Facebook rolls out video conferencing upgrades to take on Zoom

Facebook will update its ecosystem of messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Portal, with a set of features aimed at capitalising on the heightened demand for video conferencing.

Messenger Rooms, which largely resembles the features included in video conferencing app Zoom, is set to be rolled out to Facebook and Messenger this week.

The free service will offer Facebook users the tools to host catchups with up to 50 participants with no time limits. The user interface (UI) will also allow up to 16 people to share the same screen.

This is in addition to added capabilities for existing video hosting features, such as allowing Facebook users able to join live broadcasts midway through.

While the likes of Messenger and WhatsApp have played a role in helping friends, family and colleagues stay in touch during the coronavirus lockdown, users have flocked to services like Zoom and Skype to maintain face-to-face contact.

“Lately Facebook has felt the demand for real-time video,” the company said in a statement.

“Between WhatsApp and Messenger, more than 700 million accounts participate in calls every day. In many countries, video calling on Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubled, and views of Facebook Live and Instagram Live videos increased significantly in March.

“Spending time with each other should be spontaneous, not strained. So to help people feel like they’re together, even when they are — or have to be — physically apart, we’re announcing features across our products that make video chat and live video easier and more natural.”

This massive spike in demand has seen the likes of Zoom prosper almost overnight, with the video conferencing service gaining 100 million new users within a three-week period. As a result, the company’s fortunes have expanded and its shares have risen sharply.

Like Zoom and Skype, Facebook’s video conferencing service can be used by those without an account by distributing a meeting link. No software is required, and catchups can be started through the News Feed, Groups or Events. The company is also exploring ways to create this functionality from Instagram Direct, WhatsApp and Portal too.

WhatsApp, meanwhile, has been updated with Group Calls feature that can allow video-chatting between eight participants, all sharing the same screen. While primarily a consumer-oriented app, many businesses use the application for colleagues to stay in touch. The addition of expanded video functionality, with secured end-to-end encryption, may tempt users to stay in-app for meetings rather than shift across to other services.

The security and privacy settings within these services, meanwhile, will be of particular concern to many, with Facebook seen by a large number of people as questionable when it comes to gathering and handling user data.

Zoom came under significant criticism during its explosion in popularity for not featuring a number of important privacy and security controls. As a result, its rise in usage coincided with the emergence of a phenomenon known as ‘Zoom-bombing’, where unauthorised third-parties would invade meetings unannounced.

The company has recently worked to address these issues as part of a 90-day effort to improve the security of its platform. Last week, for example, the firm upgraded the software to version 5.0, introducing 256-bit encryption and administrative controls.

Messenger Rooms includes a host of privacy and security settings, allowing users to manage, for example, who can join meeting rooms. Users can also remove participants from a call and locking an entire meeting down.

While Rooms offers a certain level of encryption, the video chats hosted through the service won’t benefit from end-to-end encryption as WhatsApp does. Facebook, however, insists it doesn’t watch or listen to audio or video calls, according to its privacy policy.

The platform will also limit the information it asks non-users to provide to just their name, which will be shown to other guests.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.