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PHOTO: eberhard grossgasteiger

One of the most surprising aspects of the current health crisis is how quickly it has forced technology vendors to update, reinvent and develop products. In the past, it would take months or even years to introduce new functionality or new versions. The accelerated rate of development and release in recent weeks has been staggering.

This is particularly so in the video-conferencing space, where several vendors have been fighting for a larger share of the market as Zoom’s problems continue. However, with Zoom on a 90-day fix fest it will not be long before it recovers from recent bad publicity and continues to grow.

In the meantime, other vendors like Microsoft have been busy adding functionality to Teams, its communications and collaboration platform, to compete with Zoom's momentum. To do that it has just announced a change that will bump the number of users participants can see in video calls from the current four meeting participants to nine. This change will go into effect the end of this month.

On the Microsoft Teams UserVoice page, one contributor pointed out that “in a video chat it only shows the active video for the last four people that have spoken in the chat. On the bottom bar it shows icons for all those in the chat. If it could show small video for all those in the chat that have their cameras turned on it would be beneficial."

Over 42,000 people agreed with the post. In response, a Microsoft admin replied: "We will start rolling out our first update to view nine participants simultaneously by the end of April. In parallel we are continuing work to increase this limit even further."

So, there will be nine participants viewable as of the end of this month — this feature was originally flagged for May — and it looks likely more participants will be added in the coming weeks and months.

However, nine participants are unlikely to be enough. Zoom makes it possible to see up to 49 participants, Google Hangouts allows visibility up to 25 people as does WebEx.

The stakes are high here. In a recent blog post, Microsoft claimed it set a new daily record of 2.7 billion meeting minutes on March 31, a 200% increase from 900 million on March 16. And as students and teachers turn to Teams for distance learning, there are 183,000 tenants in 175 countries using Teams for Education.

The post also cited research the company had carried out that shows people in Norway and the Netherlands turn on video most, with about 60% of calls including video. People in Australia use video in meetings 57% of the time, Italy 53%, Chile 52%, Switzerland 51%, and Spain 49%. In Mexico and the US use its 41% and 38% respectively.

Google Meet Now Accessible From Gmail

Microsoft is not the only player upping its video conferencing game. Google has also been busy, as you might expect from a company with a number of applications that include video options. The most notable change this week is in Google Meet.

Google Meet is the business-oriented version of Google's Hangouts platform and is suitable for businesses of all sizes. The solution allows users to make video calls with up to 30 users per high-definition video meeting.

One digital workplace goal has been to create a single place to work, Google, though its G Suite, has been quietly pursuing this goal for a number of years.

This week it took a step further by announcing that Google Meet is now directly accessible from Gmail. The new integration is currently available on Gmail for the web, with mobile coming soon.

A blog post noted that with more people working and learning from home, the company wanted to make it easier for users to connect and keep things moving forward. “With Meet in Gmail, you can easily start or join a meeting in seconds. Our goal is to help you follow the flow of the day, seamlessly switching between email and video meetings—whichever form of communication you need,” the post read.

It is arguable as to whether Google would have done this or not with without the current level of activity in the video conferencing space, but it is certainly a logical step, given the reach of both Gmail and G-Suite in the enterprise.

It also responded to a massive increase in the use of Meet as more people were sent home to work. In a separate blog post, it revealed the company had seen surges in the use of Google Meet “at a rate we’ve never witnessed before .... Over the last few weeks, Meet’s day-over-day growth surpassed 60%, and as a result, its daily usage is more than 25 times what it was in January. Despite this growth, the demand has been well within the bounds of our network’s ability.”

It is also worth noting that the integration of Meet with Gmail is the first of several features being launched ahead of schedule because of a surge in demand for video conferencing, Google vice president Javier Soltero told Reuters.

Meet will improve video quality in dim lighting and filtering of background noise, such as keyboard clicks and slamming doors. It will also add the ability to display 16 call participants at the same time.

