Necessity is the mother of invention. Well, maybe not an invention in this case but the battle for best video conferencing platform is heating up and companies like Google and Facebook are doing their best to put some pressure on the now-giant that is Zoom. Google has recently upgraded the abilities of the company’s consumer-facing Duo app to allow calls to have up to 12 participants, a photo capture feature, better call quality and more features to come down the road. On the enterprise front, Google has enhanced the Meet video conference platform with a Zoom-esque grid view with support for up to 16 users, low-light mode, noise cancellation among other things to make the chat software more capable and user-friendly for those with access to it.
In arguably bigger news, Facebook just announced Messenger Rooms which could be the first video chat option to go directly head-to-head with Zoom that has become a behemoth in 2020 thanks, in part, to the recent work/learn from home movement. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a big fan of Facebook and it has little to do with whatever business practices that Zuckerberg’s may or may not utilize. I just don’t care for the Facebook culture or the practice of endlessly scrolling through the not-so-personal lives of thousands of people. That’s just me. Facebook has some good uses and for many, it’s the go-to for chat, networking and business.
Messenger is a useful chat option simply because just about everyone has a Facebook profile and even if you don’t you can use Messenger by connecting your phone number. Low barrier of entry at its best. Now, Messenger is taking chat to a new level by offering Rooms that will hold up to 50 participants with no time limits. That’s half the users that Zoom allows but you’re limited to 40 minutes at a time. Facebook’s move here feels a little bit late to the party but at the same time, it’s Facebook. Students and employees around the globe use Facebook every single day and this adds a native video chat room to a platform that nearly the entire world is familiar with and comfortable using. That will be what makes Rooms a success. It’s an app that most people already use. Kids and adults alike have Messenger on their mobile devices and access Facebook on desktop frequently. The barrier to entry is ZERO.
That doesn’t mean that Facebook’s Rooms come without caveats. The company clearly took notes from Zoom’s troubles and launched a blog post specifically addressing security and honestly, I was fairly impressed at how transparent the company has been about the new feature. First and foremost, Facebook explains what the default privacy settings are for different scenarios then it lays out the details of what control hosts have when creating Rooms.
- Locking: Rooms can be locked or unlocked once a call begins. If a room is locked, no one else can join, except a Group admin for rooms created through a Group.
- Removing a participant: The room creator can remove any unwanted participants. If the room creator removes someone from the call or leaves, the room will lock automatically and the room creator must unlock the call for others to join.
- Leaving: If at any point you feel unsafe in a room, you can leave. Just because a room is locked doesn’t mean you have to stay.
- Reporting: You can report a room name or submit feedback about a room if you believe it violated our Community Standards. But since we don’t watch or listen to your audio or video calls, it’s important to know that reports and feedback will not include audio or video from the room.
- Blocking: You can block someone on Facebook or Messenger who may be bothering you and we won’t inform them. When someone you’ve blocked is logged into Facebook or Messenger, they won’t be able to join a room you’re in and you won’t be able to join theirs.
Like Zoom, Messenger Rooms are encrypted to a degree but they are not end-to-end encrypted. For this reason, I still recommend apps such as Google Duo if you can get by with 12 participants or Cisco’s WebEx if you need a more robust meeting room. Still, kudos to Facebook because they address this right out of the gate and the Privacy Matters blog post addresses encryption as well as what the company does and does not do with your data.
Rooms is built on Messenger, so it uses the same technology to encrypt a video and audio conversation between people as it travels from their devices to our servers that we have placed in only a handful of countries that have strong rule of law. Rooms is not end-to-end encrypted. While there are significant challenges to providing end-to-end encryption for video calling with large groups of people, we’re actively working toward this for Messenger and Rooms.Privacy Matters: Facebook Messenger Rooms
Facebook clearly states they in Rooms, as all other parts of Facebook, the company collects data from its users. This data is used for “service and product experience.” Put simply, the data is used to curate your ad experience as well as to provide Facebook with data to tweak the platform based on user interaction. If you use the internet, you’re getting targeted with ads and if you frequent Facebook, you know exactly what that means. That does not mean that Facebook will show ads when you’re in a Room because they won’t. If you do not have a Facebook account you can still join Rooms and Facebook does say that they will collect basic information such as device and browser type, product usage and technical information. If you’re not okay with that, you might want to tighten up your security settings and possibly look for another video chat option but seriously, almost any platform you use is doing the same thing. As much as I am not a fan of Facebook, Messenger Rooms looks like a great option for the masses and I may actually give it a shot if I need a quick video chat option.
That leads me back to Zoom. If any company has shown the proper way to respond to consumer backlash, Zoom is at the top of that list. Over the past four months, Zoom has seen a rise in users to the tune of nearly 200 million from only 10 million at the end of 2019. With growth of that magnitude, growing pains are inevitable and Zoom was not immune to those pains. Concerns over privacy and security have plagued the company as it has become the go-to chat platform for personal, educational and business users around the world. Instead of sulking into the shadows and being content with its exponential expansion, Zoom mapped out a 90-day plan to address its privacy issues and promised its users the company would continue to better… and they have.
The latest update, Zoom 5.0, includes support for AES 256-Bit GCM encryption as well as the ability to choose which data center your meetings are routed through during live calls. This comes on the heels of the company changing the default privacy settings for rooms in an attempt to curb the rising number of “zoom-bombing” attacks by unwanted guests. In addition to these security features, Zoom has upgraded and tweaked many of its user controls to make security a priority. Passwords are now on by default and admins can set a degree of complexity for pins and passwords. Passwords for cloud recordings are also on by default. You can find a full list of the updates and upgrades on Zoom’s 5.0 announcement here.
While Zoom has been focused intently on security, the company has also been busy folding in some new features that may keep it ahead of the growing competition. Zoom has long-offered audio transcriptions for cloud recordings but now the company has partnered with Otter.ai to integrate real-time audio transcription for live calls. The feature is called Live Video Meeting Notes and is available to hosts who subscribe to Otter for Teams and have a Zoom Pro or higher plan. Participants of meetings will only need a free plan to join the meetings. Live transcription brings a new level of productivity and capability to video chats. The Otter.ai integration includes collaborative note-taking which gives Zoom an edge that will be hard to find in a lot of other platforms. You can sign up for 2 months of Otter for Teams for free if you’d like to give it a test drive but you will still need to have your Zoom Pro or higher plan in place. Read more about live transcription on Otter’s Zoom blogpost.
I know that my initial take on Zoom was harsh and while I stand by what I said at that time, the company has made massive strides in bettering the software and addressing consumer concerns. I truly believe that when we come out on the other side of this pandemic, video conferencing will continue to be leveraged in new and more powerful ways and Zoom will likely continue to lead that charge. I tip my hat and hope that the company continues to deliver on its promises to be better.