Video calls are an absolute lifeline for most of us stuck at home in social-distancing limbo right now. Instead of heading out the door to work or school, even the most non-tech-savvy among us are firing-up chat apps like Zoom, Hangouts, and Skype on computers and mobile devices. We’re using them for everything from collaborating with colleagues and connecting with classmates to celebrating birthdays, baby showers, and even weddings.
Which is great, until it’s not.
The FBI is warning people about trolls hijacking public video teleconferences in progress – mainly classes, church services, town hall, and AA meetings so far. Look up “zoom bombing” and you’ll see it in action. Hackers scream racist slurs, put up porn, use new logins to spread malware, and make a twisted game out of it all. It happened to my daughter in the first five minutes of her first University lecture via Zoom this week, and it was so disruptive the professor canceled class.
You can adjust settings to keep crashers out of your Zoom video chats. The company updated its blog with a detailed how-to, clarified it’s encryption capabilities, and posted dozens of support pages walking you through it all. Around midnight last night, Founder Eric Yuan posted a message to users too. “We also feel an immense responsibility. Usage of Zoom has ballooned overnight,” he wrote. He said daily meetings on Zoom went from 10-million worldwide in December, to 200-million per day in March. And while Zoom went from spotlight to hot seat seemingly overnight, it’s far from the only video call app people are complaining about.
“Microsoft Teams, Skype, GoToMeeting, they all have their own problems,” Portland-based software developer Boris Lutskovsky told me during a conference call on this topic this week. “Zoom is the LinkedIn of FaceTime, but more 1994,” Oregon business attorney Patrick Bryson added to the conversation.” “OK, then Houseparty is Craigslist wearing a Skype t-shirt,” Lutskovsky concluded.
Since we can’t physically get together, this new norm of face-to-face communication through a screen may very well be our only way out of isolation for the foreseeable future. So what now?
New messenger for desktop app rolls out today
Facebook hopes its new Messenger for Desktop app gets closer to that Goldilocks sweet spot – free, easy to use, secure for several people at once – for the skyrocketing video chat app demand. (Messenger reported a 70% increase in video calls last week.) The new desktop app rolls out today to more than 1.3 billion Messenger users worldwide, but I’ve been reviewing an early beta-version for nearly a week.
So far, it checks a lot of boxes. Free? Yep. Easy to use? Definitely. Steady, crystal clear video? Check. Syncs across devices? Doesn’t drop, fade, or pixelate? Roger that.
How it works
Download Messenger for Desktop from your app store. It works on MacOS and Windows. Sign-in, set notification preferences, and the small logo appears in your toolbar. Click on that icon in your toolbar and it opens up the same Messenger window you’re used to, but reimagined for the big screen.
You can get a total of eight people in one video call: Open a new message window, click the contacts you want to add and click the video symbol in the upper right-hand corner. You don’t need to know anyone’s email or phone number, the text chatting, calling and video features are there, for people you’ve already approved as Facebook friends, so no stranger can crash-in unexpectedly.
It works across devices, iOS, Android, different browsers, and Facebook’s Portal screens. You can also use the new Messenger for Desktop to video chat with people using Messenger on mobile devices or children using Messenger Kids. There are GIFS available now, with backgrounds, AR filters, and the ability to add more than eight people, “coming soon.”
Early impressions: What it fixes
I used the new Messenger for Desktop dozens of times these past few days, for video conferences with co-workers, daily check-ins with family and friends, and heated debates about the best and worst video chat apps overall. I also used it via Portal TV to workout with celebrity personal trainer Aaron Ferguson, and to host a virtual happy hour (or two). The Messenger product team shared special codes so that I could allow my most-trusted – and opinionated – friends to test it out and add their two-cents.
We all remarked that it was more reliable than just about everything else we’ve been using. No odd lag – Can you hear me now?! – time.
I really like the bigger screen too, and how easy it is to pull in people from all over the world with a few taps. Going from little-to-no contact with the outside world to seeing all my favorite people in my own living room — has been more emotional, and more therapeutic, than I expected.
Early impressions: What’s missing
The biggest cons so far are the fact it’s limited to eight people. My daughter’s birthday is this coming weekend, and it would be great to get more like 20 people into one screen on Portal TV for the celebration. Messenger developers told me we’ll be able to add more people, but I couldn’t pin them down on when that will be. Same with creative backgrounds and filters, also “coming soon.”
Several of us commented on the placement of our own video window. It appears on the lower right of the screen, slightly outside of the main chat window, instead of all neat and tidy Brady Bunch style in the same box. You can click on an arrow and hide your own face from your own screen, but everyone I tested it wants to keep seeing their own image. It helps to know you’re not doing anything embarrassing on camera, but it’s “odd to have it outside the main box.”
The new Messenger app is also focused on personal connections versus business meetings. While it’s great for smaller groups, you can’t share screens and it doesn’t have Zoom’s handy whiteboard feature built-in to it. That’s one of the most popular collaboration tools for presenters, including teachers and tutors.
It also doesn’t fix one of the biggest problems of video conferencing apps in general, which is automatically muting people who aren’t speaking. You can mute your own microphone, but still have to use good old fashioned etiquette – like raising your hand to speak – which feels oddly antiquated during these otherwise next-gen feeling video calls.
One step closer
If Messenger can manage the meteoric rise in video conferencing demand and protect our privacy, it could go a long way in filling the void for personal interaction so many of us crave right now. At the very least, it’s one step closer to real human connection, at a time when we have to keep the world – and sometimes even those we love most – at least six feet away.
***This story originally appeared in USA Today on April 2, 2020***