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Zooming into the rise and rise of video conferencing

Zooming into the rise and rise of video conferencing
Members of the European Council are seen on the screen of a video conference call with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 26 March 2020. EU leaders will debate via video conference the coordination of EU efforts to tackle the Covid-19 epidemic, as well as other issues, including foreign affairs, digital policy and enlargement. EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON / POOL

American actor Matthew McConaughey played bingo with Austin Texas seniors using Zoom; the UK government held a digital cabinet meeting. Although popular before, video conferencing has exploded during the lockdown.  

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The Guardian newspaper recently reported that Zoom, the video conferencing company, had “seen a 535% rise in daily traffic in the past month”. Recently, couples tied the knot under the #ZoomWedding hashtag, musicians streamed unplugged gigs and some companies even used Zoom to lay off staff…

As we find ourselves deprived of physical contact, video conferencing platforms have moved from being a simple tool that helps us work remotely, to becoming virtual social gatherings on steroids, with Zoom topping the list of video calling companies.

Until security researchers found that the app might actually be a “privacy disaster”.

Should you be worried about livestreaming your virtual take of the happy hour or a yoga class? We explore.


A brief history of video calls

Give me the back story. It’s the 1870s and, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first image attached to an audio file is transmitted.

Long ago! Yes, but it took almost half a century to actually make the whole thing – image and audio wired together – work.

Say more. In 1927, AT&T company Bell Labs managed to run a video call (images and audio) between AT&T CEO in New York and officials in Washington DC.

Okay. Although it wasn’t called video call because the word ‘video’ (from the Latin ‘I see’) was only coined eight years later, in 1935.

What was it called?Visual radio” or “Television Transmitted Method”.

Ah. Television Transmitted Method was a patent filed in 1933 by Georg Schubert that used motion picture film that was “passed through a transmission apparatus, which performs the transmission within a very few seconds after the actual incident has taken place”.

Cool! 31 years later, AT&T (again) presented the first Picturephone at the World’s Fair in New York City.

Did it work? Sort of: Because it was sending black and white images at 30 frames per second, users had to be super still during the process to make sure they were seen at the receiving end.

Oh, practical. Yep, and the price tag for a call was high – about $120 for 3-minutes; in the end, only few Picturephones were connected across three cities in the US, which made its use, and success, rather anaemic.

And then? Many more attempts, across the world, with various degrees of success, until the 90s with the apparition of the videophone (1992) and… The World Wide Web (1993).

Ah-ha! And the rest is QuickCam history, computers, Virtual Room Video Conferencing System and mobile phones.

What about Zoom? Zoom was created in 2011, hit the stock market on 18 April 2019 and after only three days of trading, it had beat ridesharing company Lyft as the most valuable tech IPO of the year.

Any competitors? Plenty: veteran Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Whatsapp, Slack, Monday…

But Zoom stood out. Yep, it just rose and kept rising, even more so as people found themselves under lockdown.

And then… The privacy and security backlash happened.


Explainer: Breach of security

It wasn’t specifically a new issue: as Senior Editor for The Verge, Tom Warren explained, “Apple was [once] forced to step in and silently remove Zoom software from Macs last year after a serious security vulnerability let websites hijack Mac cameras”. But recently, security experts have noticed Zoom’s default settings – that make the app so easy to use – can also be highly problematic.

Zoombombing – When uninvited trolls crash your meeting. Lovely.

Encryption – Zoom’s website assures users that it has end-to-end encryption, but a Zoom spokesperson in a statement to The Intercept said that: “It is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings.”

Surveillance – Want to play an online game during your meeting? Just remember that Zoom has an ‘attention tracking’ feature, that lets a host see if participants click away from the main window for 30 seconds or more …

Leaks – Bloomberg reported that Zoom is “facing lawsuits that allege the company is illegally disclosing personal information to third parties”.


Is it a thing, OKZoomer?

Of course it is! And it could be the answer to dating apps made obsolete during lockdown, that is if you’re in the US.  EJ Dickinson explained in Rolling Stones that Two Yale students developed a matchmaking system that “connects college students from more than 200 schools across the country for virtual Zoom dates”. OKZoomer, “Love for everyone… at least 6 feet apart” was born.

With over 6,000 sign-ups already and dating opportunities that – unlike Tinder or Bumble – don’t restrict you to a specific location, subscribers are popping on Zoom like helium balloons. DM/ ML

If you would like to share your ideas or suggestions with us, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected] and [email protected].


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