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A Boomer Zoomer Talks to Zoom’s Chief Product Officer

I have spent years futzing around with WebEx, GotoMeeting, UberConference, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, and other assorted ways to make video calls and conferences. But for me it was love at first Zoom. I know I’m not alone. The last time I was so taken with the absolute simplicity of a solution was the GUI (graphical user interface) that spared me from the DOS prompt. (For those too young to know, this was the personal computing operating interface invented by Apple and popularized by Microsoft Windows back in the 1990s, the predecessor to today’s icon- and app-based universe.) Zoom, I decided, is my VUI.

How did Zoom go from one of many ways to initiate a video conference to being a central verb during our Covid-19 confinement?  Business schools will likely be dissecting that for years to come. Bloomberg Business Week’s current cover image is a grid of Zoom windows with the headline “Could Everyone Please Mute?” And Saturday Night Live on April 11 was concocted from cast members’ homes, as a Zoom fiesta.

Oded Gal is Chief Product Officer at Zoom. I spoke with him the morning after our family’s Zoom Passover Seder and right after a morning Zoom gym class.  And of course I spoke to him over Zoom. 

He told me that the joke going around Zoom that morning was that every Seder around the world was only forty minutes. (That’s the time limit for free Zoom sessions, but real-life Seder typically take hours.)

What makes Zoom so good?  The answer is probably focus. Do one thing really well. “We put all of our  attention on video,” said Gal. “And we focused on being able to scale video.”  By contrast, others like Skype and Hangouts have concentrated more on point-to-point calls while Zoom went for scale–use by lots of ordinary people at once.

The second answer is simplicity. We taught my 88-year-old mother to Zoom while she was self-isolating. We’ve watched her up the ante in muting, switching views, being camera ready and understanding waiting rooms. When “Zoom” first appeared as an option in my own Google Calendar the act of scheduling a video conference became as easy as entering it in the calendar and inviting folks with their normal emails.  It was one of those rare tech moments when the process worked like I work, and not how my device wanted to work. 

Simplicity, said Gal, comes from working with the ecosystem and not trying to duplicate functionality that already exists. “We worked with Microsoft and Google’s public APIs and protocols. We worked with Slack, too.  We try to meet people where they are.” 

The third of course, is price. Free calls for up to 99 people that can last up to 40 minutes. A generous paid plan for unlimited-length group Zooms for $14.99 a month. The ability to stop and restart a plan as you need to. That’s a lot of bang for the buck.

Eight months ago, as Zoom was growing fast, a Reddit thread about Zoom vs WebEx was practically fawning. (And Reddit readers do not fawn easily.) People praised Zoom’s ease of use, the quality of its video and audio, the fact that it was hardware agnostic, the simplicity of testing audio settings, and the plug-ins that made it easy to schedule.  Commenters even praised the 40-minute limit, for keeping meetings on target.

But, eight months is centuries in these Covid days. Zoom’s Gal said that the company’s users were growing nicely before all this happened, and had already gotten up to about 10 million daily active users. But they’ve climbed to 200 million now–a 20-fold increase in less than two months. And since many early users were businesses with a system administrator who would be familiar with protections and settings, Zoom found itself unprepared to be the de facto standard for video conferencing newbies.

Move Fast and Fix Things

Keeping it simple and privacy protection have always been at loggerheads.  As soon as you require the latter, things can get complicated. Last week  Zoom found itself in a bit of a pickle.  Zoombombers were dropping in on all sorts of sessions uninvited, and no one was quite sure who had access to participant information. Google (creator of rival Hangouts) banned Zoom for internal company use. Germany banned Zoom for government meetings. School districts are banning Zoom calls. Media reports about Zoom’s lackadaisical security and privacy policies flashed visions of Facebook in my head. Would this be yet another company that prioritized sharing at the expense of privacy?  

Zoom’s “crisis in a crisis” isn’t over, but I’m impressed with how quickly it has stepped up to the plate and how quickly users are also gaining sophistication. The company has embraced its widened charter, now servicing church services, 12-step recovery meetings, hairdressers, priests, cocktail parties and yoga instructors. It is stepping up its privacy game. 

On April 8th,  the company rolled out a new security bar to let meeting hosts control all things privacy related from one screen. By clicking “Security” a host can quickly lock the meeting, remove participants, open chat in a meeting and more. Password IDs are no longer displayed on screen. For the most part these were all features that existed, just buried in screen settings and options where no casual user would likely venture. 

From a UI and design perspective Zoom has done a remarkable job, and in a short time, to retain the simplicity even as it makes the system more secure. I’ve now heard CEO Eric Yuan speak publicly twice in two weeks. Over the past few days Zoom’s released a new client update including the introduction of that security. Yuan is holding weekly meetings that tackle privacy issues. And you can track the  company’s 90-day plan to tighten up security here. Well-produced video tutorials in the Zoom help section can turn you from a novice into a fairly competent Zoomer in about an hour. That’s more than I can say about the conference tutorials on Skype or other services, where I still struggle.  I’d venture that Zoom did more, faster, and with more intent to address privacy than others have done over multiple years (yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you).

As for  accusations that the company is selling data and making other errors with privacy?  Clearly the company has made many questionable moves, as this Engadget article enumerates. Gal didn’t directly address it, aside to say the company the way Zoom used APIs in the past had been approved by the large platforms. My impression is that allegations that the company shared user data with Facebook and matched users with LinkedIn profiles appear to have been addressed. Here is Zoom’s most recent privacy statement.

The last time I watched an organization react so quickly, with such humility and scale, was when Intel recalled its flawed Pentium Chip, and that was twenty years ago. Most important for the company, customers coming out of this pandemic will almost certainly remember Zoom with fondness. Huge numbers of us have stayed more connected to others thanks to this company’s thankfully-simple service. The barking dogs, flickering backgrounds, the “beauty feature” that makes you look better on camera, the singing together with audio feedback and distortion, the thumbs-up control, the home tableau–in a few short weeks millions of people have worked together with Zoom to create a new culture. Imperfect but priceless. A modern miracle amidst a plague. 

The future could go many ways. I’m wondering if there will be a Zoom Lite for less demanding users. I’m wondering if the company might even adopt an ad-supported model for its free service. Last thought: my biggest regret is that I didn’t buy the stock on day 1 of the outbreak. (It went from around $76 at the end of January to around $135 in mid-April.) Gotta jump.  Time for my Zoom Cardio.

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