Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Back in 2016, Workplace by Facebook was announced, an attempt to diversify the Silicon Valley giants output and create a starting point to work with enterprise organisations in way outside of advertising. Much was made of the launch at the time, but it effectively dwindled away into irrelevance over the years as profits failed to materialise.

While none of the senior executives have paid much attention to the business unit, Workplace is very rarely mentioned by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, it has been bundling along in the background. After starting to charge customers for the service in October 2017, Workplace now has more than 5 million paid users, a fraction of rivals but it is admirable for a business unit which has not been given much attention or praise.

Last night would appear to be the relaunch of efforts to crack into a new market, capitalising on remote working trends being forced onto companies of all sizes around the world.

“The coronavirus crisis has forced us to rethink how we work,” said Julien Codorniou, VP of Workplace at Facebook. “Changes expected to happen over several years have happened in just a couple of months. And what many companies have realised is that it’s not about where your people are, but whether they are connected and informed.

“At Workplace we believe strongly that video will be central to the future of work – enabling companies to maintain community, while exploring the opportunities and diversity that flexible working can offer.”

This is of course a very relevant trend for today and could be even more so moving forward. 84% of Telecoms.com readers believed the work from home trend would continue following the relaxation of societal lockdowns, meaning at least some elements of the coerced digital transformation projects which have been sprint through today will remain in place.

Facebook might not be getting in on the ground floor of this trend, but the prior existence of Workplace and the power of the Facebook brand should be enough for it to muscle some benefits and business of the likes of Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom and various other businesses which are so richly benefitting from today’s adverse conditions.

As part of this latest push into the enterprise space, ‘Rooms’ has been introduced as a video conferencing feature, Live Video Improvements allows for Town Hall style engagements, Workplace on Portal likes the enterprise push with its consumer IOT gamble, Oculus for Business ties VR into the mix and Work Groups is a productivity and management toolset.

Overall, it is a solid effort to bring a broad set of functionality and features into a single offering, with the opportunity to tie into other emerging elements of the Facebook business. The first attempt to muscle into this market in 2016 might not have been very successful, but this one should certainly be taken more seriously by rivals.


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Maybe we should stop talking Millennials and start chirping Generation Z

With 5G becoming a reality, it won’t be too long before new services are launched, which is perhaps why we should stop talking about Millennials and start focusing on Generation Z.

It might seem absurd to ditch the millennials demographic, especially considering they have been referenced so frequently in recent years, but if we are looking to the future, we aren’t designing products and services for the current generation.

If 4G was a technology designed for Millennials, then 5G might possibly have to be designed for Generation Z. In five years’ time, when 5G is likely to be largely ubiquitous in the developed market, this is a digital-native demographic which will come of age with wild ambitions, big plans and credit cards.

Although the definitions of the different generations does vary, below seems to be a widely accepted definition.

Category Born Age range today
Generation X 1965 to 1980 40 to 55
Millennials 1981 to 1996 39 to 24
Generation Z 1997 to 2012 8 to 23
Generation Alpha 2013 onwards 0 to 7

Of course we are being very flippant when we suggest forgetting about the Millennials. This is and will continue to be a generation of individuals who have money and will want to spend it, but for those who are attempting to create a service to take the world by storm, an innovative eye will have to be cast beyond the horizon.

As an example of creating future-proofed services for the generation which is likely to be the most attractive, lets have a look at Rich Communication Services. It is an evolution for the telcos and SMS, but the Millennials are all using WhatsApp. RCS is redesigning a service created for a previous generation and competing against one which has been designed with today in mind. This is an attempt to savage old revenues, as opposed to thinking ahead and attempting to create new streams.

With every new generation of mobile technology, a change in societal behaviour is enforced. 4G democratised mobile internet and was embraced by the Millennials much more aggressively than Generation X. Arguably, older demographics have become accustomed to a way of life, therefore are not as welcoming of change, which will perhaps explain why so many services are seemingly designed for Millennials. But could the same not be said about 5G?

In five years’ time, Millennials will be in the same position as Generation X when 4G started gathering momentum. Your correspondent is a Millennial, so is writing from an informed (somewhat) position and is perhaps exasperated by the idea of something completely new. Today, your correspondent becomes frustrated attempting to learn all the different nuances and features of smartphones, applications, platforms or services, something which would not have been a problem in the first post-Uni years of the early 2010s.

But perhaps there is evidence of services being designed for Generation Z, even if the buzzword is yet to catch on completely.

