Virtual meetings keep businesses, friends in contact
You’ve probably forgotten how many virtual meetings you’ve taken in part in the last couple of months. Though you might dread them as one of the few reasons you have to put on real clothes, we’d be fairly lost without them. Virtual meetings had already been a popular way to cut down on business travel, but during a time when face-to-face could literally be dangerous, video conferencing skyrocketed. As such, software providers have scrambled to increase capacity and beef up security.
The Rise of Zoom
Zoom quickly emerged as the go-to video conferencing platform for virtual meetings, going from 10 million daily users at the turn of the year to 200 million at the end of March. With so many new users coming onboard, the service began offering daily demos and video tutorials to help people figure out to mute themselves, turn off their cameras, and generally avoid becoming the next person who accidentally went to the bathroom in front of a bunch of co-workers. Hosts using the free version soon discovered that having more than 100 participants crashed the meetings, and that they would automatically cut off after 40 minutes. So they began investing in the paid options that can include up to 1,000 participants and meeting lengths of up to 24 hours.
Then, just as new users were getting used to the service, they had to contend with “Zoombombing,” the practice of uninvited trolls entering meetings to wreak havoc. In response, Zoom removed meeting IDs from the title toolbar, as one source of Zoombombs was participants publicly posting screenshots revealing the meeting ID. Zoom also made waiting rooms and passwords default settings on the free and lowest level paid accounts. Hosts were given the ability to lock meetings, remove participants, mute everyone, and restrict which features are open to participants. For added security, people can use a per meeting ID instead of their personal meeting IDs. Zoom also promised that beginning April 18 paying users could opt out of having their data routed through a specific world region as concerns about the security of data centers in China arose.
On April 22, Zoom announced that all meetings would come with 256-bit encryption as part of a 90-day plan “to proactively identify, address, and enhance the security and privacy capabilities of the Zoom platform.”
For some invited intruders, nonprofit farm and animal sanctuary Sweet Farm introduced “Goat-2-Meeting,” in which people can pay to have a goat, llama, or other animal on camera during virtual meetings. The farm also offers virtual private tours. Goat-2-Meeting became so popular, Sweet Farm had to open up more time slots to accommodate requests.
In perhaps its biggest test, Zoom hosted the NFL Draft from April 23-25, with teams setting up individual rooms then relaying their picks to the league. Despite initial fears of the worst given the live format, the draft went off without a hitch and was actually quite popular with coaches and general managers who liked being around their families during the marathon weekend.
Since there are so many virtual meetings taking place—Zoom had to add servers to deal with the traffic increase—other videoconferencing services have had their day in the sun as well.
Microsoft Teams offers video calls with screensharing that can be recorded and host up to 250 people. After initially having only the option to blur backgrounds, Teams introduced the ability to customize backgrounds after Zoom backgrounds became a favorite accessory.
Google has split its Hangouts into Chat and Meet services. The former is more for one-on-one or small-group communication, while the latter is for large meetings. Both are included with G Suite for business accounts. Meet allows for up to 250 participants per virtual meeting and live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers.
Faced with 700% demand increase worldwide, Cisco Webex removed time restrictions from its free product and can support up to 100 participants with a toll dial-in option added. Cisco is offering free 90-day licenses to new business users and adding meeting capacity plus round-the-clock assistance.
The Changing Internet
Zoom and others were designed with business in mind, but quickly adapted as people began attending virtual happy hours to complain about the meetings they’d been in all day rather than at a bar like the good ole days. Never one to be outdone, Facebook introduced a desktop version of its Messenger app on April 2, enabling friends to make video calls on larger screens. On April 24, Facebook took things a step further, announcing Messenger Rooms where up to 50 people can video chat and friends can drop in at any time.
As analysis bears out, the trend toward mobile becoming people’s primary means of internet usage has stalled in favor of a desktop resurgence. When people are on the go during the day and out at night, smartphone usage is much higher than when more than 95% of the country is under shelter at home orders and a larger screen becomes the more convenient option.
That’s not to say nobody’s using mobile anymore. The Houseparty app, which lets up to eight people in a virtual room at a time to video chat or play in-app games against each other, has seen an 80% increase in daily traffic. Not all of that is from mobile though, as Houseparty offers Mac and Chrome desktop apps.
Though they’ve forced us to put on pants, virtual meetings have reinforced the power of the internet. They’ve kept things running and kept us connected to friends and family when we couldn’t see each other in person.