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In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, people have been flocking to Zoom for their business meetings and virtual happy hours.

With that has come increased scrutiny of the video conference darling. Folks have found their privacy policy to be less than forthcoming about the data shipped back to Facebook, and have concerns about what kind of information meeting organizers get access to. From the linked article:

The Zoom app notifies Facebook when the user opens the app, details on the user’s device such as the model, the time zone and city they are connecting from, which phone carrier they are using, and a unique advertiser identifier created by the user’s device which companies can use to target a user with advertisements

“That’s shocking. There is nothing in the privacy policy that addresses that,” Pat Walshe, an activist from Privacy Matters who has analyzed Zoom’s privacy policy, said in a Twitter direct message.

Now for many people, this is just a drop in the bucket. Facebook already seems to own all of our data, so what’s a little more?

But for others, avoiding the Facebook monolith is a 24/7 effort, and that probably means avoiding Zoom.

Personally, from a user experience perspective, I’m not that fond of Zoom anyway. It completely ignores the established user experience of the Windows task bar, and while it has an in-browser implementation, accessing it is obfuscated behind a loading-screen landing-page and application download.

But I digress. Here are some awesome alternatives:

Whereby

Whereby is my top pick on this list. Formerly known as AppearIn, Whereby is a small Norwegian company with big dreams.

The journey started in 2013 when the service was called appear.in, and started as a summer intern project inside Norwegian telecom company Telenor. In 2017 we spun out and found a new home with Videonor as owners.

Videonor was started in the small coastal town of Måløy on the most rugged Western point of Norway, with 2000 inhabitants. The main investors are a local family office, who built up a very successful shipyard and then have actively invested in building up more than 80 jobs in IT in the local community, including one of Europe’s largest data centers. We live our vision every day and work to extend the priviliges of the flexible working culture to everyone.

You can read about their vision for the future here. If you strive to support small businesses, this one may not be local to you, but it’s much more appealing than throwing money at a publicly traded company.

From a product perspective, Whereby offers a free tier that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles Zoom’s free tier has. You get one room, limited to four people, but it doesn’t have the 40 minute limit Zoom has. The room is super easy to access, with a link that looks like https://whereby.com/sternerstuff. Screen sharing is also available at this tier.

Bump up to the Pro tier for $10/mo, which is cheaper than any Zoom plans ($14.99/mo/host). 1 user, now with 3 rooms. The meeting participant limit jumps to 12, you can brand your room to match your company, and you bump up to “premium screen sharing”. Honestly not sure what that means. For an extra $5, you can start recording these meetings as well.

Screenshot from a Whereby meeting

But the Business tier is where it really starts to shine. The participant limit jumps to 50 users (which is still half of Zoom’s 100 person out-of-the-box limit, your needs may vary). A whole bunch of integrations start showing up and you can have a slew of users and admins. Recording is included for this tier.

This tier is $60/mo, flat. It’s hard to compare this to a Zoom plan, because Zoom plans are priced per host and have a bunch of add-ons available that are priced independently.

You can come up with what either would cost you by finding the maximum price across all the features you need in the following table:

FeatureWhereby CostZoom Cost
4 Participants or FewerFree!Free!
12 Participants or Fewer$9.99/moFree!
50 Participants or Fewer$59.99/moFree!
100 Participants or FewerFree!
Recordings $9.99/mo + $5/mo Free!
Meetings > 40 minutesFree!$14.99/mo/host
Call-In$14.99/mo/host + $100/mo
> 100 Participants $200/mo+
($19.99/mo/host x 10 host min.)
Branding$9.99/mo$200/mo+
($19.99/mo/host x 10 host min.)
Vanity URL$59.99/mo
SSO, On-Prem, Generated Transcripts
API UseContact$14.99/mo/host

If Zoom’s Pro tier makes sense for you without any add-ons, Whereby’s Business tier becomes more cost-effective after 4 users. But even with fewer users, it’s hard to put a price on privacy.

Zoom has more features available that may be appealing to enterprises by nature and only feasible for enterprises given the price point. Things like single-sign-on and on-premise deployments are available with the Business Zoom plan, which is $19.99/mo/host for a minimum of 10 hosts, so a minimum of ~$200/mo.

For most small businesses, Whereby makes a lot of sense if you don’t need more than 12 participants. For personal use, 4 participants is probably limiting, but it’s also not really a personal use tool. It’s also not a great tool for webinars. It’s a conferencing application.

The Google Options

Hangouts

I’ve had great luck with Google Hangouts for both Sterner Stuff meetings and personal happy hours. While a regular Google user can use Hangouts, it’s geared toward enterprise (G Suite) customers.

  • Supports up to 100 users/call
  • Works completely in browser (Chrome, Firefox, Brave, others unknown)
  • Multiple rooms
  • Record meetings
  • Great integration with other G Suite tools (Google Calendar, for instance)
  • Call-in Number

If you’re already a G Suite user, leveraging Hangouts makes a ton of sense.

iOS users will have to download an app, which can be a barrier, but isn’t any different than Zoom. Personally, I would never willingly conduct a business video call on my phone anyway.

When using Hangouts for personal calls, I’ve had people complain that they can’t see everyone’s face at once. While there’s certainly something amusing about the Brady Bunch effect, a 300x200px view into a bunch of people’s retrofitted second bedrooms at 360p resolution doesn’t do much for me.

Duo

Meanwhile, Google Duo serves as the Android equivalent of FaceTime. Probably not suitable for business purposes, and any iOS callers will still need to download an app. Also available with a web interface.

But do you really trust Google?

If you’re concerned about data sharing with Facebook, you may also have concerns about data sharing with Google. But Zuck and Facebook might be their own special breed of creepy and overreaching.

Jitsi

For more advanced users, there’s Jitsi. Jitsi is an open-source video conferencing implementation you would run on your own server or embed in another piece of software, so you need some tech know-how.

Following their implementation tutorial for Amazon Web Services, the hardware costs come out to ~ $60/mo with their recommended hardware, even though the software itself is free. This is in-line with other services, so may not be cost-effective, especially after considering the value of the time to set it up and maintain it.

However, if you can intelligently manage your hardware so it isn’t running all the time (only spin up your hardware when you need it), or if municipalities can leverage community resources to provide a collection of no-cost Jitsi rooms to average citizens, Jitsi starts to make a ton of sense. Also a good option for enterprises that want full control and are already managing hardware.

The website is pretty sparse on features, but I’ll flesh this out as I learn more. Suffice to say, participants is only limited by your hardware, and you should be able to hack on any features you want with a proper software developer.

Other options

The above are really my top recommendations for, very specifically, video conferencing. It doesn’t cover webinars or screen capturing. I’m a big Whereby fan, but I’ll mention the following to wrap things up:

  • Slack – only makes sense if you’re already using Slack
  • Skype – I’ve never had a positive Skype experience
  • Microsoft Teams – might make sense if you’re already using Office 365

I’d love to hear about your own experiences! Blow up the comments below.

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