SINGAPORE: How quickly things can change. At the beginning of this year, not many of us may have known what the Zoom app was let alone be familiar in using it.
Within months, as COVID-19 forced people around the world to be domesticated and turn to online options for their social and professional engagement, Zoom has become a common verb in our daily suite of vocabulary.
In March alone, the video-calling app reported more than 200 million meeting participants every single day.
I have personally also gotten on the act as I moderated my first webinar on Zoom in April.
Since then, I have been a part of Zoom sessions for the Annual General Meeting and board meetings of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, a book sharing discussion and even virtual tea sessions with my best friend.
Many of us may have noticed that even the digitally-challenged among our networks have gotten accustomed to Zoom for their social and professional needs during the circuit breaker period.
Even though some of these movement restriction measures will be eased from Jun 1, there is going to be a phased approach to resuming activities safely.
Only some employees who perform essential services will be allowed back to their places of work with most, and those who can, encouraged to continue working from home.
This means that we are looking at more Zooming for many weeks, perhaps months, to come.
VIDEO CONFERENCING IS NOT NEW
Though it may seem like a new addition to our lives, video-conferencing isn’t new.
The technology behind the video telephone was developed in the late 1920s by AT&T’s Bell Labs and John Logie Baird.
Although there were several experiments in video-telephony thereafter, the modern day version which requires advances in video compression happened only around the 1970s when the discrete cosine transform (DCT) algorithm was conceived by Nasir Ahmed, T Natarajan and K R Rao at the University of Texas.
The DCT became the basis for the first practical video coding standard that was useful for online video-conferencing.
Over the last two decades, video-conferencing devices brands such as Polycom, Avaya and Cisco became prominent features in the boardrooms of organisations. These five-digit access setups would allow video calls to happen with someone in a different location and time zone.
Continued advancement in bandwidth and technology allowed video-conferencing to move from boardrooms to be portable on our personal computers and mobile phones that fit snugly in our pockets.
First, Skype came into the picture in 2003, allowing users to communicate over the Internet by voice, using a microphone, and by video using a webcam.
Apple’s FaceTime simplified the user experience when it was first introduced in 2010 as it used the mobile device’s built-in camera.
With 4G network, anyone can video-conference on the go on one of the many social media platforms at the touch of the screen.
But even so, these video-conferencing facilities then were used mainly for social purposes as they were riddled with latency and drop calls, while the low-quality webcam often made me look like a pixelated Minecraft character.
And that is if you were even tech-savvy enough to get through the hoops of installing the app in the first place and then setting it up to work that way you want.
For all that it was worth, socialising in person seemed more convenient and natural,
ZOOM HAS NAILED IT
Since then however, more video-conferencing apps have sprung up such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, Zoho, Highfive and Houseparty.
All of them are trying to capture the global video-conferencing market size that was valued at US$3.85 billion in 2019, according to Grand View Research and is expected to grow at 10 per cent cumulatively from this year to 2027.
When Zoom founder Eric Yuen left Webex to start the company, he set out to make it a market leader.
No wonder then that, despite all this competition, Zoom is still killing it today and ahead of the pack.
According to Datanyze, Zoom is leading the market with 38.21 per cent market share – a distance ahead of competitors GoToWebinar and Webex with 21.82 per cent and 12.1 per cent respectively.
Investors have also recognised Zoom’s popularity and appeal as its share price has nearly tripled from US$68.72 at the beginning of the year to US$171.06 on May 22.
In the enterprise market for companies, it is cheaper than Webex on pricing and provides more features to allow for a better video calling experience such as Zoom Webinar.
Against the likes of Skype and Hangouts, the simplicity of the user interface puts it ahead of the competition. You will not need to search for another Skype ID to connect before a call. Just an email address with a call hyperlink would start the video call.
For users who are not tech-savvy and just want things to work, Zoom fits in nicely as it just boots up with a click on a link. No pre-call setup, no app to download beforehand if you are on the computer and no screen full of advanced features.
And quality is top notch with high-definition (HD) voice and video capabilities, which reduces occurrences of latency or lag.
To add fun to the functionality and ease, the built-in Touch Up feature allows you to give yourself an airbrushed look while one can easily add in a virtual background.
These features may sound frivolous to some but in a period such as now where there is frequent and high-usage of video-conferencing, allowing variety and functionality adds to Zoom’s appeal.
The ease and simplicity of Zoom makes it as easy to adopt as one would when you pick up an Apple phone for the first time.
Since the restriction of movement, businesses and organisations have come up with very creative ways to leverage on Zoom.
Besides organisations using it to replace their work meetings, tuition centres and schools have also used them to conduct real-time lessons.
Many events that couldn’t physically take place have been transformed to virtual ones. Even yoga and fitness teachers are hosting classes on Zoom while food sellers are using it to showcase their stuff and take orders in real-time.
On the other front, a man was sentenced to death in Singapore via a Zoom video call for his role in a drug deal - the first time such a decision has been delivered remotely here.
With every experience possibly delivered to you through your screen, is there ever going to be a need for physical engagement again?
WILL ZOOM DICTATE OUR FUTURE?
While Zoom has definitely made our social and professional engagement easier, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
Take the security of using Zoom for education for instance. About two weeks into home-based learning for young students in Singapore, we saw a case of Zoombombing – referring to a scenario where a Zoom meeting is hijacked and disrupted by malicious actors.
On Apr 8, hackers got into the online lesson of a school in Singapore and showed obscene messages and images to the students, prompting the Ministry of Education to suspend the use of Zoom while it investigated the incident.
To Zoom’s credit, they have since taken numerous steps to address these issues albeit possibly triggered by a class action lawsuit filed by investor Michael Drieu against the company.
Yuan stepped forward and issued a public apology in April and to follow up with a 90-days plan to improve Zoom’s security starting with freezing any new features so all firepower can be centred on addressing the security issues.
Since then, meeting IDs have become hidden. Passwords and manual admittance of participants are default. Hosts can also lock their call to prevent Zoombombing.
Beyond that, the company has acquired Keybase - a company that specialises in secure messaging and file-sharing services - to enhance security and privacy capabilities on its platform.
READ: Commentary: As laptop use rises with WFH, users vulnerable to hackers taking control over webcams
With all these measures, New York Attorney General Letitia James' office has closed its inquiry into Zoom's security practice and the New York City Department of Education has since lifted its ban on Zoom use for educators as it approved the software's new security features.
With all these enhancements and features, it appears that even after the dust on COVID-19 is settled, Zoom will be here to stay.
While not all employers will adopt a complete shift to Zoom, or video-conferencing in general, for professional meetings and activities, those who realised the possibilities and benefits of remote working during the circuit breaker period will adopt it as a more permanent feature of their operations.
Outside of work, there will be those among us who will prefer to replace their face-to-face social, professional and learning pursuits with a Zoom meeting even when our post-COVID-19 lives eventually return to normal.
As it could be several more months before our phases of movement restrictions are past us, we are looking at an extended period of living with Zoom in our lives.
Socialising on Zoom by then may become a habit and, as is said, old habits die hard.
Adrian Tan is Practice Leader - Future of Work Tech at PeopleStrong after spending a decade in recruitment and outplacement. He writes regularly on HR tech.