The “Big 5” tech companies want your video conferencing business. And they’re not being shy about it. Over the past 18 months or so, Facebook, Amazon, Google (well, technically Alphabet), Microsoft, and to a lesser extent Apple have all made moves to take a bigger bite out of the social and enterprise video markets.
These companies have a combined valuation of $3.3 trillion and make up more than 40% of the Nasdaq 100 index, and the way they’ve begun throwing that financial weight around is defining the video conferencing trends of 2018.
They’re at the forefront of at least four clearly identifiable trends:
Software is leading hardware: Video conferencing was once typified by complicated, permanent, room-sized installations that required IT departments and on-premises data storage. Now, data is stored in the cloud and equipment is being simplified into touchscreen interfaces and mobile webcams, while video conferencing vendors supply software apps and push hardware manufacturers into partnership roles–such as the Microsoft Skype Room Systems deal with Logitech, Polycom, and Crestron.
Everybody is building a workplace collaboration app: Slack unwittingly started a revolution with its team-unifying chat and video-based app that links entire offices in instant communication. Now Facebook, Google, and Microsoft want in on the action and have developed clones of the service. It’s a fight so intense it has already claimed the life of Skype for Business (see “Microsoft” below).
Video is taking the place of audio-only solutions everywhere: The rise of digital means it’s easy to add video communication to devices and spaces that were previously audio-only. Facebook’s social media apps now make video calls, Amazon has added video screens to its home smart speakers, and Microsoft Teams makes video calling from your office desktop as easy as picking up the phone.
The last trend is, of course, the rising influence of the Big 5 in the video conferencing market itself. These companies hold the reins when it comes to internet search engines, online advertising, e-commerce, and cloud and web services. That gives them the power to buy or starve their competition at will–as Twitter did to Meerkat and Facebook is currently doing to Snapchat.
Video Conferencing Trends of 2018
In case you missed it, here’s how the Big 5 have made their move into video conferencing over the past 18 months and set all those trends in motion:
The only member of the Big 5 that hasn’t yet ventured beyond casual video calling, Apple has stuck with FaceTime as its sole means of making a video connection. That flagship product is hardly an ambitious one, with its one-on-one-only video calls (a group chat version of FaceTime is currently in beta), but Apple did recently file a patent on new technology that could blend augmented reality into live video chat–Pokemon Go by video conference, anyone?
Aside from severely testing the public’s trust over recent months with the Cambridge Analytica data sharing scandal, Facebook has been investing in video conferencing on several fronts. Its hugely popular WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger chat apps both added video calling over the past 18 months, and it launched its own version of Slack, complete with instant video connections, called Workplace by Facebook, which was adopted by 14,000 businesses within its first year. Facebook has also moved into hardware, and is currently working on a video chat-enabled smart tablet.
Microsoft aside, Google has the most established video conferencing presence of the Big 5. Its Google Hangouts platform was a popular and versatile app until it was cut in half in 2017 to form Google Hangouts Meet, for professional video conferencing, and Google Hangouts Chat, for Slack-style workplace collaboration. The search engine leader also introduced Google Duo for social video calls between two people. Finally, Google provided the perfect example of the new software-hardware partnership by putting together a collection of other people’s products in the Google Meet Kit, which supplied the camera and control hub for making calls online.
The video calling babe of the group, Amazon stayed out of the market altogether until launching its own video conferencing platform in mid-2017. The functional, but hardly inspiring, Amazon Chime does everything a VC platform should and is likely to look much better once it taps into the wider powers of its maker’s online shopping, streaming, and web services divisions. Amazon has also taken an interest in social video conferencing by adding video to its home hub Echo Show and building a group video calling app called Anytime.
Microsoft’s 2011 purchase of Skype was the first major incursion any of the Big 5 made into video calling, and the app underwent two major changes recently. Firstly, it was announced that the premium subscription service Skype for Business would be phased out over the course of 2018 to make way for Teams, a Slack clone intended to compete in the looming workplace collaboration wars. That’s a huge move considering Microsoft has to convince 100 million active monthly Office 365 users to migrate their business across to the Teams platform and get used to a new way of working.
By comparison, the other big change is more frivolous. In 2017, Skype was given its first major upgrade and took a dramatic shift toward the social. It now stands as a genuine threat to the playful Snapchat app it is blatantly mimicking. Video calling is still at the heart of matters, but it is overrun with animated emojis, chatbots, and a Highlights function that looks and feels a lot like Snapchat Stories. Just because a company is a tech giant doesn’t mean it’s not afraid to steal some ideas from its competitors.