Google and Microsoft chase after Zoom with new features and free services

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Zoom’s growth has exploded in recent weeks, leaving rivals like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook scrambling to respond. Millions of people have turned to Zoom to hold virtual get-togethers, birthday parties, and yoga classes during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This extra attention hasn’t gone unnoticed among Zoom rivals, who are looking on enviously at Zoom’s growth: up from 10 million daily users in December to more than 300 million in April. While Zoom now battles security and privacy concerns, its rivals are starting to hit back.

Google is announcing today that its Meet video conferencing service, known previously as Hangouts Meet, is now free for anybody who wants to use it. Previously geared towards enterprise and educational use, Google Meet can now be used by anyone with a Google account, and supports meetings of any amount of time (at least until October when they might be limited to 60 minutes) for up to 100 people. It’s a big move that’s clearly designed to counter Zoom’s popularity.

Google is also seeing its own increase in demand for Meet, with more than 100 million daily meeting participants as people shift to remote work and schooling. That doesn’t come close to the 300 million daily users that Zoom claims it has, but Google Meet is clearly emerging as a strong Zoom alternative.

Google Meet’s new tiled view.

Google is now adjusting how Meet works in response to Zoom. The option to show up to 16 people simultaneously rolled out just last week, and it looks very similar to Zoom’s popular gallery view. Meet is even being integrated into Gmail. This tighter Meet and Gmail integration is being overseen by Javier Soltero, Google’s GM and VP of G Suite. Soltero was the co-founder of Accompli, the email app Microsoft acquired and turned into Outlook for iOS. Soltero left Microsoft at the end of 2018 after previously leading the company’s Cortana efforts, and joined Google six months ago.

Zoom’s rise in popularity also caught Microsoft by surprise, even though the company recently identified Zoom as an “emerging threat.” Skype has failed to fully capitalize on the video calling market it once dominated, leaving the door wide open for competition. While Skype usage has increased to 40 million daily users (up from 23 million previously), it’s not been enough to counter Zoom’s popularity. Microsoft is now focused on rapidly improving its Teams product instead. Sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans tell The Verge that the company has been reassigning engineers to quickly roll out features in Teams that it had been planning for later this year.

Microsoft has been closely monitoring how people are using Teams for remote working, and finalized the rollout of new features like custom backgrounds recently. Virtual backgrounds have become very popular on Zoom, even reaching meme levels of admiration. Microsoft announced its own surge in Teams usage last month, alongside some new features it’s planning to deliver later this year. One feature, a virtual raise your hand for attention, is already beginning to roll out to Teams users. Much like Google, Microsoft is also preparing to increase the number of participants who can be viewed simultaneously in the coming weeks. Zoom currently supports 49 people in its simultaneous gallery view, with Microsoft about to support nine and Google at 16. Microsoft and Google are both planning to support even more people in the future.

We understand Microsoft had been planning to announce some of these new Teams options later this year, but the company has been forced to prioritize additions like a new real-time noise suppression feature as more people are working in makeshift home offices with noisy children and pets in the background. Microsoft also improved meeting management earlier this month — a subtle response to Zoom’s problematic meeting administration — and predicted that the coronavirus pandemic will forever change the way we work and learn.

Microsoft is also racing to get Teams ready for consumers to use this summer. The Teams for consumers push is part of a broader Microsoft 365 consumer subscription effort, and it involves tweaking Teams to make it friendly for groups of friends or families. Microsoft is aiming Teams at people who plan trips with friends, or those organizing book clubs and social gatherings. New features include the ability for friends to connect in a group chat or through video calls, and options to share to-do lists, photos, and other content in a single location.

Google and Microsoft aren’t the only competitors looking to respond to Zoom, though. Facebook quickly scrambled to launch Messenger Rooms last week, an answer to Zoom and Houseparty. The New York Times reported that Zoom’s popularity caught the attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly ordered the company to respond as “employees openly gawked at public data showing Zoom’s growing popularity.”

Facebook’s Messenger Rooms app.

Some rivals have even turned to highlighting Zoom’s security issues as a method to hit back. Cisco, which operates the popular Webex web conferencing service, has been encouraging employees and partners to ask questions about Zoom’s security and privacy flaws, according to an internal document seen by The Verge. The document encourages Cisco partners not to buy into the Zoom hype, and includes several talking points for how Cisco Webex employees and partners can respond to Zoom’s increase in market share. Cisco even openly questions “what did they [Zoom] do with the data they already sold?” in the document that highlighted Zoom privacy fears last month.

The real test for Zoom and its competitors will be the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Microsoft is preparing for a future that’s vastly different, but one where the company believes this video calling surge will decline. Nobody could have predicted Zoom’s rapid rise in popularity in response to a global pandemic. The race is now on to see which company leads the way in shaping how many of us communicate with friends, family, and coworkers in the new normal that emerges in the months ahead.

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Google Meet video conferencing is now free for anybody

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