A tipping point for video conferencing
Video conferencing began as a way to make it easier to have people who far apart to still meet and discuss important business issues. Some meetings require long trips and even air travel. In the late 90s companies working with the growing internet saw the potential of allowing those connecting on email to be able to connect in person.
Telephones were already a century old, but the difficulty to hear or determine who was talking made video and important part of the solution.
WebEx was one of the pioneers in 1995 that has gone on to be a popular option for business. Working on the audio issues to start and then beginning to add video in the next decade.
Skype was an early market leader which started in 2003, just two years later and it was bought by eBay for over $2 billion.
The first shift towards more consumer-focused video calling came in 2010 when the iPhone 4 released with Facetime, the very popular option for iPhone users to not only call but a video call any other Apple user with the app.
Business and beyond
The following year saw the start of a merging of business systems with consumer systems and also marked the start of Zoom’s path to becoming one of the dominant players in the field.
There are now over two dozen video conference options available each having a slightly different focus.
Skype was acquired by Microsoft in 2011 for over $6 billion and saw most of the major internet brands expand to offer a product in this space.
Work From Home
As more work became digitally based and industries like programming began to rapidly expand the need for office space and big company networks to connect employees was replaced by the option to bring your own device and make use of cloud-based systems
While working apart was practical, creating cohesive teams with no personal contact had mixed results. Using a video feed to both see the person you are talking to and being able to share your screens became the standard for doing online meetings.
For larger groups looking to speak to each other the system needed to accommodate tens if not dozens of individual connections.
Companies like Cisco WebEx, Skype, Google, Apple, Zoom and Slack all offer options for those that telecommute.
At the same time the popularity and belief that online teaching would become a more effective way to provide quality access to education to those that might not be able to physically attend lectures.
This required hundreds of participants but a central host that would manage access, do the talking and do the presentation.
By incorporating these elements into video conference software, it also allowed for marketing launches, industry conference presentations and live online press conferences.
With so many using the business applications and video calling being popular for families a generation of young people were starting to get their own devices and assumed they would allow for seamless video connections
Besides Apple Facetime, you could place video calls with WhatsApp or Skype on your mobile phone.
New entrants like Squad and HouseParty focused on friends group calling and catching up but rather than using text as the principal method, you simply call and chat. HouseParty after enjoying rapid growth has been accused of allowing their user’s data to be hacked, accusing the company of having their other accounts affected after the app was installed. The company denies the claims and is offering a $1 million to find the group they believe is running a smear campaign.
Google’s offering spans business and social with Hangouts and Duo for a less formal setting and Meet for business and teaching environments, they all offer video calls to manage both one-on-one chats to conference calls with up 250 participants.
The Duo functionality is being incorporated into smart speakers which using the Google assistant will be able to place calls on your behalf, either to your contacts, or even the authorities in the case of an emergency.
A stumbling block that remains is the quality of the hardware you have for your meetings. Spanning a major physical divide with a terrible microphone, speaker camera and internet line is not worth the effort.
Initially, the hardware was both expensive and ineffective but has steadily been coming down in price and increasing in quality. Microphones remain one of the best investments you can make to make online conversations better, new laptops come with relatively good cameras and most smartphones are able to capture good quality images from the front or back.
A stable internet line with good upload as well as download speeds is key, the faster the better, but ideally not less than 2 Mbps especially for uploads and with low latency will make your online chats almost as good as in person.
Safety and Privacy
Like most industries, it begins with a simple objective aimed at a savvy audience that would understand the risks in the system. In an attempt by companies to make the software easier for non-technical users to operate, the app assumes more control while preventing users from amending the settings. That simplification either provides those wanting to access a large user base with exploits to take control or capture personal data on the flip side all that user info, especially for services offered free, are often sold to advertisers and others.
Zoom as the most popular currently is seeing the effect of more scrutiny from those wanting to compromise the system and expert users who note how the company has been taking liberties with user privacy.
In time, market pressures and regulations should see those issues addressed but not before some may be negatively affected by the actions.
For Zoom it has gotten to the point where it has a name Zoombombing. For large open meetings or any meeting without access passwords, some users have reported trolls joining to disrupt the meeting or share images and videos that are offensive.
Expert users are unlikely to be negatively affected, but with so many new users and especially groups of children using the service, it needs to be addressed. Given how sophisticated the systems are, we can’t keep assuming that there will not be some training or practice needed to avoid problems.
While the surge in demand at the moment will drop once the Covid-19 pandemic passes, but it will remain higher than ever before and just like talking to machines is becoming less weird, assuming you can always see the person you are talking will be the standard even if you choose not to.
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