Did Zoom Trounce Google Meet? : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Zoom is the most popular video conferencing software and many people's communications lifeline during COVID. How did the tiny company beat tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Cisco?
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A Technology Tale: David Beats Goliath

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A Technology Tale: David Beats Goliath

A Technology Tale: David Beats Goliath

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

So, Stacey, how many Zoom calls have you been on today, not counting this one?

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

So many Zoom calls - that's all I do all day is stare at my face and other people's faces on Zoom.

HERSHIPS: I hear you. And multiple estimates say that out of all the online conferencing software, Zoom is the most popular. Last year, its mobile app was downloaded 485 million times. It's, like, become the generic name for something, like Jacuzzi or Scotch tape, and that is huge for a brand. But there is a mystery afoot.

I'm Sally Herships.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith on tenterhooks.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. The global market for conferencing software is worth $8.7 billion, and there are all these huge players vying for that money. I mean, like, Google has 120,000 employees. Microsoft has over 150,000 workers. Zoom has just a few thousand. It's pretty tiny. Zoom should never have beaten out its mammoth competition, so how did it do it? Today on the show - a David-and-Goliath tale of technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: Wayne Kurtzman is a research analyst who covers social conference platforms like Zoom, so he spends a lot of time thinking about why some companies are more successful than others.

WAYNE KURTZMAN: What Zoom did right was something really, really simple. It focused on delivering happiness. And that sounds so esoteric and so nonbusiness that it's perfect.

HERSHIPS: OK, wait a second. I have to push back a tiny bit (laughter) here because as somebody who has spent, like, a great deal of the pandemic on Zoom, I don't know how happy Zoom makes me.

KURTZMAN: Maybe a lot happier than not having Zoom.

VANEK SMITH: Zoom's mission statement is to, quote, "make video communication frictionless" and its philosophy is, quote, "delivering happiness." For a lot of us, especially during the pandemic, videoconferencing has delivered a lot of happiness. I mean, it has been a way to see friends, loved ones, family that you just could not see in person. It's also been a way to keep your business going.

HERSHIPS: But let's be honest. There is kind of a love-hate thing going on with online conferencing. It does not always make us happy, so we are going to circle back to this later.

VANEK SMITH: I will hold you to that, Sally Herships, because we have things to discuss. But in the meantime, Wayne says, when the pandemic was at its height, it was this very particular, really difficult time. And he says Zoom offered videoconferencing that didn't create, you know, another source of stress.

KURTZMAN: It just works. There are only about seven buttons maximum on any given screen. It just works. And that's actually why we use a lot of Google and a lot of the things we use. When it just works, we're happy.

HERSHIPS: Still, there are these other enormous companies that offer similar services, and Zoom managed to beat them - like Cisco and Google. So let's look at their mission statements too. Let's start with Cisco's because Eric Yuan, Zoom's CEO, used to work there. Stacey, would you please read Cisco's mission statement?

VANEK SMITH: Absolutely. Here it is; quote, "to inspire new possibilities for our customers by reimagining their applications, securing their data, transforming their infrastructure and empowering their teams."

HERSHIPS: How are you feeling?

VANEK SMITH: Lost.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: You know, happiness - I choose happiness, Sally. And Eric reportedly says that when he worked at Cisco, he, quote, "did not see a single happy customer." I mean, granted, he's now the competition, so you might take that with a grain of salt - but still. And it is true that Zoom has all these really fun features. For instance, you know, I'm talking to you now from the surface of Mars. I could have a mustache if I wanted to, or there's, like, skin-smoothing technology to make you look, like, young and fabulous.

HERSHIPS: This is all true. But sometimes, these special effects can backfire, which is exactly what happened to this lawyer in Texas who had what you might call a tiny little mishap during virtual court. And you need to know his filter was a cat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY FERGUSON: Mr. Ponton, I believe you have a filter turned on in the video settings. You might want to take a...

ROD PONTON: Ah (ph), I'm trying to - can you hear me, Judge?

VANEK SMITH: So if somehow you missed this video, it is - it's epic. It's, like, this little - huge kitten face. It's so sweet with, like, little folded-down ears and these giant rolling eyes, and the little kitten's mouth is moving along with the lawyer's. So you have, like, these two very serious men sort of peering into their cameras with this cat talking to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PONTON: I'm here live. I'm not a cat.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: It's amazing. I mean, it's, like, in my opinion, one of the best things to come out of 2020 (laughter). Anyway, back to Cisco, which does not have a cat filter. When Eric left Cisco and founded Zoom, he decided to make happiness key. And Wayne the analyst says don't be skeptical. The strategy worked.

KURTZMAN: Even talking to a lot of the folks who are working at Zoom, it wasn't just something on the board that they followed. It really had a different way that they handle customers.

VANEK SMITH: But, of course, we can't really keep talking about Zoom's big win without looking at one of its biggest contenders - the 800-pound gorilla, Google. Google, you know, basically owns us all. We use Gmail and Calendars and Google Maps. And, you know, Google has its own videoconferencing software, Google Meet - also Google Hangouts. So let's look at Google's mission statement. Here it is; quote, "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Oof (ph), just not - I'm feeling - I'm dead inside.

HERSHIPS: But to be fair, Google has been organized. It's been trying to dominate the conferencing market. But unlike Zoom, Google is a giant company. It wants you to use all of its different products and services, so it inadvertently put this speed bump in place.

KURTZMAN: One of the challenges Google threw up there - and any barrier at this time, perhaps, is one too much - is that you actually have to use a Gmail address.

HERSHIPS: Also, if you are a paying Google Meet customer, you can't just buy Google Meet. You have to buy a package. And this is where Zoom won out again. Not only did Zoom make an effort to be easy to use, but it was also easy to buy, which, in terms of business strategy, sounds almost comically obvious. But again, during all that disruption when the pandemic hit, some of these conferencing software companies were forcing potential customers to talk to a sales rep first. And there could be a wait of multiple weeks to do that.

VANEK SMITH: To be fair, Google videoconferencing has done really well. And, of course, Sally, you know, Zoom has had its issues. It has not been totally smooth sailing. Security was a pretty major issue for a while. I don't know if you remember people Zoom bombing, like strangers showing up in meetings. And that's a problem if you're trying to have some kind of secure conversation. Wayne says Zoom has solved the problem, and he said there was a very good reason that it jumped on that issue so quickly.

KURTZMAN: Trust, as it's often said, is earned in crops and lost in buckets.

HERSHIPS: That makes sense. But we can't talk about Zoom without talking about the other kind of happiness, like the kind I feel draining from my soul (laughter) after a day of staring at a webcam.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God.

HERSHIPS: Zoom fatigue is real.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh - the amount of my brain devoted to, like, worrying about flyaway hair has, like, quintupled the last year (laughter). I spend so much of my time when I'm supposed to be talking about economics wondering, like, if my hair has been doing that all day. It's a problem.

HERSHIPS: All right. But still, I think we have to just admit that videoconferencing is probably here to stay. It can make life better in so many ways.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, it definitely can. But I think I'm going to go ahead and turn my camera off right Sally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HERSHIPS: This episode was produced by Dave Blanchard. It was fact-checked by Michael He and edited by Kate Concannon. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: P.S. I am not a cat.

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

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