From Hobbies To Family Reunions, Indians Are Zooming
It’s Monday night after dinner, and Vikas Plakkot is hosting a quiz. The theme is space and he has prepared a set of 15 questions. He starts by asking: “What is the exact period of the moon’s revolution around the earth, from other’s perspective?”
It takes about 20 seconds for everyone to answer—the right one being 29.5 days. The result then appears on the screen of 72 participants, including this reporter, who have logged in from Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune, and even the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. Plakkot, 30, is conducting the quiz through the video-calling app Zoom.
“I have always been into trivia from my school days but couldn’t continue because of work,” Plakkot said over the phone. A game which started from a WhatsApp group of 10 people 17 days ago now has more than 300 members; 70-80 people take part every day at 10 p.m.
India is under the world’s biggest lockdown of more than five weeks as 1.3 billion people stay indoors. Like in the rest of the world, Zoom has seen usage surge as offices to schools use it during restrictions. Its global user base soared from 10 million at the end of December to more than 200 million in March. But that also triggered privacy concerns because of leaked videos and poor encryption. Still, Indians have started downloading Zoom for social activities or to simply stay in touch in times of social distancing.
“Zooming is like the word for video calls now,” said Rajat Gupta, who recently celebrated his 29th birthday over a Zoom call from Silicon Valley. His parents from India and two sisters from Dubai and Washington joined, he said over the phone. Miles away from each other, the family broke into ‘Happy Birthday’ as Rajat sliced a cheesecake.
On a Sunday evening, Durgesh Nandini, 30, hosted her first Zoom party after being holed up in her home in Jaipur for nearly two weeks. Four of her friends popped in for a gaming session from Gurugram, Delhi, and Kolkata. They played Bingo, charades and trivia.
‘Since the lockdown, Zoom has started to play a larger part in my life, whether office meetings or otherwise. This is a way to detox and catch up with friends in a relaxed manner,” she said. Nandini is planning a high-tea session with her extended family from Delhi, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. “The idea is to have tea and chit-chat,” she said. “I’ll just have to ensure that we don’t discuss politics,” she chuckled. “There are a lot of political disparities.”
Besides social interactions, for a large number of companies, Zoom has become a kind of a necessity as people log in from home.
A Bengaluru executive at ride-hailing firm Gojek said on the condition of anonymity while Zoom was always used, dependence on it has increased multifold. “I wasn’t using the platform earlier but now usage has increased to at least three to four times a day for internal meetings.”
Amit Gupta, founder of micro-mobility startup Yulu, said while he has been using Google Hangouts but slowly Zoom has become the go-to platform for board meetings and other internal conferencing. Even his son has school sessions on Zoom.
But why Zoom? Why not Skype or Google Hangouts? Gupta finds Zoom superior as onboarding is fast and getting started is not a half-an-hour process. And it’s free for groups of up to 100 people if sessions last for less than 40 minutes.
Stuti Thapliyal, a guest lecturer for Japanese language at Delhi University, started taking classes on Zoom nearly two weeks ago after trying YouTube live and Skype. Zoom is user friendly, she said. “While teaching on Zoom, I can share power point slides and use the white board to explain concepts better,” she said. “Since my class strength is low, I can teach using visual aids to make students understand better.”
Besides seminars and workshops on zoom, it’s now a way to catch up with her friends as well. “It just doesn’t occur that I could use other apps too.”
Yet, the runaway success for Zoom hasn’t been without its share of controversy. The platform has triggered serious privacy concerns as revelations about leaked videos, weak encryption, undisclosed sharing of personal data, and vulnerabilities to hacking and video-bombing. The company faces scrutiny from the U.S. Congress, a class action suit in California, and New York’s attorney general is looking into privacy practices, according to Politico. Singapore halted the use of Zoom for education following reports of hacks. Taiwan has banned it for official use. And, in India the government has advised its officials against use of the conferencing app.
The lapses have driven away customers including Elon Musk, who banned it for both SpaceX and Tesla due to privacy concerns, the Wall Street Journal reported. New York City has directed its schools to move away from Zoom as soon as possible.
Eric Yuan, founder and chief executive officer at Zoom, said in a blog that the company is going to pause development of new features. And it will shift the focus on winning trust and address the privacy issues. Zoom also enabled the meeting password and waiting-room features for its free and entry-level paid users.
Saket Modi, co-founder of cybersecurity firm Lucideus, however, isn’t convinced. “Zoom is a classic case of when you design software without thinking about security,” he said over the phone. There’s a need to standardise cybersecurity to prevent such threats from emerging, he said.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs also flagged security concerns around the app and barred it from official use. While companies in India haven’t publicly raised privacy concerns, employees expressed reservations.
Vishal, who works at one of the largest offshoring firms, was a regular Zoom user. But he is hesitant now. “People have started to get scared that it’s not a secured platform,” he said, adding that he moved to Microsoft Teams and stopped recording videos on Zoom a week ago.
Bengaluru’s Plakkot isn’t worried about these issues yet and is happy to continue his daily quiz. The game is solely to enjoy, he said. But he’s not sure that the quiz will continue once the lockdown is lifted. “Too early to say what will be the level of interest when participants have other engagements, he said. “If users want to continue, we will. And if they want to reduce the number of days, that can also be planned.”