These are just some of the features promised in the coming weeks, but there is likely to be more. While these recent additions are a direct response to coronavirus and the subsequent surge in working from home, it is also in keeping with Google’s ongoing strategy to build G Suite for a better enterprise experience.

Verizon Snaps up Zoom Rival BlueJeans

So, what do you do if you’re not in the video conferencing market? You do what Verizon has just done: you buy into it. New York City-based Verizon has just announced it is buying San Jose, Calif.-based BlueJeans Network for $500 million.

BlueJeans Network provides an interoperable cloud-based video conferencing service that connects participants across a wide range of devices and conferencing platforms.

In a letter posted on BlueJeans’ website this week, CEO Quentin Gallivan, along with co-founders, Krish Ramakrishnan and Alagu Periyannan, explained that, "By combining its enterprise-grade video conferencing platform with Verizon’s high-performance global networks and 5G development, the company will be able to accelerate product development and to innovate secure and immersive collaboration experiences for our customers. It will also benefit from the R&D of both companies to create new technology that will enhance its use cases in area like telemedicine, distance learning and field service."

The statement also said that existing BlueJeans partners may continue to resell BlueJeans solutions.

For its part, Verizon stated the acquisition will give it one of the industry’s top video-conferencing and collaboration tools that enables cloud-based meetings and large, interactive events that are scalable and secure.

BlueJeans founders and key management team will join Verizon to lead the company's innovation, while BlueJeans employees will become Verizon employees immediately following the close of the deal. The company is already a partner of Verizon, with the meeting app being offered to customers under the telecom company’s unified communications and collaboration services.

The company, which has around 15,000 customers, is more focused on businesses rather than consumers, offering encrypted videoconferencing — but at a price, whereas rival services like Zoom and Skype are free to use.

Facebook Cancels Large-Scale Gatherings Until 2021

While many are hoping that the end of enforced remote work will happen sometime this summer, not everyone is optimistic. So much so, in fact, that Facebook has decided to cancel all physical events with more than 50 people until at least June 2021.

In a Facebook post published earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg wrote that a small percent of critical employees who can't work remotely, like content reviewers working on counter-terrorism or suicide and self-harm prevention, and engineers working on complex hardware, may be able to return sooner, “but overall, we don't expect to have everyone back in our offices for some time.”

He added that the majority of workers at Facebook will work from home until at least the end of May this year.

Facebook had already cancelled this year's F8 developer conference, previously scheduled for early May. Now it may have to cancel next year's F8 as well. Oculus Connect, the company's annual VR conference, is shifting to a digital format.

Like Facebook, Microsoft too made the decision to cancel all large physical events through June 2021 and it is likely that many more will follow suit.

Box Strengthens Shield Security

Finally this week, San Francisco-based Box, which has been gaining ground as a provider of enterprise-level content services, announced the introduction of automated malware detection and controls to Box Shield, its security solution for protecting content in the cloud.

When malware is identified in Box, Box Shield will now automatically alert the end user, restrict downloads and sharing of malicious files, and notify IT and security teams.

Box Shield, which Box claims is the fastest growing new product in the company’s history, prevents data leakage and proactively identifies potential insider threats or compromised accounts. These new capabilities expand Box Shield’s threat detection beyond suspicious user behavior to protect customers from malicious content uploaded to Box.

At the end of last year, the 2020 Insider Threat Report, from Cybersecurity Insiders and Gurucul showed that insider threats and security issues are still the top concern of enterprises. It showed, for example, that nearly half the surveyed companies cannot remediate insider threats until after data loss occurs. Other key findings in the report included:

  • 68% of organizations feel vulnerable to insider attacks.
  • 53% of organizations believe detecting insider attacks has become significantly to somewhat harder since migrating to the cloud.
  • Organizations cite lack of resources (31%) and too many false positives (22%) as the biggest hurdles in maximizing the value of SIEMs.
  • Only about one third of organizations can detect anomalous behavior in NetFlow/packet data, service accounts and cloud resources.

So, you get where Box is coming from on this one. Enterprise security is a big deal, but, as the research shows, enterprise peace-of-mind is just as important.