How Zoom Took Over the World
Posted July 21, 2021
Don’t you love video chats? No, not that much? We are mostly sick of them. They are better than nothing but can we please get back to experiencing each other in real life?
In the prophetic 1960s cartoon classic “The Jetsons,” they had access to video phones in their homes. As a kid, I dreamed that someday we would get it too. When it finally happened half a century later, there was no great celebration. It just happened.
Then as if to play a vicious joke on society, digital communication became not our emancipation but a minimalist means of survival during the worst of times.
The Zoom Life
I’ve been of two minds about the wild ascendance of big tech during the last 18 months.
On the one hand, it was epically egregious that governments all over the world forced so many people into Zoom life. The lockdowns smashed normal physical interactions in the futile hope of suppressing a virus. It didn’t work, obviously.
During this period, people all over the world clung to their digital tools as never before. Amazon, Google, Zoom, Apple, Netflix, Disney, Microsoft, Twitter – they all saw their user base explode in size, their revenue soar, and their stock prices take off.
Perhaps it should not surprise us that some of them – I would accept Apple here – signed up to be agents of government propaganda. The Biden administration has emissaries whose job it is to flag objectionable content and demand a takedown. Big tech complies dutifully and routinely so.
Google has even started removing documents from users’ cloud-based drives. They sweep through and take down anything that raises doubts about mainstream narratives on the virus and probably other topics too. Friends of mine have lost masterful writings this way.
This is remarkable to me. I had always – clearly incorrectly – assumed that the Google drive was a secure replacement for the physical harddrive. Not so: Google is in charge of what stays and what goes. Take a look at the terms of service:
We need to curb abuses that threaten our ability to provide these services, and we ask that everyone abide by the policies below to help us achieve this goal. After we are notified of a potential policy violation, we may review the content and take action, including restricting access to the content, removing the content, and limiting or terminating a user’s access to Google products. [Emphasis my own.]
The company will make an exception if there are “substantial benefits to the public from not taking action on the content.”
The censorship is only going to get worse. Take note now: your cloud-based drive could be wholly deleted without your permission.
George Gilder is correct to point out that this only contributes to fast-tracking the next generation of technology that puts a premium on censorship resistance, security, and privacy – all via the blockchain. We’ll look back on this period and marvel at how much we trusted big tech to guard our interests, only to discover that they served governments at the expense of users’ interests.
Still, Tech Saved Us
It’s true that government would not likely have pushed lockdowns in different times, when there was no internet, very limited capacity for people to abandon their offices, and otherwise watch endless movies and play games on their computers.
Only once a third of the workforce was in a position to isolate, and let the workers and peasants bear the burden of herd immunity, did lockdowns become viable and politically popular among the most powerful.
At the same time, we should appreciate the extent to which technology also saved what remains of civilized life. We could get food, products, and access friends via video conferencing. It kept us all from going insane and provided multitudes the essentials they needed to endure the biggest attack on liberty in our lifetimes. So yes, big tech did save us.
One of the biggest winners out there was Zoom, with 300-plus million daily users around the world and a stock valuation that tripled during lockdowns. It just announced a purchase of Five9 for $15 billion. This is a company that makes software for customer service calls. Zoom became so popular over the last year, and customers need service, and they want to talk to a real person. Purchasing Five9 integrates the service element directly into their operations.
Zoom is such a common word now that when I used it in the first sentence of the above paragraph, you knew exactly what I meant. Two years ago, most people had not heard of it, whereas people had heard of Google Hangouts, Skype, Facetime, Slack, and many dozens of other platforms, including open-source ones, such as Jitsi.
The functionality of Zoom is improving but was that great a year ago. But even now, I have much better experiences with different platforms such as Whereby. This is a very promising technology. It launched only in 2019, and was probably positioned to do very well in the market. In fact, it is far easier than Zoom. As the CEO explained:
We don’t require any downloads or logins to join, which is what makes Whereby unique from other video conferencing applications. Another way that we’re different from most is that Whereby meeting rooms are permanent links that you can go to at any time. Instead of creating a one time link, you can schedule a video meeting like you would schedule a normal in-person meeting. You can invite people into your room by sharing your room link, and they can join your room by pasting the link into any supported browser!
In terms of reach, it is doing fine but not spectacularly. Why did it not take off in 2020? I’m not sure there is an answer for that. And maybe that will change soon enough.
Conversely, why did Zoom win the race? That it is free accounts for a lot of it but the same is true of Google hangouts and meet, and many others. Skype could have been in the running but ever since Microsoft took it over, its development in terms of the interface has been throttled. Now it is widely regarded as old-fashioned.
Zoom works and it has a solid URL (Zoom.us), but there is another important element here: the catchy name. It is easy to say and easy to remember, and is easy to turn into a verb (“Let’s Zoom at 2pm”). This marketing feature of a brand – seemingly superficial – are usually underestimated when people consider the success of a business.
In addition, these platforms have generally strictly distinguished between business applications and personal software. The idea is to price the more advanced features for office use, while permitting individual users to communicate one on one or in small groups. But lockdowns changed that completely.
The home became the office and the personal became the professional. It was all one big blend. This is the reason that products like Slack and Teams were not poised to win: they are structured for business, whereas consumers discovered for themselves that they preferred an integration between the two realms.
This Cannot Last
Some people are speculating that Zoom snagged Five9 to diversify for the future in which lockdown blowback turns people against digital meetups. That is entirely believable. The backlash against this terrible period will take a variety of different forms. Some people will do everything possible to avoid the Hollywood-Squares screen of co-workers could become common.
Video chat will eventually settle in to be like it was in “The Jetsons” – a nice service to have when you need it but it is not life, much less the whole of life.