Zoom’s biggest rivals are coming for it

Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel, The New York Times

Posted at Apr 30 2020 11:55 AM

Zoom’s biggest rivals are coming for it 1
A screenshot shows choir Amina rehearsing online using a Zoom platform in Riga, Latvia April 14, 2020. Janis Laizans, Reuters/File

SAN FRANCISCO — As people turned in droves to video chatting app Zoom in recent weeks, the buzz caught Facebook’s attention. Inside the social network, that immediately set off a scramble.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, ordered employees to ramp up and focus on the company’s own video chat projects, especially as use of its products also increased, said three people with knowledge of the plans, who declined to be identified because the details are confidential. On Facebook’s internal message boards, employees openly gawked at public data showing Zoom’s growing popularity, they said. 

On Friday, Facebook unveiled one of its biggest expansions into videoconferencing with several new video chat features and services. They included video group chats for as many as 50 people on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp video calls for up to eight people, and video calls in Facebook Dating.

Zuckerberg is not the only tech titan with Zoom on his mind. Google this month made its video chat app, Meet, more accessible through Gmail. Cisco recently promoted its Webex teleconferencing service as highly secure compared with Zoom. And Verizon announced last week that it was acquiring BlueJeans Network, a videoconferencing service. 

Tech and telecommunications giants are mobilizing against Zoom as the Silicon Valley company has become one of the biggest tech beneficiaries of the coronavirus outbreak. Over the past month, downloads of Zoom have increased 740 percent, according to App Annie, an analytics firm. Zoom has said it now has more than 300 million daily participants, up from 10 million before the pandemic.

Facebook, Google and others want a piece of that success. Behind the scenes, people with knowledge of the companies said, employees are sore that they have not grabbed more of the same buzz as Zoom, especially because many of the giants have offered their own video chat software — like Google Meet — for years.

In targeting Zoom, the tech behemoths are following a playbook of deploying their vast resources to outmuscle a smaller, fast-rising competitor. Last year, Facebook and Google trained their sights on TikTok, the Chinese-made video app, which had become a hit with young audiences. Often, the largest companies have opened up their wallets and snapped up tiny rivals to eliminate them as competition. 

In an interview, Zuckerberg chafed at comparisons to Zoom and said video chat was just beginning to be a larger phenomenon as people aimed to digitally connect in more intimate ways.

“The world was already trending in this direction before COVID-19,” Zuckerberg said while using the new Facebook Messenger video product. “This is the trend in general — the ability to feel more present, even when you’re not physically together.”

Zoom’s chief executive, Eric Yuan, said in an interview this month that his company was not thinking about competition and was focused on users and their experience during a “once in a probably 100 years crisis.”

Zoom, founded in 2011 by Yuan, a former Cisco executive, was designed to be easy to use and install. Unlike other video chat products, the app also has a popular grid view that lets people see everyone on a call at once, creating a more social atmosphere. The company, based in San Jose, California, went public last year.

When the spread of COVID-19 turbocharged the video chat phenomenon, Zoom emerged as a clear front-runner, owing largely to word-of-mouth about its ease and simplicity. It has been the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store for more than a month. The company is valued at around $47 billion, more than Slack and Pinterest.

But its success has been bumpy, with scrutiny falling on Zoom’s lack of security and privacy practices. Zoombombing — intentionally disrupting other people’s Zoom sessions with pornography or other forms of digital harassment — has grown so pervasive that the term has become a part of mainstream discourse.

Bigger tech and telecom companies are racing to catch up, even though they were earlier to roll out videoconferencing services. Cisco acquired Webex in 2007 for $3.2 billion. Facebook has long hyped its own video chat offerings. Microsoft bought internet calling service Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion.

This month, Google said it would plug Meet directly into Gmail so users could take video calls inside their email browser window. Google is also mimicking Zoom, releasing a grid-style view for Meet and adding features to improve video quality in low-light conditions. On Wednesday, Google added a noise-cancellation option for video calls and expanded the advanced features to all of its customers for free.

Google said Meet use was up more than 25 times what it was in January, with more than 2 million new user sign-ups every day.

After questions arose about Zoom’s privacy and security, competitors also rushed to assure customers that their offerings were safer. Javed Khan, a Cisco vice president, said that not only had use of Webex skyrocketed — at one point, the company added 240,000 new users in 24 hours — but so had its security business.

“As the largest enterprise security company in the world, we’re helping our customers connect and collaborate, securely,” he said.

When Verizon announced its purchase of BlueJeans on April 16, BlueJeans also emphasized security. “As this current work-from-home era has shown us, having secure, reliable and high-quality collaboration tools like BlueJeans is essential,” the company said in a blog post.

Houseparty, a video chat app that Epic Games acquired last year, has been popular with younger audiences. In recent weeks, more than 50 million people have signed up for it, widening its audience to those who also use Zoom. To differentiate itself, Houseparty said it was emphasizing features like the ability to play games with other participants in the app.

Few companies have been as attuned to Zoom’s rise as Facebook.

Zuckerberg recently galvanized several Facebook teams to accelerate their video chat product releases, including a desktop app for Facebook Messenger — which has a video chat feature front and center — this month. More than 700 million people now make calls across Messenger and WhatsApp each day, Zuckerberg said, making it clear that other features needed to be built in as soon as possible.

Those include Messenger Rooms, a way to quickly create video chat rooms using Facebook Messenger that can support dozens of people simultaneously. Facebook also integrated video chat into its Dating product and plans to bring the ability to create Rooms to WhatsApp, Instagram Direct and other services.

Zuckerberg said Zoom felt more scheduled and a little less casual than Messenger Rooms. He said he wanted to make the video chat experience more serendipitous.

“I don’t really think there’s anything today that you can display on an ad hoc basis that you’re hanging out and have whoever wants to join you over video,” he said. “Sometimes people compare what we do to other companies, like you did earlier with Zoom. I think the main thrust of how people are going to experience Rooms will be very different.”

Facebook’s augmented and virtual reality division, which offers a video communications device called Portal, has also been working with Zoom since January on a partnership so people could make Zoom video calls on the gadget, according to three people with knowledge of the company’s plans.

The companies had planned to release the product in May, these people said, but that was put on hold when Zoom recently decided to freeze all new feature development for 90 days to spend time beefing up its security practices.

Facebook’s augmented and virtual reality division is also in discussions with other companies to expand video chat partnerships, two of the people said. Press officers for Facebook and Zoom declined to comment.

Yet Zoom may already be too ingrained for Silicon Valley’s giants to dislodge.

Late last month, Philipp Schindler, Google’s chief business officer, held a videoconference with thousands of the search giant’s employees using Google Meet, three people who attended the call said. During the session, one employee asked why Zoom was reaping the biggest benefits even though Google had long offered Meet.

Schindler tried placating the engineer’s concerns, the people said. Then his young son stumbled into view of the camera and asked if his father was talking to his co-workers on Zoom. Schindler tried correcting him, but the boy went on to say how much he and his friends loved using Zoom.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the episode.

2020 The New York Times Company