Zoom.us Offers Free Cloud-Based, Multi-Party Video Conferencing

The new service is designed to enable workers or consumers to quickly launch video calls that can support up to 15 people at a time, and integrates with Facebook and Gmail.

Zoom Video Communications is the latest startup to enter the increasingly crowded video conferencing market, rolling out a free service called zoom.us that enables up to 15 people to participate in a video call from PCs or mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets.

Zoom officials unveiled zoom.us Aug. 22, touting the service's easy one-click capabilities and the integration with both Google's Gmail and Facebook, so contacts from these services are displayed and users can get a multi-party video call going within seconds. It comes with a host of features, from the single click needed to start a conversation to the ability to invite participants via instant message, email and a meeting ID to being able to share video, text chat in private or as part of a group during the meeting or conversation.

Company officials are promoting the cloud-based service for consumers as well as workers.

"Today, group video meetings are the realm of businesses, but they can be hard to facilitate," Eric Yuan, founder and CEO of zoom.us, said in a statement. "Users have separate accounts for each video-calling application, which requires them to remember different usernames and passwords, and the video quality is often poor. zoom.us takes the complexity out of connecting to friends and colleagues by offering a single-click solution that works whether you are on an iPad using WiFi, an iPhone using Edge or a PC connected to Ethernet and lets everyone participate in the conversation seamlessly."

Yuan said that video has transformed business collaboration, and "we want to bring that to everyone with zoom.us."

Video conferencing has become increasingly popular over the past few years as businesses see the benefits not only of greater employee productivity and the ability to more easily communicate with workers, partners and customers, but also as a way of reducing expenses, including travel costs. Most of the early systems were complex and expensive room-based offerings from vendors like Cisco Systems, Polycom and Hewlett-Packard. However, the trend is moving away from these expensive systems and more toward software, driven by such trends as increasing mobility, cloud computing and bring-your-own-device (BYOD).

"The videoconferencing market is going through significant change marked by efforts to make the historically cost-prohibitive technology more widely accessible," Forrester analyst Philipp Karcher said in an Aug. 21 blog post. "After a boom period sparked by interest in high-definition quality and epitomized by investments in multi-screen immersive telepresence studios, videoconferencing innovation today is happening on smaller screens like PCs, smartphones and tablets that workers use in their everyday jobs. In response to this growing interest, vendors not only have to show strategies that account for desktop and mobile applications-they also have to make their traditional dedicated room-based systems easier to deploy at scale."

Established vendors like Cisco, Polycom and LifeSize Communications are shifting their strategies toward software, and are being challenged by relative newcomers like Vidyo, whose entire portfolio is software-based. At the same time, consumer services-particularly Skype, now owned by Microsoft-are looking to expand into multi-party video calls, hoping to attract business users looking for inexpensive solutions for smaller video conferences that can be launched quickly and don't need the features of the large immersive systems.

Zoom.us could also play in this space. It doesn't offer all of the features that a solution from other vendors might, but it's free and has capabilities such as high-definition 720p video and the ability to share a full desktop or specific window, and it can work over wired and WiFi networks, and 3G and 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks. It also supports systems running Windows as well as Apple's Mac system, iPhones and iPads. Android support reportedly is coming later.

In a review Aug. 21, The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg said the service worked well, particularly given that it's free.

"I've been testing Zoom.us, and despite a few limitations, I like it a lot and can recommend it," Mossberg wrote. "In all but one of my tests, video was sharp and smooth, and all the features worked as promised. One caveat: I tested a pre-release version at a time when there were only about 1,000 people using the service. It's possible that if millions use it, speed and quality could suffer, though the company denies that. And for now, the service is entirely free, the company said, but down the road it may impose charges based on time used."

There are some drawbacks, he said.

"You can share a video from your computer with the group, but the audio won't come through. And if you log in via Gmail, only a subset of your Google chat contacts appear," Mossberg said. "Also, the early version I tried changed your Google chat status to say you were using Zoom. The company says it's working on the audio issue, eliminating the changed status message, and that the Gmail contacts limitation is a Google policy."

To get started, users must download the zoom.us app, or get it from Apple's iTunes store.