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Facebook’s Workplace embraces video, touts new users amid pandemic

Workplace, Facebook’s enterprise collaboration offering, got a variety of new features this week designed to strengthen the platform and help users better collaborate during the ongoing pandemic.

As for Workplace, Facebook said the app now has more than 5 million paid users – with 2 million added since October 2019. That pace of growth is in line with reports from other collaboration and videoconferencing companies, which have rapidly gained new users this year during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Launched in late 2016, Workplace offers companies a collaboration platform that mirrors many of the features offered by Facebook, including groups, a news feed and live video capabilities – repurposed to fit the needs of business users. This week’s announcements focused on improving how users can collaborate via video through integrations with Facebook’s Portal and Oculus features.

Continued growth among collaborative tool makers is likely to continue, according to Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight. Even as some workers return to the office, she said, social distancing will remain a top priority, requiring many to continue to work from home.

“This is going to be the picture for the next couple of years most likely, so remote work will remain a major part of working life,” she said.

Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace, said that while the COVID-19 pandemic heated up demand for collaborative work platforms, he was still surprised by the number of companies that were caught off guard. Like Ashenden, he said enterprises have now recognized the importance of keping their employees “connected, informed, engaged and productive.”

Reflecting that stance internally, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social media company will permanently embrace remote working, even after current lockdowns lift. He told Facebook employees Thursday that the company would be “aggressively opening up remote hiring” and he expects about half the workforce to work remotely over the next five to 10 years.

Facebook workers have until Jan. 1, 2021 to decide on their new work location.

The importance of videoconferencing

To help bolster a crowded market that includes the likes of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack, Google Meet and other, Workplace is pushing toward easier-to-use, and more efficient videoconferencing.

Ashenden said the new Workplace features reflect the success its competitors have seen. “It does mark a major pivot for Workplace…, and it will be interesting to track how quickly this becomes a primary driver for Workplace investments,” she said.

Users can now set up ‘Workplace Rooms’ – essentially an enterprise version of Facebook’s Messenger Rooms launched last month. In these new rooms, teams can host planned and spontaneous video calls via the desktop, mobile or the Workplace app on Portal. Users can invite individuals without Workplace accounts to join these calls; use Portal TV for Workplace video calls;  set up a Workplace Room on Portal; and use Workplace Live on Portal.

The company also bolstered its Workplace Live offering, providing users with an improved production values, controls and interactivity. One notable feature: the ability to turn on live captioning and transcription, a service that operates in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish.

With many companies having employees in different countries – and speaking different languages –the new feature should allow employees who work together but don’t speak the same language to better connect, Codorniou said, leading to more productivity.

Users who broadcast live via Workplace will also be able to host live Q&As and crowd-source questions from the audience.

VR capabilities

The Workplace changes include new virtual reality (VR) capabilities built around Facebook’s virtual reality division, Oculus. Though it began largely as a consumer product, VR is increasingly being used by companies for training and education; Workplace claims more than 400 Oculus business apps now exist and can be integrated with the platform.

Ashenden believes the biggest opening for VR adoption is now in the enterprise. “This market is really driving the development and direction of these devices, much more than, say, gaming is on the consumer side,” she said.

Microsoft has had some success with its HoloLens, making it logical for Workplace to give users the opportunity to more easily use Oculus. Workplace has also seen demand for the service from its customers.

“If you go to Walmart, they have Oculus devices in every store in the U.S. to teach employees how to organize the display of the shelves and to do security or emergency training sessions as well,” Codorniou said. “In pharmaceutical companies or companies like Johnson & Johnson, they use Oculus for 3D simulation, for designing new products and for teaching doctors how to operate.”

More broadly speaking, advances in collaboration and videoconferencing tools are here to stay, said Ashenden.

“This is how work will be now, it’s what people will expect from an employer, and it will also be viewed as a core component in providing business continuity going forward,” she said.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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12 Zoom alternatives for secure video collaboration

If your enterprise demands a more secure video collaboration system than Zoom seems to provide you may want to take a look at these.

