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Facebook Messenger could be the most surprising Zoom rival in 2021

video conferencing
(Image credit: Shutterstock / GoodStudio)

In spring, when the pandemic and nation-wide lockdowns forced people inside, video conferencing services - and Zoom and Microsoft Teams in particular - were thrown into the limelight.

Over the past nine months, both have recorded a monumental increase in the number of active users and now host billions of meeting minutes every day. According to Google Trends data, “Zoom” even became the fourth most searched term of 2020.

Comparatively little fuss was made, however, when Facebook unveiled its own rival service: Messenger Rooms. The video conferencing platform is completely free, unlimited, hosts up to 50 participants and requires only the host to have an active Facebook account. And yet, where was the fanfare?

The video conferencing spectrum

Unlike many of its high profile competitors, the origins of Messenger Rooms cannot be traced back to the business market. From its launch in April, Rooms has been pitched as a service that caters first and foremost to consumers.

According to Connor Hayes, Director of Product Management at Messenger, the enterprise video conferencing market may have become saturated, but there is plenty of room for an offering that thinks about video calling from a consumer-first perspective.

“It’s maybe too broad to say that video conferencing is just one market. There are now many different markets within” he told us, over a Rooms call, of course. “It’s really just a medium, an extension of the reasons people get together and hang out in real life.”

“What we’ve learned over and over again is that something designed for the consumer use case first can always deliver an amazing level of value. It’s still super early and we’re learning about what experiences are best for people, but over the next few years you’re going to see us playing more in this space.”

There was also a pre-existing level of familiarity with business use cases (i.e. meetings and presentations) that consumer-focused platforms did not benefit from. It has taken people time, Hayes claims, to become accustomed to using video calling as part of their personal lives; for catching up with family, socializing with friends, attending concerts and classes etc.

“The enterprise market for people connected over video is just the most developed - and so business-centric services were top of mind when video conferencing became a necessity.”

“[But] there’s an opportunity for us to think about how to deliver video to the masses, for every person in every country to feel like they have a solution if they want to be together when apart from other people.”

Video conferencing in the post-pandemic era

With Covid-19 vaccines beginning to roll out, many people that have been chained to their home office desk will start to entertain fantasies of a return to the office, but also to restaurants, bars and events where they can socialize in-person.

While video conferencing has been central to allowing businesses to remain operational and families to stay connected during this period of crisis, it remains to be seen how the market will react to a return to relative normalcy.

Asked about the role of video conferencing in society once the pandemic has subsided, Hayes was bullish about the long term prospects of the medium.

“The way that I see the last six months is less about the rise of a market that will then go away, but instead as a really amazing opportunity,” he explained.

“Hundreds of millions of people were exposed to a type of product they hadn’t used before and were able to derive value from it. When you’re forced to be apart, you get introduced to behaviors that could be valuable [even outside the context of the pandemic].”

To illustrate his point, Hayes gestured to the relatively novel practice of watching a sports match over video conference with friends. Very few people may have done this regularly before the pandemic, but it’s a use case that may live on in the post-coronavirus era.

“Maybe the requirement to use these services will go down, but the value people get out of them likely will not,” he said.