is that it only shows you 16 people on screen at the same time. It tries to figure out who the 16 people who talk the most are, and leaves them up. Unlike Zoom, you can’t even look at other participants on a second page. There are Chrome extensions that allow you to see more people. Google itself has promised an update that will allow up to 49 people on screen. [It may have already rolled out by the time this publishes.]
Google Meet definitely started out as the weakest of all the competitors, but Google has been working to make it better. And, it’s never a good idea to count Google out.
What Zoom has (that others want)
Zoom hasn’t been sitting still. It’s rolled out security upgrades and additional capabilities. It now even has two-factor authentication for those people worried about security. Zoom lets you have huge meetings and now even lets you do a “spotlight mode” where up to 9 speakers can share the screen, highlighted away from other participants. Zoom’s screen sharing is excellent and they’ve continuously improved the quality of their audio. Their latest update makes it easier for people who sing along with accompaniment to be heard properly.
They’re not yielding the high ground quickly, that’s for sure.
Where Zoom still falls short
Zoom doesn’t do really well when more than two people are talking. And the delay baked into it makes it impossible for a group of people to sing or speak in unison. While it’s easy to join a zoom meeting, it’s still nowhere near as easy as it is for Teams or Google, since integration is built into those companies’ emails.
And when it comes down to it, Zoom is still a small fish being circled by two giant sharks. Microsoft and Google can afford to give away the premium versions of their products, indefinitely. Zoom needs to make money so they charge for upgrades. At some point, Teams and Meet will be good enough that people won’t consider paying.
I think what we all want…
We’d all like to return to a world where we don’t have to use ANY group conferencing app, whether Zoom, Teams, Meet, or something else. But that world may be a long ways away. Some have predicted that business travel won’t return to 2019 levels until 2030. Others have called the advent of Zoom “the end of snow days,” because in case of inclement weather schools will simply switch to distance learning in a pinch. So these apps are going to be with us a while.
I’m actually still pretty optimistic about Zoom’s chances against Google and Microsoft. Google has such a poor track record with this sort of thing that it’s hard to imagine they’ll get things perfect this time no matter how much they spend. Microsoft dominates the world of business but they haven’t been able to really crack into the consumer space (not counting XBox.) Zoom’s approach is to be purpose-built for people who don’t want to spend their whole lives learning how to use something. Yet it’s still flexible and powerful enough for serious enterprise users. That may just be the formula for success.