Forbes is Sensational

by Dave Michels

I frequently come across misleading headlines. Usually, these are from the shadier click-bait sites that are more concerned about total views than retaining an audience. I thought Forbes was better, but I came across two posts recently that were deceptive.

The first one was: “Microsoft Knocks Zoom Out of the Park with New Features You Need Now” by self-proclaimed Cybersecurity expert Kate O’Flaherty. This headline implies that Microsoft has introduced new and big features that Zoom doesn’t have. That seemed odd to me as Microsoft generally follows the sector — so I clicked.

What the new features in MS Teams that knocks Zoom out of the park? Basically features that Zoom already has. “The opportunity to use your own logo or picture as a background. . . The second feature is the ability to schedule meetings and send out invitations in advance in the free Teams version.”

Zoom introduced virtual backgrounds in Jan 2019. Long before Microsoft introduced blurred or virtual backgrounds. Microsoft adding virtual backgrounds in the summer of 2020 is indeed a nice powerful feature that many video systems don’t yet support. It’s a complex feature that requires a reasonable amount of computing power on the client. As far as scheduled meetings goes, again, Zoom has supported that for even longer.

Integrated scheduling itself is not a revolutionary feature at all as most videoconferencing applications offer it. O’Flaherty later clarifies that the free plan from Microsoft doesn’t have a 40 minute limitation on these meeting. Yes, this is different and offers an important distinction from Zoom. Microsoft and Google using video to drive adoption of other paid services, namely Office 365 and G Suite. Zoom uses its freemium offer to drive adoption of paid subscribers for an improved experience.  The trick to freemium is to create a functional enough service for general adoption, yet still offer a benefit to upgrading. Zoom was among the first freemium offers in enterprise communications. Zoom would love to see its free customers upgrade to paid video and Zoom Phone, but this is a relatively limited upgrade path. Microsoft and Google have much broader portfolios and I expect they will increasingly use video as a loss-leader.

The next shoe to drop is Microsoft will unbundle Meetings from Teams completely as Teams holds-back the adoption of Microsoft Meetings. You have to assume that a high percentage of Zoom (and Webex) users also have Office 365 and/or G Suite.

The next Forbes post I came across was “Zoom Just Gave Free Users Frightening News” by Gene Marks. “Frightening” is indeed a frightening word.  The alarming news is actually better described as convoluted than frightening.  Mr. Marks says the that free version will “no longer be” encrypted. This is not true. Zoom recently upgraded its security model to AES 256 GCM encryption. This was a long overdue upgrade, and is now automatically enabled for all (free and paid) Zoom users.

Mr. Marks is not the first to be confused by encryption (one might say the subject is cryptic). Almost all video services use some form of encryption. What’s rare is something called end-to-end (E2E) encryption in business video services. E2E is not currently supported in MS Teams, Google Meet, Amazon Chime, and many (most) other business-oriented video conferencing apps. Part of the issue is the E2E breaks many value-add services such as a transcription and captioning. Cisco Webex offers E2E security, but it requires some expertise to enable it. Zoom does intend to offer E2E to paid subscribers,  but not free users.

That, presumably, is the “frightening” news, that Zoom free users will have the same level of security as say MS Teams (free and paid) users. This has to do with both freemium and authentication. Zoom wants its freemium offer to be simple, and that includes easy setup. Users can quickly obtain a Zoom account with just an email address. E2E encryption describes how media is treated, but keeping content private and secure also means ensuring the decrypted message is delivered to the right (authenticated) user. Authentication and easy sign up can be in conflict. Zoom’s paid accounts have IT administration and SSO options. Zoom decided to restrict its new E2E service to paid users. I’m not certain I agree with this, but realistically most users don’t really care about E2E anyway.

We are going to all learn a lot more about E2E encryption as more and more providers support it. 8×8 and LifeSize have announced it, and more solutions are coming. It’s complex and controversial. Attorney General William Barr has openly criticized it.

These are complex topics, but Forbes isn’t making things better with misleading headlines.

Update June 17:

Zoom will enable E2E for free users. From Business Insider: