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Exclusive: Video-conferencing company Zoom talks privacy, user figures and more

AMEinfo had the chance to interview Zoom, one of the world's fastest growing tech companies during the coronavirus pandemic, whose video conferencing service has broken into the mainstream after originally being a business-oriented service.

"As of April this year, we reached more than 300 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid. That is a 50% increase this month, from March to April." "From a technical point of view, we are confident that our architecture is built to handle these growing levels of activity" "When you consider the term ‘workspace’ – it has somewhat lost its true meaning"

AMEinfo had the chance to interview Zoom Middle East, the regional branch of one of the world’s fastest growing tech companies, whose video conferencing platform has broken into the mainstream after originally being a business-oriented service. 

While a lot has been said about the company in recent months, from privacy concerns to having the 2nd most successful tech IPO in 2019, we decided to get in touch with Zoom itself to learn all there is to learn about this company and its exciting surge in popularity as well as its contributions to the field.

Q & A with Sam Tayan, Managing Director at Zoom in the Gulf

What has Zoom’s response been to the newfound surge in demand for your services? From a technical point of view, was the company positioned to shoulder the new demand and stress on servers, for example? 

Globally the usage of Zoom has ballooned overnight – far surpassing what we expected when we first announced our desire to help in late February. This includes over 90,000 schools across 20 countries that have taken us up on our offer to help children continue their education remotely. To put this growth in context, as of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, conducted on Zoom was approximately 10 million. In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid. As of April this year, we reached more than 300 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid. That is a 50% increase this month, from March to April.

Sam Tayan, Managing Director at Zoom in the Gulf

We have been working around the clock to ensure that all of our users – new and old, large and small – can stay in touch and operational.

From a technical point of view, we are confident that our architecture is built to handle these growing levels of activity. Our unified communications platform is architected from the ground up to address the most technologically difficult aspect of communications: video. Specifically:

  •  We operate our own global (co-location) data centers in 17 locations around the globe, providing significant control and flexibility when it comes to routing both our audio and our video traffic.
  • We have architected the platform such that, in the event of capacity constraints at the data center nearest a user, additional traffic will be routed to one of our other data centers.
  •  In the case of an unprecedented, massive influx of demand, we have the ability to access and deploy tens of thousands of AWS servers within hours, and in full compliance with our Privacy Policy, to seamlessly scale without any impact to our users.

Read: A true unicorn: The shocking rise of one relatively unknown firm by the name of Zoom Video Communications

Zoom has existed in the market for many years and has always been a formidable competitor in the video conferencing market. However, it is now seeing an unprecedented surge in demand following the outbreak of COVID-19 that no one could have predicted, as its user base shifts from being majorly positioned in the business and enterprise field to officially breaking into the mainstream. What do you believe set you apart from competitors during the lockdown that led to this boom in popularity? 

We created Zoom nearly 10 years ago to build a better video communications platform and simplify how people communicate. Foundational to that goal was establishing a company that actively demonstrates genuine care for every user. That’s why Care is one of Zoom’s core company values. The word is displayed prominently across the walls of every Zoom office, on our internal Digital Signage, and on our About Zoom webpage.

We believe every business has the social responsibility to contribute back to the community and to society, and it’s critically important during times of crisis.

With this tenet in mind, Zoom is doing everything we can to provide resources and support to those navigating the coronavirus outbreak, including:

  • For our Basic (free) users in China, we’ve lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings with more than two participants, providing unlimited time to collaborate.
  • We’re proactively monitoring servers to ensure maximum reliability amid any capacity increases, as uptime is paramount.
  • We’re scheduling informational sessions and on-demand resources so anyone can learn how to use the Zoom platform with ease — and at their convenience.

Read: Are Skype’s days as a business tool numbered?

Zoom use in the affected areas

The coronavirus is massively disrupting daily life as people are increasingly staying home in order to avoid potential infection. Hospitals and medical clinics are being inundated with sick patients, putting additional strain on doctors and nurses. Businesses are scrambling to manage remote teams and provide business continuity. Educational institutions are trying to maintain coursework for their students amid school closures.

Zoom gives people the ability to collaborate using the devices they already have and provides multiple channels of communication when travel and connectivity are limited. Here are some of the ways Zoom has been put into action in China during the outbreak:

  • Mental health training: Zoom has provided free services and technical support to NGOs, such as charitable foundations and medical institutions, to assist with disaster relief efforts. Beijing Well-being Foundation, one of those NGOs, in partnership with psychology professors from top universities including Qinghua, are using Zoom Video Webinars to train thousands of mental health counselors and prepare them for psychological consultations with doctors, patients, and their families in Wuhan. From Jan. 29 to Feb. 25, 58 training sessions were held for 312,056 participants, with a total training duration of 84.6 hours.
  • Online education: In cooperation with the China Educational Information Platform, we launched a Zoom video conference platform that supports online education and research for all universities and colleges in China. Top universities like Tsinghua University, the University of Science and Technology of China, Nanjing University, and Shenzhen University, are using the Zoom platform to continue their teaching activities online.
  • Telemedicine enablement: Doctors from more than 1,000 public hospitals in China are using Zoom’s high-definition video meetings to conduct online consultations, remotely diagnose patients, and provide treatment during the coronavirus epidemic.