Twitch is video live streaming service, designed for online gamers, which was acquired in 2014 by Amazon for $970 million. This is effectively an aggregator platform for commentary on gaming videos, tips and tricks, highlights or live streaming of organised competition and all other forms of user-generated content.

This might sound like a ridiculous idea to many reading this article, but Twitch has four million content creators who contribute every month, 15 million daily active users on average and more than 600 billion minutes of content were streamed through the platform over the course of 2019.

Members of Generation X or Millennials might find themselves asking a question now:

Why would anyone want to watch a video of someone else watching a video game and commentating on what is going on?

The users are of course gamers themselves (or very likely to be) but this does seem like a service which is beyond logic. Older demographics might struggle to understand why this is appealing, but then again it is not designed for us. Different types of content are emerging for a different generation, and there is plenty of money to made of the back of it should products be designed with the right nuances in place.

Another example of this evolving landscape is the work-from-home mentality which is being forced on us all due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is perhaps a glimpse into the future, where offices have become obsolete (perhaps not…) and the digital economy is running rampant. This would have been unforeseeable a few years ago, but a new era of connectivity could bring about an evolution in working practices.

Remote working is definitely not new, but it hasn’t really been embraced by the working world until it was forced to. Older generations might not be the most comfortable with the new status quo, but digitally native Generation Z may well be.

Of course, what is worth noting is this is simply history repeating itself. In the mid-00s, some older individuals might have wondered why anyone would want to display personal details on their lives for everyone to see (Facebook), how people could trust taxi drivers when you haven’t rung the depot (Uber) or why on earth you would want to stay in the spare room of someone else’s home (AirBnB).

These are all products which were designed for the next generation and enabled by the emergence of a new mobile technology. The Millennials are far from an obsolete generation for the ambitious innovators, but to fully embrace the 5G era, perhaps the baton will soon have to be passed to Generation Z.

But what could these services look like? Virtual reality might be one, having been written off numerous times by today’s demographics. Virtual meetings and video conferencing will certainly be a trend is staying for the long-term. The voice interface might well overtake touch at some point in the future, and there does seem to be incredible potential for gesture control. And who knows what else connectivity could be embedded into in the future…

And what is important to Generation Z? This is a generation which tends to travel more, is more socially and environmentally conscious, are super-swipers with relatively short-attention spans, they demand connectivity and access to services constantly, are OK with the cloud but take digital privacy and security more seriously and as they have been born into the social media revolution, are more welcoming of user-generated content, as well as creating it themselves.

If you’re wondering what might be big in the future, ask some of the kids in the office and just remember all the things which don’t make sense to you. It takes a special type of person to design products for the next era, but it will become a necessity as 5G stumbles towards us, albeit at a slower pace while we are in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic.

Millennials, we had a good run, but maybe we are just getting a bit old.

Zoom hopes new version will calm security fears

Video conferencing platform Zoom has rushed out a bunch of new security features in response to serious concerns raised following the massive increase in its use.

Zoom 5.0 is all about security and is part of a previously-announced 90-day plan to sort that side of things out. Earlier this month things were looking dire for the company as even politicians were calling for an investigation into its many security and privacy flaws. At lack of any further major scandals in the meantime enabled it to weather that storm in the short term, but security was clearly an issue that needed a permanent fix.

The most significant single tweak is the addition of support for AES 256-bit GCM encryption, which should do a lot to prevent the hacking into calls and leakage of user information that has been extensively reported. Other than that, the various security tools at a user’s disposal have been aggregated into a single, prominent icon on the user interface, and certain bits of security best-practice have been made default settings.

“I am proud to reach this step in our 90-day plan, but this is just the beginning,” said Eric S. Yuan, CEO of Zoom. “We built our business by delivering happiness to our customers. We will earn our customers’ trust and deliver them happiness with our unwavering focus on providing the most secure platform.”

“We take a holistic view of our users’ privacy and our platform’s security,” said Oded Gal, CPO of Zoom. “From our network to our feature set to our user experience, everything is being put through rigorous scrutiny. On the back end, AES 256-bit GCM encryption will raise the bar for securing our users’ data in transit. On the front end, I’m most excited about the Security icon in the meeting menu bar. This takes our security features, existing and new, and puts them front and center for our meeting hosts. With millions of new users, this will make sure they have instant access to important security controls in their meetings.”

It remains to be seen whether this update will be enough to satisfy users scared off by previous reports and experiences. Bloomberg reports that a bunch of big organizations, including Ericsson, have warned against using the services or have even banned use of it entirely. Even the whole country of India seems hostile to Zoom, so the rest of this 90-day plan had better be convincing.

