Google Puts Zoom in Its Crosshairs

As security issues plague Zoom, Google’s rapid response threatens to topple Zoom’s position as the king of videoconferencing apps

The Google Goliath smells blood at Zoom. Photo: Mitchell Luo/Unsplash

Zoom’s popularity exploded as people around the world were forced to shelter in place and sought solutions to virtually engage with co-workers, classrooms, families, and friends. By offering a free plan that anyone can sign up for and a group-friendly, high-definition interface that has proven resilient despite its sudden growth in usage, daily active users on Zoom leaped from 10 million to over 300 million in just five months. But Google is now hot on its heels.

Zoom’s popularity has come at a significant cost as security researchers discovered serious flaws in the Zoom platform, privacy advocates questioned the company’s data-sharing practices, and miscreants continue conducting Zoombombing attacks with crude and malicious intentions. The company is scrambling to correct problems by focusing its development team on strengthening the software, improving its configuration options, and announcing a new cybersecurity advisory board led by a well-respected security executive. Though security experts generally applaud Zoom’s response, many organizations have since banned employee use of Zoom for work.

Unfortunately for Zoom, online videoconferencing services are approaching commoditization due to market saturation. There is too much look-alike competition to stand out for long. Without new distinguishing features or a business model shift that can further disrupt the market, Zoom is vulnerable to competitive threats.

Google’s big push

While there are many deep-pocketed companies competing against Zoom, none seem as prepared or as hungry for battle as Google. Though it has suffered for several years with a muddled communications platform strategy, Google’s recent announcements around its Google Meet videoconferencing service show that the company is now motivated to become the next market leader.

Google recently announced several key new Meet features that put Zoom on notice. New noise cancellation, low-light correction, and high-quality video and audio content support are all welcome technical features, but the most celebrated addition will be the expanded “Tiled” layout. Previously, Meet limited the number of faces on the screen to a stack of four. By updating the interface to include a Zoom-like grid view that allows up to 16 faces on the screen, Google has made Meet much friendlier to larger group meetings. Some users, especially grade school teachers trying to keep an entire class engaged, may still feel constrained by that number, but I expect 16 to fit well within the needs of most users.

Google Meet mimics Zoom’s ease of participation by giving users a simple hyperlink sent via email or text message to join a meeting. Unlike Zoom, computer users can access Google Meet directly through a web browser rather than be forced to install the software. Not only is that an improvement over how the Zoom software reportedly bypassed security protocols to simplify the process of joining a meeting, but it also ensures that users are running the most recent version of Google Meet without needing a software update.

Allowing all Gmail users to schedule meetings through Google Meet instantly makes it available to approximately 1.5 billion active users.

Breaking the 40-minute cap

Zoom won new users by offering a permanent free version that anyone could sign up for. That business decision gave it a significant early advantage over its more fee-driven competitors at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. Though Google previously restricted Google Meet to business customers subscribed to its G Suite service, it announced a strategic shift by making Meet available to all free Gmail subscribers beginning in May.

Allowing all Gmail users to schedule meetings through Google Meet instantly makes it available to approximately 1.5 billion users. Anyone, including non-Gmail users, can attend these meetings. As an added bonus, Google will also temporarily allow Gmail users to host meetings as long as 24 hours. Google will continue to beat Zoom’s 40-minute cap even if Google reduces the meeting limit to 60 minutes (which it has said it will do after September).

One advantage that Zoom will continue to have over Google is allowing participants to call into meetings using a phone line, even on free plans. (For that feature, Google makes you sign up for G Suite.)

Google’s price advantage

Many videoconferencing companies, including Zoom, responded to the pandemic by offering temporary free access to premium services for essential organizations such as municipalities and schools. Google’s recent announcements will likely undermine Zoom’s ability to permanently convert those new customers while also threatening to siphon enterprise customers looking to consolidate subscription costs amid the economic downturn.

A lot of it comes down to pricing. Zoom’s Pro subscription costs $14.99 per host per month for fewer than 10 hosts, and $19.99 per host per month for more, with discounts available for educational institutions and nonprofit organizations. Compare that to Google’s $6 per user per month for G Suite Basic, a version of which is available for free to registered nonprofits and schools. Many customers will be unable to justify paying an additional expense for Zoom when they can get nearly the same capabilities through Google as part of a much broader suite of tools and applications. Only those lower-tier customers who want to record meetings will have a functional reason to choose Zoom over Google Meet — that capability is only available for G Suite Enterprise subscribers who pay $25 per user per month.

The Zoom business plan effectively positioned the company to take the early lead in an evolving videoconferencing market. Google has quickly taken advantage of Zoom’s recent missteps to make Google Meet a top alternative. Having reported 100 million active daily Google Meet users and adding 3 million more per day before its most recent announcement, Google is well-positioned to come out as the market leader when the dust settles.

Latinx tech & biz exec making solutions more accessible for mission-driven orgs. Fmr President, Advanced Cyber Security Center.

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