Group Facetime

If you use Apple products you can use Group FaceTime to replace Zoom meetings. This supports up to 30 callers and has some intelligent features, such as placing the window belonging to the person currently speaking at the front. It’s also highly secure with end-to-end encryption. The big problem is that it is not cross-platform, which makes it a fairly ineffective choice much of the time.

Microsoft’s Skype and Teams

Microsoft offers two video collaboration tools, Skype and Microsoft Teams. Both have advantages that make them worthy alternatives to Zoom.

You can now use Skype without an account. Skype handles up to 50 people in video conference or 150 people in group text chat), and it supports group video chat. It’s solid, free to use and you can now use it without an account or download. Available on most platforms, Skype offers a range of useful features, including document and screen sharing.

However, Skype conversations are not end-to-end encrypted.

This is why so many enterprises use Microsoft Teams. That highly secure solution supports 2FA security, data encryption and meets dozens of national, regional and industry-specific security/privacy compliance regulations. It also integrates extremely well with Microsoft’s other productivity products, including Office 365.

For the enterprise pros

There are a range of high-powered solutions for enterprise users, including Cisco Webex Meetings, TeamViewer and GoToMeeting.

Prices on these vary, but both Cisco Webex and TeamViewer offer free personal accounts, which may be seen as an advantage when working with socially isolated teams. If security and privacy matter to your business, it is worth pointing out that Webex Meetings offers end-to-end encryption as an option.

It is worth considering if your enterprise needs end to end encryption. While this will be mandatory for some tightly regulated industries, it may not be necessary for everyone, particularly those employing RPA systems, as NoJitter observes.

BlueJeans and Jabber also see use across the enterprise. The former is a fee-based system that’s eminently cross platform and supports up to 100 users (BlueJeans Enterprise); the latter is a Cisco product. It may also be worth taking a look at new solution, Challo, which I’ve noted in the past.

[Still use Zoom? Then you may want to explore 7 Zoom tips]

Always highly secure: Signal

Another highly secure solution, Signal supports video collaboration and offers best in the business end-to-end encryption. It’s a full-featured collaboration solution, however, works on most platforms and lets you share all messages, photos, videos, files and chat using video. It also supports group chats, though this doesn’t extend to video collaboration which must be one to one. Best advantage, other than world leading security? It’s free.

An open-source tool for self-hosted systems

Jitsi is an open-source video collaboration solution that has picked up a fair amount of attention in the last few weeks. While I’ve not used the service, its advantages include the capacity to set up a self-hosted collaboration system, while some reports claim video can be a little jittery at times.

The great thing about the system is its price (its free) and high degree of security – though it does not support end-to-end encryption. Jitsi is available via mobile apps and using Slack and can be self-hosted, though you can also use the service’s own offering.

That Jitsi can be self-hosted may be a major advantage, given around 13% of enterprises already rely on collaboration tools they maintain on their own servers, according to Nemertes.

I guess there’s always Google Hangouts Meet

To help get through the pandemic, Google has made the premium version of Hangouts Meet available to $6/month/user G Suite users for free.

One of the best things about this is that it supports up to 250 participants in a call, which makes it useful for big meetings. You can also live-stream meetings to up to 100,000 people, good for larger enterprises attempting to reach large groups.

The biggest negative factor is its lack of support for end-to-end encryption, which should be a red flag for any tightly regulated industry.

More info for remote workers

Feel free to explore these guides that should help Apple-using remote workers and the enterprises that employ them:

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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Pandemic leads to surge in video conferencing app downloads

Business communication apps saw record levels of growth in March, according to statistics from mobile market data provider App Annie.

With a growing portion of the global population now living under some kind of government lockdown, many organizations have had to shift business processes – and their employees are having to embrace a work-from-home culture on a scale never before attempted.

Not surprisingly, the demand for video conferencing apps has surged in recent weeks, with enterprise-focused mobile app downloads reaching 62 million during the week March 14-21 – the highest number ever seen.

According to a report by App Annie, that figure was up 45% from the week before and up 90% from the pre-Covid-19 weekly download average. Business application downloads represent the highest growth in any category in both the iOS and Google Play stores.

Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Meet both jumped in the rankings, with Zoom Cloud Meetings the undisputed winner; it saw large numbers of downloads in the US, UK and across Europe. According to App Annie, during the record-breaking week Zoom was downloaded 14 times more than its 2019 Q4 weekly average in the U.S.; 20 times more in the UK; 22 times more in France; and a staggering 55 times more in Italy. (The higher numbers ae in areas that began lockdowns earlier.)

During the same period, Hangouts Meet saw 30 times the weekly level of downloads compared to the last quarter of 2019 in the U.S., while Teams saw an 11-fold increase..

 “As people face uncertain timelines for the length of social isolation, video conferencing apps have the potential to vastly influence our daily habits — breaking down geological barriers and fostering the ability to work and socialize relatively seamlessly,” said App Annie’s Lexi Sydow in the blog post detailing the app download numbers.

Long-term impact

With President Trump this week announcing that federal coronavirus guidelines will remain in place until at least April 30, the dramatic uptake in video conferencing software use is set to continue.

Tom Eagle, senior research director at Gartner, believes that the COVID-19 crisis will be a “catalyst for transformative work cultures and practices that will be significantly characterized by remote work,” noting that video conferencing will become an indispensable tool for workforce collaboration and communication.

For the last several years, Gartner has forecast that, within the unified communications market, the cloud video conferencing market – which includes platforms such as Cisco Webex, Zoom and Microsoft Teams – will only be outpaced in terms of growth by cloud-based telephony.

“This is a direct result of today’s digital workplace and the changing nature of work – as well as the current COVID-19 crisis — continuing to drive demand for video conferencing at an accelerated pace,” Eagle said.  

Even before the pandemic arrived, research showed the demand for collaboration software and video conferencing tools was already on the rise. According to Gartner’s workforce consumer survey, the average amount of time employees spend in meetings each week has reached 11.7 hours, with 9% of respondents spending more than 20 hours of their working week in meetings.

As businesses grow a more-global footprint, teams are becoming more geographically dispersed, making face-to-face collaboration increasingly difficult. As a result, a more-mobile workforce now requires greater, and more convenient, access to workplace collaboration tools than ever before.

“With the combination of non-routine workforce growth and this workplace meeting profile, corporate real estate and IT planner decisions are often animated toward providing more convenient access to collaboration technologies such as video conferencing,” Eagle said. “They do this not just at the desktop, but in shared spaces such as huddle rooms; access must also be provided for mobile and at-home workers.

“An agile workforce needs all of these options for enhanced productivity.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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Video chat app Around could be a harbinger of ‘always-on’ video

As remote working booms around the world in response to the coronavirus crisis, demand for video calls has surged dramatically. But despite the fact that video meeting software is now more reliable and user-friendly than ever, setting up and joining a video call can still feel intrusive and somewhat of a chore.

Typically it requires workers to divert their full attention to a discussion with one or more colleagues, with the video chat client taking over their entire computer screen. While this makes sense for important meetings, it also sets a higher bar for more casual interactions and makes it more difficult to take notes or otherwise share focus between the video chat and other apps.

This week, a startup called Around unveiled its video chat software, which features a less invasive interface and could offer way to enable “always-on” video for remote workers.

As noted by TechCrunch, Around — currently in private beta — is a lightweight group video call platform that has raised $5.2 million in seed funding to date. Rather than taking up the entire screen, it automatically crops video streams of workers into “floating head” circles that are grouped together as an overlay that leaves most of the screen visible.

around video chat Around

Chat participants appear in as “floating heads” in Around, letting workers access other apps without switching windows.

Around uses AI-based camera framing to detect a participant’s head, following them as they move while simultaneously cutting out their background. It also automatically mutes background noises to avoid further unwanted distractions. The app will eventually be sold under a freemium licensing model when it launches; you can apply for early access here

In a blog post on Medium on Wednesday, Around CEO Dominik Zane said that the app lets users focus on getting work done by allowing them to collaborate around tasks as the focal point of discussions.

“[W]e took video and made it less,” he wrote. “Less traditional, less formal, less bulky, even less realistic. Less about blowing up people’s faces on a 70-inch HDTV, more about focusing and doing. Around is there for a quick session to supercharge all future-of-work applications. It’s just enough to be present but makes space for what’s important: the task at hand.”