Verizon jumps on the video conferencing bandwagon with BlueJeans acquisition

Unperturbed by its rubbish M&A track record, US operator Verizon thinks this is a good time to be in the video conferencing game.

BlueJeans Network focuses on B2B video conferencing, but is a relatively small player compared to the likes of Zoom. This is reflected in a reported selling price of around $400 million, which is a hundredth of Zoom’s current market cap. Having said that, with all the fresh challenges its sudden surge in popularity have created, that valuation is proving volatile.

The plan is to merge the BlueJeans cloud platform with Verizon’s unified communications as-a-service offering as soon as the deal is complete. This would appear to represent a pivot towards B2B by Verizon, following its disastrous acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. It also seems to mark the end of Verizon’s bizarre fetish for antiquated internet companies.

“As the way we work continues to change, it is absolutely critical for businesses and public sector customers to have access to a comprehensive suite of offerings that are enterprise ready, secure, frictionless and that integrate with existing tools,” said Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business. “Collaboration and communications have become top of the agenda for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors in recent months. We are excited to combine the power of BlueJeans’ video platform with Verizon Business’ connectivity networks, platforms and solutions to meet our customers’ needs.”

“The combination of BlueJeans’ world class enterprise video collaboration platform and trusted brand with Verizon Business’ next generation edge computing innovation will deliver highly differentiated and compelling solutions to our joint customers,” said Quentin Gallivan, CEO of BlueJeans Network. “We are very excited about joining the Verizon team and we truly believe the future of business communications starts today!”

Not everyone is quite as excited about the move however, as the following selection of commentator tweets shows.

It’s hard to be too down on Verizon for buying into an ultra-hot sector at a relatively low price. The chances of the move succeeding are significantly improved by the fact that it will be absorbed into a larger package rather than maintained as a standalone service. There is a strong chance that the move towards remote working forced by the coronavirus pandemic will become permanent, which should make unified comms a more valuable resource. If so, Verizon seems to have put itself in a stronger position to exploit that trend with this move.

Zoom’s flaws ungraciously exposed as it heads towards the executioner’s block

Three months ago, most people would not have been able to tell you what Zoom was, but now at the centre of privacy debacles, the video-conferencing business might be knocking on deaths door.

Over the course of the last week there have been several incidents. Individually, the team might have had a chance of fighting back the critics, but with the company being attacked on so many different fronts, it seems only a matter of time before the video-conferencing tool once again fades into anonymity.

Starting in New York State, Attorney General Letitia James announced a privacy probe following several reports of suspect security. This seemingly inspired the State’s Department of Education to ban its schools from using the tool. Following these two events, the Taiwanese Government enacted its Cyber Security Management Act, banning all Government agencies from using the tool.

These events occurred alongside the UK Government getting suspicious of the privacy and security credentials of Zoom, while the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab exposed the inadequacies of the encryption software and also questioned why some international calls were being routed through Chinese servers. Who and where the technology was developed is also another dubious avenue, with further links to China being unveiled.

With all this happening at the same time, the last thing which Zoom needs is politicians weighing into the debate.

Senator Michael Bennet has written to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan asking for clarification on what information is collected from users, who is sells it to and how much money it makes from these transactions. Senate House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone is another calling for an enquiry, as is Consumer Protection Subcommittee Chair, Jan Schakowsky, backing the demands of Senator Richard Blumenthal.

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One sentence which Zoom will be dreading to hear is FTC Investigation, but it is becoming a very real danger. And once an agency like the FTC starts investigating privacy and security concerns, as well as links to foreign powers who are on the US naughty list, life can become very difficult.

FTC Chairperson Joseph Simons has previously suggested that when significant privacy concerns are voiced in the press, an investigation is already on-going or is about to begin. Considering the anti-China rhetoric, it would not take much to gather support for such an investigation.

At a time where all Zoom employees need to be focused on creating a product which meets the demands which are being placed on it, the distraction of an FTC investigation is unlikely to be welcomed. These are sticky and messy affairs, which absorb a considerable amount of time. You only have to look at the difficulties Facebook has encountered, but with 20X more employees than Zoom, it was in a much more comfortable position.

In response to the criticism, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan has once again penned a blog post.

“To that end, I am excited to announce two developments: we have officially formed our CISO Council and Advisory Board, including security leaders from across industries; and Alex Stamos has joined Zoom as an outside advisor to assist with the comprehensive security review of our platform,” said Yuan.

