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How Zoom made video meetings easy for workers, students and all of us in 2020

Zoom's chief product officer explained the company's massive growth during the pandemic and where it's going next.

Sarah Tew/CNET

No platform has become as synonymous with 2020 as Zoom, the video conferencing service that grew seemingly overnight from a useful business tool to a ubiquitous way to connect for everything from remote education to virtual happy hours to game nights and holiday meals

From a technology standpoint, Zoom managed to do the almost impossible: Scale up massively without major disruptions to service -- though with several security bumps along the road, and a recent Department of Justice complaint against a former employee -- and offer a freemium product that was easy enough to use that young kids and older adults could figure it with no problem. 

Read more: Zoom review: The video meeting service that became a verb in 2020

This success is apparent in the numbers. Zoom grew from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to more than 300 million in April 2020. (The company also reported third quarter revenue of over $777 million, up 367% over the last year.)

"The ability to meet online is becoming a mainstream use case," Oded Gal, chief product officer of Zoom, told CNET. It's similar to the shift we've seen from in-person to online shopping, Gal said. You used to go to a store first and if you couldn't find something there, you'd go online as a Plan B. Now, of course, it's the other way around. 

The same is now true of online meetings, due in large part to the pandemic. Plan A is to meet on video chat and Plan B is to meet in person, if absolutely necessary. And with many schools and offices remaining closed until a coronavirus vaccine is widely available, Zoom has become indispensable for much of our economy and our educational system. 

"Everyone was caught off-guard by Zoom's enormous growth in popularity," said Mike Fasciani, a Gartner analyst who studies collaboration tools. "And other vendors are following." Competitors like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet rolled out similar features to the ones Zoom offers, like changing your background.

This didn't happen by accident, but due to all of the work the company had put in place in the prior years, including offering Zoom as a freemium video meeting service. You can sign up for a Zoom account for free and host up to 100 participants for up to 40 minutes, or chat for an unlimited amount of time on a one-on-one call (though the company sometimes lifts the 40-minute group chat limit, like during the holiday season). Or, you can upgrade to a Pro, Business or Enterprise plan that all get you more features aimed at businesses. 

This positioned it well with both consumers and businesses, Fasciani said -- especially compared to others in the space who are either primarily enterprise-focused, like WebEx or Microsoft Teams, or consumer-based, like Apple's FaceTime

Angela Lang/CNET

Pre-pandemic, Zoom had maintained a large free user base. Even then, it was primarily used for work purposes, not socializing. After the pandemic hit, Fasciani said he saw more business leaders switching to Zoom for work after it became omnipresent in their personal lives. 

The uptick in users was "pretty immediate," Gal said, particularly in the education space. Early in the pandemic, the platform removed its 40-minute meeting time limit for free accounts for K-12 schools, as teachers began transitioning their classes online. More than 25,000 schools in 25 countries are now using Zoom free this year. 

Read more: How to use Zoom like a pro: 15 video chat tips and tricks to try now

Zoom's system was built to scale long before the pandemic arrived, according to Gal. The platform's architecture allowed it to support more users by increasing data center capacity. The company also added more data centers and engineers. 

Of course, it's also become the platform we use as a verb. "Want to Zoom?" has to be one of the most-uttered phrases of 2020. 

"It's very rewarding to see after all those years of hard work that people acknowledge our product in a way that became a verb," Gal said. "It's a big responsibility to continue and make progress and extend the different use cases." 

Along with making continued security enhancements and adding new features, Zoom is also expanding into a live events platform called OnZoom and the addition of apps like Slack and Dropbox for easier workplace collaboration. 

Even post-pandemic, "online meetings are going to be the Plan A in many use cases and will actually extend in ways that people didn't even think about," Gal said. "And we are here to support it. We feel this is our mission. This is what we've built a product for originally, but now we really feel it's our destiny to be able to support all those new use cases. And when the world comes to the new normal, we'll be there to support that." 

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