We’re proud that the flexibility and ease of use of the Zoom platform make these interactions possible for every user.

Read: Zoom acquires Keybase, to acquire end-to-end encryption for its services

Advanced capabilities with a free license

With a free Zoom Meetings license, users have access to all the audio and video conferencing and group collaboration features needed, including:

  • An unlimited number of video meetings with up to 100 participants
  • Crystal-clear audio and HD video
  • Breakout rooms
  • Private and group chats 
  • Online support

Plus, it’s easy to download and deploy Zoom using our client application or via any web browser, so users can start communicating right away. 

How to manage a temporarily remote workforce

The coronavirus outbreak has transformed many organizations into fully remote operations almost overnight, but managing that type of workplace isn’t always easy without face-to-face communication. Whether teams are fully remote, part-time remote, or temporarily remote due to travel restrictions, Zoom ensures that a dispersed workforce can be managed using:

  • Instant 1-on-1 video meetings
  • Daily team stand-ups with up to 49 video participants via Gallery View
  • Real-time collaboration with screen sharing and annotation
  • Chat channels for project-specific communications
  • Cloud recording and sharing capabilities
  • Company-wide webinars to distribute important updates

While Zoom has certainly been spared the brunt of COVID-19, and has in fact found success bringing people together during it, is the company facing any particular challenges related to the pandemic? 

Covid-19 has completely broadened what it means to be a video communications technology provider in times of need. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to support those impacted by the coronavirus outbreak by committing reliable technology, expanded access, and agile customer service.

What is interesting is that even before the pandemic, advances in technology, interwoven with the new generation of the workforce, meant that workplace culture was already experiencing a paradigm shift. When you consider the term ‘workspace’ – it has somewhat lost its true meaning. It no longer defines a traditional work setting, the connotation of going to work is drifting. With people opting to go to co-working spaces, coffee shops, to stay at home, or even go outdoors – more places are deemed acceptable “workspaces”, so long as the process works for individuals and the job gets done effectively.

However, this flexible concept of the workspace is no longer a ‘nice to have’. Being able to work remotely is business critical. And businesses are having to adapt and rethink their day-to-day operations to ensure they can successfully continue.

Our vision is to ensure video communications can empower people to accomplish more and create a connected culture. With that in mind, there are three elements that will impact the way business leaders run their organisations by using video conferencing during this challenging time.

How is Zoom handling social distancing and remote working among its employees? 

Here at Zoom, we are closely monitoring the coronavirus public health emergency that has affected thousands of people across the globe. We have been in constant touch with our employees in regions impacted by the epidemic, as well as our customers in those areas, and we’re providing support in every way we can. 

Read: Does Zoom really pose a security threat?

Media reports have indicated that some security issues pervade Zoom’s services. CEO Eric Yuan at one point said the company ‘moved too fast’ and made ‘missteps,’ but that steps are being taken now to address these issues. How is Zoom bolstering its security today to ensure user privacy? 

Zoom takes user privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously. Zoom was originally developed for enterprise use, and has been confidently selected for complete deployment by a large number of institutions globally, following security reviews of our user, network and datacenter layers. As video-first communications becomes more popular and accessible, we feel a responsibility to help where we can. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working around-the-clock to ensure that universities, schools, and other organizations across the world can stay connected and operational. As more and new kinds of users start using Zoom during this time, Zoom has been proactively engaging to make sure they understand Zoom’s relevant policies, as well as the best ways to use the platform and protect their meetings. We are proud of the role we are playing during this challenging time and committed to providing users with the tools they need.

It is equally important to note that:

  • Zoom does not sell users’ data.
  • Zoom has never sold user data in the past and has no intention of selling users’ data going forward.
  • Zoom does not monitor users’ meetings or its contents.
  • Zoom complies with all applicable privacy laws, rules, and regulations in the jurisdictions within which it operates, including the GDPR and the CCPA.

The Zoom team has been hard at work delivering additional features that further secure your Zoom meeting and webinar experiences. This past weekend’s release included additional password protections, one of the best options for securing your meetings and webinars.

Here’s a quick overview of the new password options, Zoom’s random meeting ID generator, and other Zoom platform developments.

1. Password requirements: For meetings and webinars, account owners and admins can now configure minimum meeting password requirements to adjust the minimum length and require letters, numbers, and special characters, or allow only numeric passwords. All free Basic accounts will have the alphanumeric option on by default.

2. Random meeting IDs: One-time randomly generated meetings IDs for newly scheduled meetings and webinars will be 11 digits instead of nine. Your Personal Meeting ID (PMI) will remain the same.

3. Cloud recordings: Password protection for shared cloud recordings is now on by default for all accounts. We’ve also enhanced the complexity of passwords on your cloud recordings. Existing shared recordings are not affected.

4. Third-party file sharing: You can once again use third-party platforms, such as Box, Dropbox, and OneDrive, to share across the Zoom platform. We temporarily disabled this feature and have restored it after a full security review of the process.

5. Zoom Chat message preview: Zoom Chat users can hide the message preview for desktop chat notifications. If this is turned off, you’ll simply be alerted that you have a new message without displaying any message content.

Additionally, we’ve fixed issues related to missing data and delay on the Zoom Dashboard. We will continue to monitor and make improvements to dashboard and reporting performance.

Read: It’s Here! 5 Things to Know About Zoom 5.0