Zoom is scrapping and scraping to prove its worth, but each day seems to be one paddle stroke further down sh*t creek. Privacy questions are bad news, especially when there are alternative services on the market. Facebook has managed to shake off the scandals and negative perceptions because there is nothing else out there quite like Facebook; Zoom is certainly not in the same position.

Zoom security flaws and Chinese links make US authorities nervous

Zoom’s rise to fame might only be match by the fall from grace as security flaws and apparent ties to China are laid bare for all to see.

It was only last week Zoom CEO Eric Yuan had to pen a blog entry to calm fears over the video-conferencing service, but this additional post is to address statements from University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Zoom has rolled out its own encryption software to enhance security, though the Toronto researchers suggest there are ‘significant weaknesses’.

“We appreciate the questions we are getting and continue to work actively to address issues as we identify them,” said Yuan. “As video communications become more mainstream, users deserve to better understand how all these services work, including how the industry — Zoom and its peers – manages operations and provides services in China and around the world.”

Firstly, the Toronto researchers have questioned how effective the security features of Zoom actually are. On one hand, the encryption is not end-to-end by industry standards, despite the company claiming so, while the way in which it has been designed and implemented is also questioned.

“The Zoom transport protocol adds Zoom’s own encryption scheme to RTP in an unusual way,” the researchers state.

“By default, all participants’ audio and video in a Zoom meeting appears to be encrypted and decrypted with a single AES-128 key shared amongst the participants. The AES key appears to be generated and distributed to the meeting’s participants by Zoom servers. Zoom’s encryption and decryption use AES in ECB mode, which is well-understood to be a bad idea, because this mode of encryption preserves patterns in the input.”

These encryption keys could also be distributed through Chinese servers, which is a bad idea for anyone as companies can be legally compelled by the Government to hand over these keys. Zoom has said this oversight has been corrected and no international meetings will be routed through Chinese servers, but the damage may well have already been done.

When security and privacy in the digital economy are being discussed, it makes a tarnish on the record which can be very difficult to remove. Zoom has an incredibly long list for a company which continues to trade, but a link to China is one which is almost impossible to shake off. Especially when it comes to operating in the US.

Zoom is a company which is listed in the US on the NASDAQ, but the software appears to be developed by three companies in China, all known as Ruanshi Software, only two of which are owned by Zoom. The ownership of the third company, also known as American Cloud Video Software Technology, is unknown.

As it stands, 700 employees are currently in China, which is not unusual as it can save on salaries in comparison to the US, though it does open up the firm to pressure and influence from the Chinese Government. This is not a position which will make US authorities comfortable.

In New York, the Department of Education has banned all schools from using Zoom for remote learning, stating teachers will have Microsoft Teams functionality available as soon as possible. New York Attorney General Letitia James is also probing the privacy and security credentials of the company, a worrying sign for the business.

Security is a major component of the digital economy and Zoom just does not appear to be up to scratch. For every leak in the hull which is fixed, three more seem to emerge. The long list of security vulnerabilities was always going to catch up with the team, though it remains to be seen whether Eric Yuan can talk his way out of the apparent links to China, a potential death sentence in the US.

Vodafone says upstream broadband data flows have doubled in some markets

Operator group Vodafone has shared an update on changes to activity across its European networks coz of Coronavirus.

Apparently a fifth of global internet traffic goes over Vodafone’s networks, so it has a fairly comprehensive view of what’s going on in certain regions. Principal among those is Europe and Vodafone says mobile data usage has increased by 15% on average across the continent. The more advanced the pandemic is, the more mobile data use has increased, so Italy and Spain are the main drivers of that increase.

A similar, but more exaggerated, pattern applies to fixed-line broadband, with Italy and Spain showing a 50% increase in usage. While streaming video will account for a lot of that, the most extreme changes have been caused by video conferencing, which is why upstream (originating from the user) data has increased by 100% in some markets.

“The biggest user of bandwidth on our networks is still the streaming of TV, film and games. Streaming traffic has increased by 40% on mobile and 50% on fixed broadband across European networks as a whole,” blogged Johan Wibergh, Vodafone group CTO. “Gaming traffic alone has increased twofold on mobile and nearly threefold on fixed broadband.

“This has put our mobile and fixed networks under strong pressure with evening peaks for mobile increasing by 20% in countries like Italy and Spain and fixed broadband traffic by around 35% in those countries, putting them near capacity during some parts of the evening. We have therefore brought forward planned upgrades to add four Terabits per second of additional capacity to our networks during March and April.”

Vodafone’s metrics tally with those published recently by Nokia. Operators and networking vendors alike are keen to stress how on top of the unique circumstances they are, but then again would they be blogging about it if they weren’t? Having said that there have been few reports of network problems that we’re aware of and our evening viewing of Tiger King yesterday went without a hitch, so what more could you ask for?

