During the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom has become a hero of remote work by removing friction from videoconferencing on your computer. Now it’s trying to remove a little more by sidestepping the computer altogether.
On Wednesday, the company announced a new gadget called the Zoom for Home – DTEN ME, produced by a conference room hardware maker called DTEN. The $599 device has a 27-inch touchscreen, a camera array, a microphone array, and speakers, all in service of a single purpose: connecting you to conference calls without a laptop or desktop computer.
The new hardware is part of a broader initiative called Zoom for Home that will eventually include more products from other vendors. It also follows a similar initiative by Microsoft, announced last week, that will put Microsoft Teams on dedicated hardware.
It’s clear why Zoom would want to offer such a device: It encourages people to spend more time videoconferencing exclusively on its own platform. While that’s obviously of strategic importance to Zoom, that doesn’t mean it’s great for Zoom users. Beyond its steep price tag and the fact that you’ll still need a laptop in a lot of cases, it also encourages a specific kind of remote work that isn’t necessarily beneficial.
The videoconferencing process, for instance, is already frictionless enough. Few of us need lower barriers to spending more time in meetings, virtual or otherwise, and we definitely don’t need more cameras permanently trained on us throughout the day, ready to summon our presence at a moment’s notice. Even the device’s calendar integration seems slightly unnerving, with its sidebar of upcoming events serving as a persistent reminder of more video calls to come.
A separate videoconferencing device also brings practical concerns. Sharing your screen becomes more of a hassle, because now you have to wirelessly pair the device back to your computer—that is, the thing that was supposedly too cumbersome to use in the first place—and juggle two meeting screens instead of one. If you want to have text chats with colleagues during a videoconference, you’ll probably want to revert to a computer and proper keyboard as well. And of course, you’d have to make space for this thing in addition to your existing computer setup. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the kind of perfectly tidy desks that appear in DTEN’s marketing materials.
It’s not a cost-efficient solution either. Comparable computer monitors, with 27-inch 1080p displays, sell for as little as $150, while Logitech’s C920 webcam is going for around $125. That’s less than half the price of Zoom’s all-in-one solution. Although you’d need a laptop or desktop computer to go with these accessories, it’s safe to assume most remote workers have one already.
The bigger issue is that once you invest $600 into a dedicated Zoom device—or your company sinks thousands of dollars into distributing such devices to its employees—everyone’s pretty much stuck with Zoom. Want to start using the nifty Together mode in Microsoft Teams? How about taking advantage of Google Meet’s deep integration with Gmail? Too bad. By virtue of making some rather steep investments in proprietary hardware, you’re fully locked into Zoom’s ecosystem.
This lock-in is what makes single-purpose videoconferencing devices attractive to a company like Zoom in the first place. Right now, it’s likely feeling a little left out. Google recently added Google Meet video calls to its Nest Hub Max smart display, which, at $230, is much cheaper and more capable than Zoom’s offerings. Facebook’s Portal smart displays and TV camera now integrate with the company’s Workplace platform for teams and will support Messenger Rooms video calls. It’s not hard to imagine Amazon adding Slack videoconferencing to its Echo speakers and Echo Show smart displays, especially now that Slack uses Amazon’s Chime platform for video calls. All of that leaves Zoom without a convenient video calling device of its own; the best it can do is create a dedicated device without all the neat virtual assistant features that its rivals are offering.
Zoom for Home seems like an idea that was conceived before the pandemic and repurposed for our current reality, because as a replacement for speakerphone systems in actual offices, it sort of makes sense. In the public setting of an office, being able to chat with colleagues in other parts of the building or in other offices could be useful.
But as a way to facilitate more work-related video calls in people’s personal spaces, Zoom for Home feels like another unwelcome intrusion—one that benefits its maker more than its actual users.