The COVID-19 pandemic and various government imposed Stay At Home orders have disrupted how we interact with each other both in small and large groups. It seems like nothing has been spared from this disruption - social gatherings with friends, interactions with coworkers, clients and suppliers, and religious and social meetings. While nothing will replace the rich experiences we have getting together in person with our families, friends and coworkers, we are fortunate to have a number platforms that can, at least partly, fill the gap.
There are many platforms available to allow face-to-face gatherings via the Internet, "in the Cloud" if you like. A few of the more popular are:
- Cisco's Webex
- Google's Meet (formerly Hangouts)
- Microsoft's Skype
- Microsoft's Teams
- A relative newcomer: Jitsi
I have used just about all of these, the exception being Teams, for at least weeks and more typically months or years. It's not my intent here to give you a blow-by-blow comparison of the products, or even a list of features and weaknesses. I will concentrate on just one: Zoom.
Why only Zoom? Simply because of its current popularity! And secondarily, because groups I'm associated with have chosen to use Zoom and that has enticed me to learn more about it. I'll admit that I like it. That shouldn't be interpreted to mean that I dislike the others; some have niches that make them more suitable than the others. Some have simply been the traditional choice of a group/company that hasn't seen any reason to switch.
OK, Curt, What do you like about Zoom?
Zoom is, in my opinion, very easy to use. Once you've downloaded and installed the Zoom program/application/client (call it what you will) you can join any meeting you have an invitation to by simply following a hyperlink. (OK, while this works for the overwhelming majority of users, there's a small group that will have to use a manual procedure. More about that, and an instructional video, in the next blog post.) If you don't already have the program installed when you follow your first meeting hyperlink, you'll be prompted to download the program and install it.
If you want to "host," that is schedule, or initiate, your own meetings you'll need a Zoom account. There are several levels starting with a free account and the next level up, a Pro account, along with higher tiers appropriate for larger corporate entities. The Zoom website lists four plans from free (Basic) through $14.95/mo/host (Pro) to higher priced plans targeted at businesses and enterprises. I, and a number of people that I know, have the Pro plan. I know one person that has an Educational plan account because he teaches at a university that uses Zoom. I don't know anyone else that uses a Business/Enterprise/Educational account.
Zoom video and audio quality are very good. Images are sharp, subject only to the limitations imposed by a meeting participant's camera and microphone. With modern webcams and laptop integrated webcams video quality is always good if the Zoom program is being used. (There's an option to allow meeting participants to join from within a browser instead of using the Zoom program/app. The meeting host can disable this facility. When possible, I recommend that this not be allowed because users using this facility will have a poorer experience than participants using the Zoom program.)
Zoom has some nice, and more importantly, useful features. Conducting polls, recording meetings, and private chatting during meetings are a few features that I've either used or anticipate using.
What about reported security problems with Zoom? It's been a few weeks, but there were a number of concerns expressed publicly about security problems with Zoom.
- Zoom Bombing: Zoom meetings are identified by a Meeting ID. Meeting IDs are all numeric and used to be 8- or 9-digit numbers. Zoom has changed that; Zoom Meeting IDs are now 11-digit numbers. That's significantly more difficult to "guess."
Also, Zoom meeting passwords used to be 6-digit numbers. Those are easy, at least with a computer, to guess. Now meeting passwords can be up to 10-characters long and contain alphabetic characters (both lower and upper case) and special characters. The choice of length and composition requirements can be set by the meeting host.
I only know one person that has had one of his meetings Zoom Bombed, in an educational setting. He shrugged it off and simply closed the meeting immediately and then restarted it, without further incident.
- Sensitive data leaked: Months ago, there were reports of data leaks related to customers using Facebook data tied to their Zoom accounts. Since I don't, and don't recommend, that anyone use credentials (userid, email address, password) from one site to login to another site; e.g., use "Sign in with Google...", I don't think this is a major concern.
- Other concerns: I've seen Zoom making other incremental changes to address security problems. They've done things like automatically generating more secure passwords, and defaulting to not allowing participants to Join Before Host and encouraging the use of waiting rooms.
My uses of Zoom don't include transmitting data that is particularly sensitive, e.g., financial, medical, or otherwise confidential. I can find more important things to worry about than Zoom.
Free or Pro Plan? Like many companies with different levels of offerings, product feature lists, Zoom's feature list leaves a little to be desired. There are two significant differences, at the time of this writing, that differentiate the Free Plan from the Pro Plan:
- The Free Plan has a 40 minute limit on meetings with three, or more, participants (host +2 others). Meetings with only two participants (host +1) are not subject to any time limit. (OK, there is a limit of two hours if there isn't any activity. Applies to the Pro Plan, too. Guess how I know!)
I have been on meetings that lasted more than 40 minutes that were hosted on a Free Plan. The host received a message after 40 minutes informing him that the limit had been reached and the limit was being extended. Nice, but don't count on it.
Also, if a meeting is terminated because the time limit has been reached it is possible to simply restart another meeting, using the same credentials, and have participants join the new meeting.
- The Pro Plan allows telephone participants. Telephone participants used to be allowed under the Free Plan. This was recently removed/restricted because of increased activity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It might seem easy to dismiss this feature as unneeded. However, I urge caution and suggest you carefully consider your potential audience. Some in your audience may not have easy access to an internet connected computer with the requisite hardware, particularly a webcam. Others may have physical limitations, e.g., eyesight or dexterity that make using a computer or tablet impractical or impossible.
I should point out that the Pro Plan has a discounted price of approximately $150/year ($12.50/mo) when purchased as an annual subscription and discount coupons may be found on the Internet.
What's next, Curt?
It won't take much research to determine that this blog has been rather inactive lately (LATELY??). However, this is the first in a three-part, or more, series of blog entries addressing Zoom. The next one addresses the somewhat uncommon problem of joining a Zoom meeting where the usual hyperlink fails to start the Zoom program. The third may address the transition from Zoom Participant to Zoom Host; determining why someone would want a Zoom account and creating an account (I plan to demonstrate the creation of a free account and selecting some options). I expect there'll be one addressing setting your display name for non-account holding users.