While Around is not specifically billed as an “always-on” video platform, it has potential for pervasive low-level interactions, with continuous video feeds connecting colleagues throughout the day. 

The concept of always-on video has been around for a while, with businesses seeking to connect workers in different locations and enable them to engage in impromptu conversations. Sneek is another example; it lets users easily start a video call with a co-worker by clicking on a regularly updated “still” photo, thereby avoiding constant recording and broadcasting.

Always-on video could help alleviate some of the challenges remote workers face, such as disengagement from co-workers and company-wide initiatives, said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, an analyst at 451 Research. “Implementing ‘always-on’ video meetings could help organizations address this problem, bridging the communication gap for remote teams or teams that include a mix of remote and in-office workers,” said Castañón-Martínez,  

There are drawbacks with always-on video, to be sure. Aside from potential resistance from users to a constant video uplink, there are technical and security considerations. As the number of remote workers surges, for example, greater strain is put on internet bandwidth.

“It will require addressing technical issues to ensure that bandwidth is not a constraint for delivering the service; it will also require security features such as an automatic screen saver that kicks in when users are not active, for privacy and security,” said Castañón-Martínez.

For more details on the network bandwidth issues that could accompany always-on video, see Network World’s “Coronavirus challenges remote networking.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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To save the economy we must reduce video bandwidth use — now (updated)

Internet capacity is robust, but the massive increase in global consumption is pushing usage beyond its usual spike, EU regulators have warned.

It is probable that streaming media consumption, gaming and video collaboration are responsible for most of this additional demand. To maintain our connected culture during the current crisis, individuals, enterprises and big tech firms must cut down on their bandwidth usage — and the best way to do so is to reduce the use of video.

Reduce video bandwidth

Why?

The truth is that video accounted for over two-thirds of global consumer internet traffic in 2017 and has continued to grow ever since.

In its most recent State of the Internet report, Cisco observes that an internet-enabled HD TV used to watch shows for a few hours daily generates more traffic than a whole household. In part this is because we are streaming video in 4K.

In other words, even as the internet strains to handle the demands of tens of millions of workers worldwide fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also struggling to handle the sheer quantity of video we are all consuming.

Video is by far the biggest consumer of bandwidth, and if we’re going to optimize how we make use of it, we’re going to need to reduce our consumption of it.

We all need to keep working, so it makes complete sense to reduce the quantity of video-related traffic we generate — or at least take steps to mitigate it.

So, what can consumers do immediately?

Every enterprise worker is also a consumer, so these recommendations apply to everyone, whether you’re a Morgan Stanley executive suddenly wondering why the brave nurses, doctors and utility staff are paid so much less than you as they face the risks of the coronavirus while you shelter in your home or if you are a proud parent cuddling your children and hoping for the best.

If two-thirds of internet traffic is video-related, it makes sense to mitigate video consumption first. And you can — with just a little inconvenience.

How to reduce streaming bandwidth consumption

If you use a streaming TV system (a smart TV, Apple TV, or such-like), you should reduce the resolution of the video you download.

While doing so will reduce your picture quality, it will also reduce the amount of data your TV set requires. If everyone who uses a streaming video system cuts quality, this should make a significant difference in terms of available bandwidth during the current crisis.

Here’s what to do with an Apple TV:

Screensavers: Open Settings > General > Screensaver > Aerial and change the Download New Videos setting to Never. This will reduce the amount of bandwidth you consume by around 600MB per instance. You may also want to prevent your photos from being downloaded to Apple TV.

TV resolution: Changing the Apple TV resolution in Audio and Video settings doesn’t really change the bandwidth used. In order to reduce that bandwidth, you must open the settings for each relevant streaming app (in my case that’s Amazon Prime, Netflix and TV+).  

For the TV app, set Wi-Fi playback quality to ‘Good’ on all the devices you use to consume video content. You’ll find it impossible to adjust settings for Prime and Netflix, and this is why the EU is asking streaming video service providers to get with the program and reduce the quality of the shows they provide, in order to ensure that the internet doesn’t break.

