Zoom. There’s a good chance that you’d never heard of it back in January. I was aware of it, but rarely used it. Now, and for the last two months, it’s probably been your life. You’re probably on Zoom at least once a weekday if you’re employed, and if you’re looking for a job, it’s probably what you use for interviews.
Zoom is the unqualified success story of the last three months. Even with a lot of negative press at the beginning of the spring, the company has bounced back. It’s no wonder: according to CNN its founder has been obsessing about how to make the product better as quickly as possible. Given that I haven’t seen a news story about “zoombombing” in weeks, I think he’s probably doing a good job.
Zoom is a surprisingly good product for what it is.
Zoom was built to bring teleconferencing into the 2020s, something it very much did. Early teleconferences were based around audio, and although early apps like WebEx and GoToMeeting allowed for screen sharing, one thing you couldn’t do was large-scale video. Zoom introduced the idea that all meeting participants could be seen on screen at the same time. That technology wasn’t really possible until about ten years ago, and with mobile you really could only do it a few years ago.
Zoom’s founder admits that a lot of the product’s problems in the last few months are self-inflicted wounds. The product was designed for businesses, not churches, governments, or grandparents. Corners were cut in order to make the product easier to use. Clearly this ended up being a problem when millions of people started using the service in ways it was never intended.
But despite all of this, and the inevitable jokes made by pretty much everyone in the comedy world, Zoom is still here. At least for now.
A target on its back
Zoom has a target on its back and it’s been drawn by three of the largest tech companies in the known universe. Google has made its Meet product free for everyone and is implementing some very Zoom-like changes like a large matrix of participants. Microsoft followed suit, making its Teams product free with any version of its (formerly Office) 365 software. Teams does a lot more than Zoom. It doesn’t do Zoom-like things very well but give them time, they’ll fix that. And recently, Facebook announced Messenger Rooms, which will provide Zoom-like functionality to anyone who uses that platform.
Yes, everyone wants to be Zoom right now. And that reminds me of another company that was once on the top of the world.
Remember these guys?
TiVo disrupted the world of television in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Average people could, all of a sudden, pause live TV, rewind, and record in ways they never could with a VCR.
TiVo was everywhere, partnering with service providers like Comcast and DIRECTV in the early part of the 2000s to expand their reach. Fifteen years ago, TiVo was the undisputed leader in DVR technology. They were everywhere, and part of the culture just as Zoom is today.
Just like “zoom,” “tivo” very quickly became a commonly used verb. You didn’t record something, you didn’t DVR it, you “tivoed” it. TiVo was on top of the world, scoring court victories to protect its technology, and offering some of the most advanced features of the time.
And then it all came crashing down
TiVo’s fall from grace came for two reasons. First of all, cable and satellite companies developed DVRs on their own. This cut TiVo’s revenue stream from licensing.
At the same time, although TiVo did win a high-profile patent protection case, it took years and several appeals for the company to get the payment it was awarded. In the meantime, TiVo, starved for revenue, slowed the release of new products. TiVoing, it would seem, had left TiVo behind.
What’s the lesson for Zoom?
Zoom probably has patents on its backend technology, but they obviously aren’t going to protect them from Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Those companies are already providing similar products, so it’s clear they developed their own technology already.
While Zoom is the product of the moment, they face very large and well-funded competitors. It’s likely that if the world keeps relying on teleconferencing, it will be the beginning of an “arms race” where each company rapidly rolls out new features in an attempt to gain more users.
This can be an exciting time for regular folks, as the software from each company will get better and more interesting, very quickly. Yet, as Microsoft showed with Internet Explorer, and then as Google showed with Chrome, it’s very hard to compete with a company who can give away the product for free. This is especially true if that company can afford to develop the product quickly and still keep it free.
Zoom does offer a free tier, but it’s not as generous as the free tiers from Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. If the company does make more of its services free, it’s hard to know how they’ll make money. It’s not affiliated with a larger company that can afford a vanity project.
In the end, it’s likely that Zoom will be remembered as a pioneer in the field as TiVo was, but unless they get an infusion of cash from a larger, richer company they probably won’t be able to last much longer.
On the other hand, if Zoom continues to be a good corporate citizen, they may just end up winning. As the world returns to its workplaces, people may end up remembering Zoom as a company that worked hard to solve privacy issues. Unlike those other three companies, Zoom might look like the good guy, preserving private conversations instead of taking unfair advantage.
We may not remember many positive things about this time in history. We may end up remembering Zoom as one of the bright lights that kept us together as one big family. That’s an amount of PR that money can’t buy.