Nokia reveals impact of COVID-19 on network traffic

The Deepfield analytics team of networking vendor Nokia has been having a look at how network traffic evolved over March.

It comes as no surprise to see that video conferencing traffic went through the roof, with some US networks experiencing 700% growth in use of the app Zoom alone. Zoom has come under massively increased scrutiny as a result and is consequently having to raise its game. It’s also interesting to see how much more popular it is, especially at the weekends, than Skype, which had been presumed to be the default off-the-shelf video conferencing choice.

The other main source of network traffic is subscription video on demand. Apparently Disney+ already accounts for 8% of all SVoD traffic in some European networks and is maintaining a higher bitrate than the incumbents thanks to the use of six different content delivery networks. As you can see there is increasingly a spike in SVoD demand in the middle of the day that rivals the traditional evening one.

“Traffic increases continue across all regions, and networks seem to be handling these increases well,” conclude the blog. “However, as mentioned before, we are seeing additional demand placed on specific domains (peering, edge routing). Also, there is a need for the cloud-based infrastructure to scale up to support this increased demand.”

Zoom promises to get better at security

Video conferencing firm Zoom is now one of the most recognisable brands across the world, but recent days have seen a barrage of criticism directed towards its security and privacy credentials.

Answering the disapproval, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan has penned a blog post to explain how the company got into the uncomfortable position and what it is doing to take the platform forward.

“We now have a much broader set of users who are utilizing our product in a myriad of unexpected ways, presenting us with challenges we did not anticipate when the platform was conceived,” Yuan said.

This should be taken as a reasonable explanation. Like everyone else in the world, COVID-19 took Yuan and Zoom by surprise. Even the most optimistic CEO could not have envisioned the rapid uptake of services Zoom has experienced over the last few months. As a point of reference, Zoom share price has almost doubled in the last three months, and the latest price (April 1) is after a 14% decline over the last week.

Since this rapid rise to fame, Zoom has been sued in US Federal Court for illegally disclosing personal data to third parties including Facebook, New York State Attorney General, Letitia James launched a privacy probe, the UK Ministry of Defence banned its use, Bleeping Computer discovered that Zoom could allow hackers to easily obtain the user’s Windows password and Zoombombing became a dark web pastime.

The issue which Zoom is facing is this is not a product which has been designed for widespread usage. There are currently more than 200 million Daily Active Users (DAUs) though this is an application originally built for large corporations. These customers would have in-house IT teams who could make security assurances; the vast majority of today’s users are not in this advantageous position.

While users are perhaps being forced to compromise with the current state-of-affairs, if Zoom’s success is to be sustained for the long-term, these issues will have to addressed.

“Over the next 90 days, we are committed to dedicating the resources needed to better identify, address, and fix issues proactively,” said Yuan. “We are also committed to being transparent throughout this process. We want to do what it takes to maintain your trust.”

Engineers will no-longer focus on new features, but all will be directed towards enhancing security. Reviews of all different customers will take place to ensure all needs and nuances are accounted for. Transparency reports will be prepared. A bug bounty programme will be introduced. More rigorous security testing procedures will be created.

These new activities add to changes which have already been made to the business. The privacy policies have been rewritten. SDKs which enable the collection of unnecessary data have been removed. Features which violated privacy have been removed.

Should all of these elements be fruitful, there is no reason Zoom should not continue to be a successful business. No application is 100% secure, hence the bug bounty programme, but it is fair to say Zoom was caught by surprise by success.

Video conferencing app downloads go through the roof

Mobile app tracker App Annie reports that downloads of business apps, especially video conferencing one, have exploded in recent weeks.

It’s already becoming redundant to explain why exceptional events are occurring these days, but to avoid all doubt it’s coz of coronavirus. In the week of 14-21 March there were 62 million business apps downloaded worldwide, according to an App Annie blog, which was 45% up on the previous week and a 90% increase on the equivalent week a year ago. That was the week in which many countries introduced compulsory lockdowns for the first time.

Of those four video conferencing apps seems to have led the way: Google Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom Cloud Meetings and Houseparty. As you can see from the chart below, all four experienced massive spikes in demand, compared to a year ago.

“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,” concluded the blog

“It is an unprecedented time for the world and an incredibly dynamic time for mobile — we are seeing shifts in consumer behavior surface daily across virtually every sector. We will continue to report on the vast impact coronavirus is having on the mobile economy as it charts a new path forward for our mobile habits.”