Microsoft Under Pressure to Improve Teams Video to Stop Customers Going to Zoom

2×2 View Doesn’t Cut Mustard Anymore

The recent upsurge in demand for cloud services (775% according to Microsoft) includes a large increase in Teams usage as customers move from working in offices to work-from-home due to the Covid-19 virus. As part of the transition, a huge number of Teams online meetings now take place, including many in the education sector as teachers figure out how to deliver classes to students.

As the number of Teams meetings grow, the 2 x 2 configuration Teams currently uses for participant images in online meetings has come in for a lot of criticism, especially when compared its video conferencing competitors, especially Zoom. Figure 1 shows a typical Teams video meeting in progress with the video feed for the last four speakers shown in the main meeting window and icons listed for the other participants below.

Figure 1: A Teams meeting with the 2 x 2 layout for the last speakers (source: Microsoft)

Although Microsoft has added features like background blur to meetings with the promise of more features like custom background, a new codec to deliver better audio quality, background noise suppression, and “raise a hand” (when you have something to say) to come, the layout used for participants has remained the same since Teams launched in preview in November 2016. It’s remarkable how this element of Teams has remained intact since.

Zoom’s Gallery Layout

The problem faced by Teams is that competitor offerings deliver more functionality for large meetings. A lot of recent comment has focused on the gallery layout used by Zoom to display meeting participants (Figure 2), with people saying that the gallery is more visually attractive and engaging that the Teams layout.

Zoom’s gallery shows up to 49 thumbnails of participants in a grid pattern per page, with multiple pages used to accommodate all participant. Zoom free plans and standard paid plans allow up to 100 participants in a meeting, with add-on Large Meeting options available (at extra cost) to bring the number up to 500.

Some might not like the way Zoom displays a large number of participant feeds in its gallery, especially if they are in the habit of turning their video off when they step out of meetings to take calls, but you can see how useful it is in a classroom environment to be able to see everyone, which is where a lot of Teams growth is today.

Figure 2: The participant layout for a Zoom meeting is more visually attractive (image credit: Zoom)

Teams Meeting Limits

Teams meetings support up to 250 participants and Teams Live Events, which need some production effort, can cater for up to 10,000 attendees, including guest and anonymous users. The level of interaction in a live event is much less than a regular meeting as attendees are restricted to asking questions via moderated Q&A.

A Longstanding Request for Expanded View

The demand for a Zoom-like layout is in Teams User Voice “Show video for all people in video meeting,” which has attracted 2,567 comments (at the time of writing) since the idea was first posted in November 2016.

In line with the recent surge in Teams usage, hundreds of contributions have been posted in the last few days. Some point to the need for early action by Microsoft, one saying “This is seriously killing our adoption of Teams. Request to purchase Zoom licenses for a few departments is being processed 30th March 2020.” Another bluntly noted: “Just lost 400 users who have now gone to Zoom.” Other commentators said that they have people switching to Zoom just to get the gallery view. And still more underline the desire for teachers to view a full classroom of students and not just those who are speaking, just like the view that they’ve have in a physical classroom.

Zoom and Privacy

Those considering Zoom should make sure they know what they’re getting into. Any application categorized as “a privacy nightmare with a terrible security track record” deserves some attention. There are many articles available to read about problems with Zoom. I took the quote above from this one; this LA Times article is also a sobering reminder of what can happen on videoconferencing platforms. Getting a gallery view is all very well, but would you trade your privacy for a feature?

Update (April 6): In a not-too-disguised swing at Zoom, Microsoft published a blog describing the broad range of privacy and security controls in Teams. Make your own mind up on the topic!

Microsoft’s Response to User Voice

On March 31, Microsoft responded to the pleas of its customers, saying: “Based on recent feedback, we have elevated the priority of the remaining work to increase the number of participants shown in the main meeting window. Stay tuned for more updates.”

This is no more than a holding statement to buy some time while the Teams product group figures out what to do next. They could move to a 3 x 3 (9 participants) or 4 x 4 (16 participant) grid or use a gallery view like Zoom’s. Microsoft demonstrated a 3 x 3 layout at the Enterprise Connect 2019 conference. Figure 3 is a screen capture from the keynote delivered by Teams GM Lori Wright.

Figure 3: Teams with a 3 x 3 video layout as demonstrated at Enterprise Connect 2019 (source: Microsoft)

All of this is idle speculation on my part, but whatever number of participants Microsoft chooses, speed is of the essence because classes need to be taught and people need to be seen in video calls.

Accelerating Developments

On the upside, there’s evidence that Microsoft is serious about moving up some other Teams developments to help customers cope with the effects of the Covid-19 virus. An example is the recent doubling of the membership limit for a team to 10,000 announced on March 27.

Perhaps the explosion of customer interest in increasing the number of participants shown in a Teams meeting allied to some healthy competition will encourage Microsoft to make fast progress with the Teams video view. In the meantime, if you want to add your weight to this debate, vote the suggestion up in User Voice.

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