Update 3/20/20: Netflix is lowering video quality on its service in Europe for the next 30 days, to reduce the strain on ISPs. That’s great, but this action should be global.

Amazon, YouTube and other providers must heed this call.

Put your social media apps on a bandwidth diet

All the social media apps (particularly Facebook) are bad citizens when it comes to auto-streaming video. Not only is this usually annoying, but it also consumes valuable bandwidth.

To reduce video bandwidth consumption on Twitter: Tap the three-dot symbol to find Twitter’s settings and privacy tools. Select Data usage and enable data saver. Once you’ve done so, videos won’t autoplay, and images will be loaded in lower quality. You will need to repeat these steps on each device you use to access the service.

To reduce video bandwidth consumption on Facebook: Facebook’s settings are, as ever, stupidly complicated, which I resent. Tap the three-line icon to access your menu, scroll down to Settings (ignoring the garish blue of the app), tap this and scroll down, down, down until you find Videos and photos. Tap this and ensure Auto-play is set to never, reduce motion is off and that you aren’t uploading content in HD.

I’d be interested to hear from other social media companies as to how to reduce their video bandwidth consumption. I’ll add short instructions to this story.

What can enterprises do now?

Now that you have more people than ever before working from home, enterprises have a social responsibility to take stock of the quantity of bandwidth they use.

For example, following its national lock-down, Italy is experiencing a threefold increase in the use of videoconferencing and has seen a 75% increase in residential data traffic, reports the Financial Times.

Mobile networks have already shown signs of strain, though broadband seems to be holding up. However, in Spain the industry is warning consumers to ration their use and try to use land lines for voice calls.

These statistics strongly suggest there is a need to take responsibility for bandwidth consumption today as more nations across our planet are now also heading into lock-down. What enterprise, or any other form of culture, we have left after this crisis in part depends upon this.

I understand each enterprise setup is different, so providing relevant advice for everyone is beyond the scope of this piece, but some basic strategies to reduce video bandwidth consumption follow:

  1. Don’t force employees to keep an active video chat session going all through working hours. You employed your people and if you can’t trust them to continue working for you even while they are at home, that reflects more on you than on them.
  2. Examine the videoconferencing tools you use. FaceTime video quality on iOS, for example, is defined in Settings > Camera. Here you can define Record Video to the lowest quality setting and set Formats to Most Compatible, which may help. Every videoconferencing system is different, and some lack any obvious way in which to reduce video resolution, but your enterprise should work with vendors to identify ways in which to mitigate bandwidth for conferencing calls.
  3. Audit the use of videoconferencing. The internet is precious, and while it might be nice to have a videoconference with team members for some projects during the crisis, for others (particularly for sick or vulnerable people quarantined at this time) the ability to engage with other people using consumer video tools could be seen as more essential. With this in mind, it makes sense to use messaging and voice chat services more in order to reduce the demand your enterprise places on the internet for video services.
  4. Video service providers must consider making network-wide adjustments to the quality of video they serve. They already know how much bandwidth their services consume. It makes sense to mitigate this as demand for these services increases.

Enterprises and technology firms can also consider asking employees to stagger the installation of essential software upgrades, particularly when the workforce is distributed globally.

What can video-focused enterprises do now?

Advertising firms that place video should consider reducing the quality of the content they distribute in order to help mitigate this demand.

I think there’s also a strong case to disable video auto-play on sites, services and browsers.

All the research shows that video is the most engaging content, which is why so many people now are creating it. (I’d probably create some myself, were it not for my deep personal anxiety, innate shyness and face for radio). Despite which, it seems necessary for video platform providers to shoulder their part in this struggle and work to reduce video bandwidth consumption, possibly by reducing the quality of video they serve up.

I understand people love 4K video quality — I do myself — but reducing this quality in the short term seems an essential step in order to maintain economic productivity, personal communications, entertainment systems and all the other benefits of our digital lives.

If anyone has further advice to help mitigate bandwidth consumption, please let me know.

More information to help you through

I continue in my attempt to provide useful and wide-ranging information to help remote workers and the enterprises that employ them through the current crisis. Feel free to explore my previous work on this.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.





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