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Why is Zoom so popular?

Over the last three weeks zoom conference calls have exploded, but why is Zoom so popular?

Video conferencing isn’t new, in-fact Skype, WebEx, Facetime, and Hangouts have been around for years but there are a few things that set Zoom apart.

The first and arguably the most important is the quality of the product experience, in particular audio/video. If you can’t get the quality and performance to work well, then the other features don’t really matter.

In testing Zoom calls vs Skype and Hangouts… Zoom is a clear winner. The fidelity of the video, speed of connection and end-user control of what you’re viewing is far better than the others.

Google hangout offers a cleaner user experience, in that everything stays in the browser. Skype wins on the social front, offering many features to chat/connect, but for large calls, there’s just no comparison. Try to get 10-20 people on a call and nothing really comes close.

Why is this? After all… Skype was the pioneer when it was introduced in 2003 and has had almost a decade head start. The Skype experience took advantage of the high-speed Internet adoption and helped Skype dominate the field initially. It grew quickly and Skype was acquired by eBay three years after launching. Three years after that it was sold to a Private Equity firm, and two years after that was sold again to Microsoft in 2011. That’s a lot of ownership transitions.

At the time Microsoft had its own video audio product called, Microsoft Lync and Office Communicator. This caused a bunch of confusion but no problem… Microsoft said, let’s rename Lync to be called “Skype for Business.” This compounded the problem since the product was incompatible with Skype. Since then, Skype for Business has been morphed into Microsoft Teams and that product is also mostly incompatible with classic Skype.

While Skype had the early mover advantage they lost their advantage because they confused and split the market. They pushed businesses toward one product and personal use toward another.

Zoom got it right – people want to video conference for both personal reasons and for work reasons making it easy to blur the line between the two.

The other thing that Zoom got right was the underpinning technology. While Skype was slow to innovate Zoom took advantage of how the Internet was changing. When Skype was introduced Internet connectivity was slow and a common approach to solving 1 to 1 communication was using peer-to-peer connectivity. The person talks to the server and the server sets up the connection between the two computers. While this makes sense, it has some problems… If one person has a bad connection the entire call gets dropped and as you add more people the number of connections grows very quickly.

With 10 people you need to manage 45 connections. This is called Metcalf’s law. Instead, Zoom uses a central server like a telephone switchboard and those 10 users, only need 10 connections to the central switchboard.

This allows the conversation to scale very well and if someone’s connection is poor the overall conference doesn’t drop. It also allows different levels of quality to get downloaded to people based on their connection speed and their device keeping the experience working well.

In addition to the quality of the call and performance with many people, Zoom is introducing a lot of under-the-hood features that are making it easy for teachers, tutors, and businesses

  • Recurring meetings – make it easy to schedule meetings and it keeps people coming back to the product.
  • Remote assistance and control allows people to use Zoom to do customer or technical support
  • Break off rooms allow you to take a large meeting and break it off into smaller working groups
  • Whiteboarding allows people to collaborate visually
  • And much more…

While there’s a lot of luck in building a successful business, Zoom is doing well because it’s doing a lot of things better than the competition.

Zoom isn’t perfect, the UI could use a clean-up pass.

  • The button to end a call, shouldn’t be where you resize the window.
  • The toolbars are inconsistent and tend to bounce around between three or four different configurations
  • Some interactions require right-clicking to pin video or unpin in a rather unintuitive way.
  • Sometimes the screen resizes in response to a remote person sharing, even if I’ve configured it as desired.

Zoom will continue to grow steadily as the technical challenges and complexity of what Zoom has done is a huge barrier. I’m sure the video space will evolve but 2020 has changed people’s expectations of video conferencing forever.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.