Ranking the video apps

The good news, now that we’re all stuck working from home, is that there are so many free video calling apps available. The bad news is that there are so many free video calling apps available.

It’s now possible to video chat with people almost anywhere in the world. The problem is, everybody seems to have his or her preferred app, so you find yourself adding more and more of them to you phones and tablets. Assuming you can – Apple’s Facetime isn’t available to Android devotees like me.

The Washington Post tested out a bunch, including a new competitor from Facebook, and found that each one has advantages and disadvantages. But the increasingly ubiquitous Zoom, despite some security concerns, was the all-around winner:

No video chat app looked great every time, but one had clear video more often than the others: Skype. The app that helped create the idea of video chats with grandparents is still in the game.

When we held up an eye chart to the camera, Skype made it easiest to read the small type. It’s also what we used to make the video accompanying this column. Just know, its performance demands a lot out of your computer, so you may need to close other apps.

[…]

Membership in the Apple cult — we mean, club — has its privileges. Most of the security pros we spoke with said FaceTime was their go-to of our mainstream options. The problem is, of course, it only works if everyone you need to speak with also has Apple devices.

Group video calls of up to 32 people using FaceTime meet the gold standard of security with end-to-end encryption. That means they can’t be seen or heard by anyone else who might try to intercept them.

[…]

Yep, we’re sticking with Zoom, even after all those security problems — and in part, because of how it responded to them.

Zoom defines much of what we need from a group video conference. It gives you the simplest way to get up to 49 people together on one screen in happy rows of boxes, regardless of whether they have an account or whether they want to use an iPhone, Windows PC, or even an old-fashioned landline. Usually, everyone just has to click one link to get in.

Zoom’s features win the Goldilocks principle, sitting somewhere in between a work app (you can share screens) and a social one (you can turn your background into a Malibu dreamhouse). While it could still do better when participants have poor connections, Zoom’s call quality is good enough across a shockingly wide array of devices. Google’s Meet, a Zoom clone in many respects, never met our threshold for video quality and is utterly bereft of any fun features at all.

Then there’s simplicity. Our families and friends all know how to Zoom. Even after a week, we still can’t quite figure out — or trust — the sharing mechanisms of Facebook’s Rooms. Skype recently added a one-link-to-join option like Zoom, but you can’t use it for a scheduled meeting or put it behind a passcode. Houseparty is fun but requires too much coordination when you actually want to meet someone at a particular time. Apple’s FaceTime needs a rethink for the pandemic era where you can’t expect everyone you need to interact with owns an Apple device.

Of course my preferred video calling app, Google Meet, wasn’t the best in any category. But as someone who uses G Suite, I find that it incorporates the best in my email and calendar.

I seem to be in the minority, though. (Most clients I tell about it have never even heard of it, and Google has not helped its own case by having so many chatting and messaging apps – Duo, Hangouts, Meet – that seem to do pretty much the same thing.) So I guess I’ll have to keep several of these apps on my phone until a clear winner emerges.

Either way, the Post story concludes with a prudent warning about the price of “free”:

…Zoom’s main business is selling video chat software. It’s the only service we tested that you have to pay for after a limited window — $15 per month for calls lasting longer than 40 minutes. But we actually find that reassuring compared to some of its rivals mainly in the advertising and gadget-selling business. We know we sound like a broken record, but remember: If the product is free, that means you’re the product.

If you don’t have to go out, don’t go out.

The novel coronavirus has arrived in Nova Scotia. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say the virus has been here for some time, and we’re just getting confirmation now. It takes a few days for symptoms to appear, so anyone reading (or writing) this could have it without even realizing.

The top priority for now is keeping the spread of the virus to a minimum, to avoid strain on the health care system. That means practicing “social distancing” to the greatest extent possible:

Remember, even if you aren’t sick, you may be carrying the virus without knowing it. And even if you’re young and healthy, you will inevitably come into contact with the elderly, people with chronic breathing problems, and other members of vulnerable groups.

The Washington Post has posted the best article I’ve seen, illustrating how the coronavirus can spread and how social distancing can keep the problem manageable. The Post uses some very clever (and unnerving) animations to explain some complicated mathematical and scientific concepts. (There’s a reason I went into law instead of a STEM field.)

Court appearances in the coming weeks will be affected, as well. I am now working from home as much as possible, and changing all in-person appointments to phone or videoconference meetings. If you are one of my clients, I will be in touch.

It’s time to take this seriously, but don’t panic. And even though we may have to physically stay home, we can still keep in touch with our friends, relatives and neighbours through social media. Or, if you’re in Italy, by singing on your balcony:

Don’t worry, everyone: I promise not to sing to you in public, unless the authorities need me to help disperse a crowd.

How Coronavirus could hurt Netflix

As we watch the coronavirus continue to spread and process the shocking news that the entire nation of Italy is putting itself under quarantine, people seem to assume the coming “social distancing” will be good for Netflix if nobody else. If we’re all stuck at home we’ll all be watching it, right?

Yes, we likely will. And this Yahoo! Finance article explains why that could actually be bad for the most successful streaming service:

Netflix (NFLX) will be yet another company dented by the global coronavirus outbreak, according to Needham analyst Laura Martin.

[…]

…having more people at home to binge more hours of Netflix won’t necessarily translate into higher revenue for the company, Martin pointed out.

“NFLX charges a fixed price of $9-$16/month in the U.S., regardless of how many hours are watched,” Martin said. “More hours viewed by existing subs are not monetized by NFLX.”

Netflix does not offer an ad-driven tier and has so far declined to take on an advertising-based business model, despite broad investor speculation as more competitors join the fray. That decision prevents Netflix from capitalizing on any upside from increased viewership that could arise as social distancing increases with the coronavirus outbreak, Martin said.

And given that Netflix was already saturated in the U.S. at 61 million domestic subscribers as of December 31, “it’s unlikely that COVID-19 adds new U.S. subs,” Martin said

If anything, their problem is that’s they’re too successful, at least in North America. Pretty much everyone who wants it already has it, so there’s not much room to grow. And the price doesn’t change no matter how much we watch. But the more we stream, the more Netflix has to spend to keep its servers running.

Netflix is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and we’re all Homer Simpson.

I can see some of the other streaming services picking up business while we’re all confined to our homes, though. And maybe, just maybe, could this be something that gets people buying subscriptions to newspapers and magazines again? A heavily discounted online subscription to, say, The Washington Post (and it’s always heavily discounted) could be very enticing at a time like this.