After privacy concerns and a government advisory against popular video conferencing app Zoom, everyone is looking for alternatives.
By Shriya Roy
The Covid-19 outbreak has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with others and the outside world. Not just that, the global pandemic is also slowly changing people’s usage of the internet. From conference calls to video chats, chat apps have become a necessary tool in the reconfigured social structure around the world.
Zoom’s video conferencing app gained popularity as the app seemed exceptionally well prepared for a pandemic-like situation, with its usage booming in the past few weeks. Zoom was being used by millions not only for work, but also for social gatherings, cultural events, etc. The app allowed up to 100 people on a call and up to 500 if you paid for an expanded version.
But all was not well. The happy days for Zoom came to an end as the app came under scrutiny for privacy issues, with users pointing out that it might have violated privacy standards. The Government of India raised concerns, with the Union home ministry in a notification saying that the app is ‘unsafe’ and vulnerable to cyber crimes. The notification asked government employees to refrain from using it for meetings. India’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) also raised concerns over potential cyber attacks through Zoom. The app has, however, responded to the MHA’s circular, saying that it’s extremely serious about user security.
The big question now is: what’s the alternative to Zoom? Is it a dead end? Not quite. Going a step forward, the central government has launched a video conferencing app development challenge for Indian companies with a prize money of Rs 1 crore. The “Innovation Challenge for Development of Video Conferencing Solution” has been introduced by the government to facilitate work from home. The video conferencing app should be able to work on any kind of device, in poor network areas, should have encrypted communication and should use less power. The results of the government challenge will be announced on July 29. The winning team will be given Rs 1 crore to deploy the app for use by central and state governments across India and a certificate by the minister of electronics and information technology. The government says the app will act as an alternative to Zoom.
Then there is group video chat app Houseparty, which has become a favourite with the younger generation, as through it they can chill at once with multiple people just like at a normal house party. The app also has integrated games that users can play with one another and allows up to eight people to be on a call together. However, the app, too, came under the radar when users complained that it enables hacking. In response, the app company announced a million-dollar reward for anyone who could prove that the allegations were part of a smear campaign.
The pre-existing Google Hangouts has also gained hits, as the quarantine has forced more and more people to socialise virtually. The video platform allows 25 people and can be accessed through an app, Gmail or other Google accounts. Although connectivity is an issue, it is the most easily accessible app. Plus, it’s easy to use if you have a Google account. In terms of privacy as well, it is much more secure than other apps, as it follows Google’s high privacy standards.
FaceTime, a mobile app that is native to iPhones, iPads and Mac desktops, allows up to 32 people to get on a video conference call. The app has been around for quite sometime now, but has once again gained traction, with the lockdown restrictions in place. FaceTime is handy because it comes pre-installed if you have an iPhone and can be used internationally over a data connection, much like WhatsApp.
Another new app doing the rounds is Bunch, a group video and games app, that allows eight people to take part at a time. The user interface is colourful and splashy, and includes various games like Trivia, billiards, among others. Bunch creates the experience of partying with friends on video chat and jumping together into the same game session. “The best games are serving as social networks,” said Selcuk Atli, CEO, Bunch.
Then there are chat apps that are specifically helping people deal with isolation and loneliness during this time. Take, for instance, QuarantineChat app. Danielle Baskin and Max Hawkins, two artists and long-distance friends, created the free digital voice service in 2019 to help connect people across the world. By downloading Dial Up, an app that hosts QuarantineChat, people can subscribe to periodic calls that randomly pair them with a chat partner who is also at home. “We thought our app would be great to combat feelings of disconnection,” Baskin and Hawkins said.
As most businesses reimagine operations, the design community has also found a unique way to stay in touch as they work from home. Architects report that working from home means less communication with the rest of the team and the impossibility of visiting the building site. ArchChat app bridges this gap. The app was launched in January this year and is free for architects, designers, engineering consultants and their clients. It aids users to chat privately in a preferred language and view respective communications for each drawing, design, etc, for a project space. Chats related to the living room, for instance, will be inside the ‘living room’ folder. For now, ArchChat is the only communication platform to collaborate on design and construction projects.
Apart from the regular chat and video-call apps, group virtual movie nights on Netflix are also helping people stay in touch. Netflix Party, a Google Chrome browser extension, lets multiple Netflix users sync and watch movies on the platform together, giving them the feel of hanging out and having fun with friends. Dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble have also shifted to video call/dating feature, as lockdown restrictions require one to stay at home.