COVID-19 SPECIAL

Video conferencing looks set to stay

Video-conferencing tools' popularity has surged since the pandemic hit.
Video-conferencing tools' popularity has surged since the pandemic hit.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Ms Joanne Ho conducted all her meetings over the Zoom video-conferencing platform during the circuit breaker from April 7 to June 1, when the authorities shut down schools and some business operations to stem the rise of Covid-19 infection.

Even though business activities have now resumed, the 47-year-old still holds many of her business meetings online.

"It is better to err on the side of caution and do video meetings so as to minimise the risk of (Covid-19) infection," said Ms Ho, who owns a public relations and marketing agency.

She is among what is now a large group of people dependent on these video-conferencing tools to conduct business from day to day as Singapore prepares for a long fight against the spread of the coronavirus disease.

And demand for conferencing tools such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx does not look like a passing fad. Analysts, businesses and vendors told The Straits Times that video conferencing is here to stay even in the post-Covid-19 world.

Ms Joanna Lim, Microsoft Singapore's modern workplace lead, says: "We foresee that video conferencing will still play a big part in daily business and personal settings in the post-pandemic era, as the workforce adopts a hybrid approach in the future of work," she says.

Mr Tang Weng Sing, 48, who is vice-president of a multinational corporation, says: "The younger generation's expectations of some sort of work-from-home arrangements will be the norm in the future."

And companies will provide this flexibility to attract top talent, he added.

Video-conferencing tools' popularity has surged since the pandemic hit. American networking company Cisco's WebEx video-conferencing app logged nearly 26 billion meeting minutes in May globally, compared with seven billion in February this year, according to Mr Hariharan S., Cisco's managing director of collaboration, Asia-Pacific, Japan and China.

"In Singapore, we have seen a similar trend, with meeting minutes growing three times since the Government advised on working from home being the default option," he says.

According to mobile data and analytics company App Annie, the time spent on business and video- conferencing apps grew nearly four times in Singapore in the second quarter of the year, compared with the first quarter of last year.

 
 
 

App Annie's senior insights manager Lexi Sydow says video-conferencing tools are no longer confined to business uses. Education collaborations and virtual live performances have also increasingly gone online.

"As people face uncertain timelines for the length of social isolation, video-conferencing apps have the potential to break down geological barriers and foster the ability to work and socialise...this will continue well past the pandemic," she says.

The top three business apps by download in Singapore and globally in the second quarter of the year are video-conferencing apps Zoom Cloud Meetings (first), Google Meet (second) and Microsoft Teams (third), according to App Annie.

NEW CAPABILITIES

Video-conferencing tools have also evolved with new capabilities - as their software providers slug it out for market share in this popular space.

For instance, Cisco has added a music mode that optimises audio processing to support virtual concerts and music lessons. Microsoft Teams now features real-time noise suppression to help minimise distracting background noise during video calls.

Vendors have also been shoring up the security of their apps.

Google has given meeting hosts increased controls, such as the ability to decide if an ejected attendee can rejoin a meeting. Cisco and Zoom have added new security features such as most meetings requiring passwords by default.

Zoom has also bolstered its host controls with features such as the ability to report a user via a security icon and disable the ability for participants to rename themselves.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another new direction that video-conferencing apps have taken.

Mr Hariharan says Cisco will be using AI, machine learning, cloud computing and deep analytics to remove tedious tasks, improve the collaboration experience and increase team productivity for WebEx.

Microsoft's Ms Lim says the firm will continue to use AI to innovate in the areas of organisation analytics and employee well-being for Teams.

Mr Abe Smith, international head at Zoom Video Communications, says: "Zoom's use cases exploded overnight as the Covid-19 pandemic affected the world and, in April, we reached 200 million daily meeting participants, up from 10 million daily meeting participants in December last year."

This led to it expanding in Singapore and setting up a data centre here a month ago. The data centre is Zoom's first in South-east Asia and brings the number of its data centres globally to 18.

Mr Rick Harshman, managing director of Google Cloud Asia-Pacific, says the future of video conferencing depends on how much it can make virtual meetings "more productive and more human".