There are a lot of ways to gauge the sudden success of video chat apps during the coronavirus pandemic. One would involve looking at the iOS App Store, where Zoom is ranked number one in the Business category, or where Houseparty ranks first among Social Networking apps. We could also look at users: Zoom has 300 million people chatting daily, up from 10 million in December, while Houseparty has seen 50 million signups over the last month.
But the most satisfying indicator is the response from tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Now that video chat is a necessity, they’re scrambling to catch up and address their own products’ blind spots, many of which have lingered for years.
- Last Friday, Facebook released a Zoom-like video chat feature called Messenger Rooms, which allows anyone to drop into video chat via a link, even without a Facebook account.
- Facebook announced that it’s bumping up the participant limit for WhatsApp video chats from four to eight people.
- Google recently raised the participant limit on Duo video chats from 8 to 12 people, and another increase (to an unspecified number) is on the way.
- Google also just made its work-minded Meet product free for up to 100 participants. (A one-hour time limit for personal use will apply in September.) This follows Meet’s earlier launch of a Zoom-style “tiled layout” and a meeting launcher within Gmail, among other features.
- Microsoft added a couple of popular Zoom features to Teams video chat, including a “raise hand” function and background images. It also added a link-based meeting option for Skype.
Was there anything stopping these companies from adding such capabilities sooner? Probably not, given how little time they took to implement once the coronavirus crisis began. The missing ingredient was motivation.
This is why I’m rooting for Zoom and Houseparty to succeed against the onslaught from tech giants. For too long, the likes of Facebook and Google have treated video chat as an afterthought, stagnating on innovative new features and capabilities. Only now, when other companies are snatching up their users, do they deign it necessary to add things such as higher participant limits or shareable meeting links. Certainly the pandemic itself is pushing them into action, but so is the threat of serious competition in an area that’s suddenly become important.
Look, for instance, at the dismay inside Facebook at the mere hint of a smaller rival gaining steam. As the New York Times‘s Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel reported last week, Facebook’s employees have “openly gawked” at Zoom’s surging usage numbers on internal message boards, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has asked his teams to accelerate the launch of new video chat features.
Facebook isn’t the only one whose ego seems bruised. Google has boasted to Reuters about Meet’s own uptick in usage. And while Zoom was facing blowback over an array of security and privacy issues, Microsoft put out the blog equivalent of a subtweet, touting its existing policies without announcing anything new. Even though these companies are all seeing their own usage spike, the notion of another upstart competitor is just too much to bear.
The irony is that these tech colossi might have headed off Zoom and Houseparty a long time ago had they not been so prone to stumbling over themselves.
Microsoft, for instance, had a chance to dominate video chat after acquiring Skype in 2011. But as documented by The Verge’s Tom Warren last month, a slow transition away from peer-to-peer technology led to years of reliability issues, while a series of poorly received redesigns alienated fans and failed to attract new users. Given that Microsoft Teams seems to have a brighter future—both for businesses and consumers—Skype’s continued existence is just a point of confusion.
Google has struggled with a similar video chat identity crisis over the years, having pivoted its once-popular Hangouts app to business use in 2016 and leaving consumer video chat duties to Duo. Google’s inability to formulate a cohesive strategy for its communication apps is now the stuff of legend, and those stumbles helped open the door to alternatives.
As for Facebook, it’s been offering video chat inside Messenger since 2016, but that was also when Facebook was obsessed with turning the app into a platform for chatbots. Only recently has Facebook realized people would rather just use Messenger for personal communications and embarked on a major debloating campaign. Its own Portal video chat hardware has been a flop, only seeing an uptick in interest now that people are desperate to video chat on their TVs.
Even Apple’s steadfast refusal to port FaceTime onto non-Apple devices has become a liability. One could imagine a cross-platform version of FaceTime mopping the floor with every other video chat app, but Apple’s video chat service remains relegated to iOS devices and Macs. When it really matters, people don’t want to leave out friends and family members who might be using an Android phone or a Windows PC.
All of those stumbles have created a small window of opportunity for Zoom and Houseparty, which have taken advantage by making video chat as frictionless as possible. Zoom, for instance, is free to try, works on any device, and doesn’t require an account to join meetings, while Houseparty’s “in the house” alerts encourage friends to start chatting spontaneously.
A chance to win
Direct competition with tech giants’ own well-established services doesn’t happen much anymore. You don’t see startups trying to attract more users than Gmail or build a more popular spreadsheet editor than Excel. Facebook has its share of tangential competitors—TikTok and Snapchat among them—but attempts to build broad social networking alternatives have gone nowhere. With video chat, Zoom and Houseparty have the rare chance to outdo tech giants on a grand scale.
But in the same way that tech giants are now scrambling to improve their own video chat services, the threat of being stomped out by behemoths should keep smaller rivals honest. Zoom, for instance, paused new features earlier this month to shore up its privacy and security issues. That’s a risky move with Facebook, Google, and Microsoft playing feature catch-up, but Zoom was already losing customers and needed to avoid a sustained backlash.
All of which is to say that competition is good for users, and I wish we had more of it. The sudden rise of Zoom and Houseparty is a reminder how tech giants usually dominate digital communication, and what we miss as a result.