Beyond the Zoom boom: Video-call options abound

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/05/03/business/beyond-zoom-boom-video-call-options-abound/

Beyond the Zoom boom: Video-call options abound

GoToMeeting, WebEx, MS Teams are players, too, and Google and Facebook are pushing their way in

By Hiawatha Bray Globe Staff,  Updated May 3, 2020, 3:00 p.m.

Peek at any laptop these days, and you’re likely to see five or six unshaven or makeup-free faces staring back. In the time of COVID-19, life sometimes feels like one long video conference, and frequently, the conferences are held on the popular program Zoom.

Frequently, but not always. Maybe a client of yours has suggested hooking up via Cisco WebEx. Or you’ve been invited to a virtual birthday party via Microsoft’s Skype Meet Now. Or your church has begun holding Bible classes inside RemoteHQ.

There are plenty of Zoom rivals, produced by companies from Boston’s Seaport District to Silicon Valley. Some are heavy-duty offerings designed for corporate use, while others are family-friendly freebies. And with recent reports that Zoom’s technology is studded with security and privacy flaws, more people are exploring the competition.

Of course, there’s no guarantee these programs will turn out to be more secure than Zoom. As for privacy, on Thursday Consumer Reports complained that video=conferencing products from Cisco, Google, and Microsoft don’t provide clear-enough guidance on what data they collect from users and what they do with it. Still, these conferencing services offer a lot of attractive features, and many come with an unbeatable price: zero.

Even before the pandemic, Zoom was a hot commodity in corporate video conferencing, grabbing market share from big rivals like Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, and Boston’s own LogMeIn and its GoToMeeting software. But during the pandemic, all three Zoom competitors are serving up special offers and new features in bids to attract new users.

LogMeIn is giving away GoToMeeting and some of its other networking products to schools, government agencies, and health care providers for use during the crisis. It’s also providing additional free services to existing customers. GoToMeeting is a high-end product with lots of features, including end-to-end 256-bit data encryption, a hardcore security feature that Zoom claimed to have, but didn’t.

But GoToMeeting charges $12 a month for a basic account, and while there’s a free version, it allows only three simultaneous users and carries a 40-minute time limit. Perhaps the company doesn’t need to do better. Chief executive Bill Wagner said GoToMeeting usage has gone up by a factor of 10 during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Cisco has long offered a free version of WebEx, and it’s recently sweetened the offer: Users can now invite up to 100 participants to a single conference, with no time limit.

Microsoft’s free options are a little more complicated. If you’ve got a free Microsoft.com account, you can sign up for its Teams service. The free version allows meetings of up to 250 people, with no time limit. Designed for businesses and schools, Teams has a host of slick features, such as screen sharing and the ability to work as a team on documents stored in the Web-based version of Microsoft Office.

If you’re just a housebound consumer, Microsoft’s Skype online calling service has a new feature called Meet Now, with which you can hold time-unlimited meetings of up to 50 people. Launching calls is exceedingly simple and happens entirely inside the browser, so there’s no need for participants to install Skype on their computers. For now, the system works on only two browsers, Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome. No Firefox allowed.

Meanwhile, Facebook last week unveiled Messenger Rooms, which will allow unlimited-time meetings of up to 50 people. Anyone can be invited, including people who don’t have Facebook accounts. Don’t try to use it yet; the feature will be rolled out in stages around the world in coming weeks.

You won’t have to wait for Google’s new offering Google Meet, because it’s been around since 2017, as part of the company’s G Suite of corporate applications. Google says Meet has recently been ringing up 100 million users per day, and it’s signing up 3 million more daily.

As a corporate product, G Suite costs a minimum of $6 per employee per month. But Google has carved out Google Meet as a free standalone service. All you need is a Google account to set up video meetings of up to 100 people for as long as you like, though the company might add a one-hour time limit later this year.

The upstart

It’s hard to believe there’s any elbow room left in the video-conferencing market. But the Boston company RemoteHQ hopes to stand out with innovative features such as the ability of every participant in a conference to control onscreen apps, including a YouTube video player and a full-featured Chrome browser. If your buddy wants to show you the latest headline on CNN, he can just take over the browser and punch it up. Nice.

But RemoteHQ has limitations. Users can create up to 10 conferences or “rooms” but can host no more than 15 people per room. The free version allows just one room and five participants. And while the full version of RemoteHQ is free through June 1, it normally costs $12.99 a month. That’s about the same as GoToMeeting, which offers a richer set of features and supports much larger meetings.

Besides, it’s hard to believe that pay-to-play video conferencing has much of a future at the lower end of the market. Remember when Google started including free GPS navigation inside Android phones? The market for stand-alone GPS units was gutted almost overnight.

The carnage won’t be quite so bad this time. Governments and big companies will pay for fancier features and the promise of tighter data security. But the pandemic has attracted a new kind of user: consumers and small-business people who’ve never paid for video conferencing in their lives. And once they’ve sampled the free offerings from Google or Microsoft or Cisco, it’s unlikely they ever will pay.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

 

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