By Diane Phillips
TEN years ago, unless you worked in the WebEx division of Cisco, you would never have heard the name Eric Yuan. Heck, even five years ago he was just one of those Silicon Valley geeks, an engineer with a dream, to create a better video conferencing system that was easy to sign in and out of, operated with low overhead expenses, offered high quality virtual interaction and was inexpensive for the consumer.
Unlike its early predecessor, Skype, that allowed one person to connect with another and later increased its capacity to 50 persons on a call, Yuan’s video communications platform, something he called Zoom, could accommodate unlimited participants at a time, hundreds, even tens of thousands, on a call or in a conference. It wasn’t just about the numbers. The new Zoom solution would have better-than-ever-before features like screen sharing, chat availability, options to turn video or audio on or off, to mute others if you are the host, to wave if you want to speak up. It would be fast and reliable.
In a word, Zoom would revolutionise the way we communicate. But who knew we needed it?
Before COVID locked us out of our offices and into seclusion with the command that we find a way to keep working, who dreamed we would become a world of Zoom-addicted, Zoom-dependent communications junkies? And now that we have it, we wonder ‘How did we ever live without it?’
Today, Yuan, the founder and CEO of Zoom Video Communications is the pandemic-era saviour of our sanity. He’s Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates rolled into one, perceiver of a need before anyone knew they needed it, creating the product and perfecting it to ramp up the very demand he created.
For all of us who are Zoom-hooked, and that would be about 97.5 percent of the population, we don’t even stop to think about life before Zoom. No wonder - the history of this phenomena is surprisingly short.
Yuan, a Chinese-born American, left Cisco in 2011, taking about 40 engineers with him, to form a new company with a smarter video communications solution. Back then, the idea must have seemed almost silly to anyone outside that peculiar California enclave. People were free to travel. Going to meetings in the far reaches of the world was one of the perks of a job, especially if those meetings and conferences came with opportunities to explore foreign lands and cultures at the company’s expense. Let’s face it. What would you rather do? Go to a conference in Paris or stare at the four walls of the office and talk about next quarter’s strategy?
True, there were always impediments to in-person meetings, but they weren’t insurmountable. Still, Zoom started to grow its following, giving WebEx and Skype a good run for their money. In April 2019, when Zoom (ZM) went public, no one predicted that a pandemic would alter our lives as it has. A video conferencing solution was sensible but not urgent. At the time of the IPO, shares were valued at $36. Less than one year later, the world of communications became as important to our lives as a hot meal on a cold day. Shares skyrocketed to $380 plus change this week.
Why all the interest in Zoom? It’s a far cry from the normal outpouring of words in a column like this. Maybe because there are only a handful of inventions or discoveries that we pay enough attention to even though they have truly changed our lives. Last weekend, I saw how Zoom empowered nearly 500 people in The Bahamas to live a healthier life.
For three days, week before last, we hit the airwaves, print and electronic media to announce a healthy habits webinar sponsored by Cleveland Clinic Florida with local fitness guru Craig Walkine, Dr Susan Lockhart-Williams, Nassau and chief of internal medicine at CCF Dr Gabriela Gavrilescu. It was the fifth time the Florida facility had sponsored one of these events for The Bahamas and we had hit the airwaves, print and electronic media to promote it, but only for three days leading up to the January 23, the Saturday morning it was scheduled. When such events were still held in person, 150 or so would show up. This time, more than 450 people signed up to link in on Zoom, listen and start the year off right with healthy habits.
And all I could think was out of the doom and gloom of the worst medical crisis in our lifetime came the gift of Zoom, a way we can stay connected with the world when disease tried to drive us apart.
Thank you, Eric Yuan. May your name someday be as familiar as Steve Jobs who brought us Apple or Bill and Melinda Gates who are trying