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of the year
When Milo McCabe’s daughter was born, he could see she had 10 fingers, 10 toes and dark swirls of hair; he could hear her piercing cry. But he couldn’t make out the color of her eyes and, heartbreakingly, he couldn’t hold her. He was watching over Zoom.
McCabe had never considered not being in the delivery room. But in early April, he fell ill with COVID-19 and was rushed to a hospital in Southern California. When his wife Roxanne went into labor more than a week later at the same hospital, he was still there—but could barely get out of bed.
A video call was the next best thing: they wanted to see each other’s faces, record the proceedings and stay on for hours for free without technical glitches. So they chose Zoom—a platform that they, like most of the world, had barely used previously but now seemed to be everywhere.
“I remember going through contractions and hearing his voice saying, ‘You’re doing good, babe,’ every few minutes,” Roxanne says. “I would turn to look at the video on my left, as if he was going to go somewhere—but he wasn’t going anywhere.” They were together for almost 11 hours before Emberly Anne emerged into the world. “It wasn’t how I anticipated your coming-out party, kid,” McCabe says eight months later, looking down at the daughter in his arms.
If the idea of a Zoom birth was shocking to the McCabes, it would have been no less surprising to Eric Yuan. The 50-year-old founder and CEO of Zoom had worked for a decade to build a no-frills, highly functional conferencing platform for businesses. Now it was being used in all sorts of unexpected places, from delivery rooms to grade schools. “We never thought about consumers or K-12 schools when we started planning the year 2020,” says Yuan, speaking over Zoom from his home in the Bay Area. He had ordered employees to work from home in early March, but it wasn’t until weeks later—around when U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a photo of a Cabinet meeting over Zoom—that it dawned on Yuan that his company might play a major role in this new virtual world order.
TIME Photo-Illustration, Yuan: Zoom
Yuan soon found himself serving as the world’s relationship liaison, social chair, principal, convention-center host, chief security officer and pallbearer. Despite competition from corporate behemoths like Google, Apple and Microsoft, Zoom jumped out in front of the video pack, catapulting from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to a staggering 300 million in April. Zoom became a verb and a prefix, a defining syllable of a socially distant era. As his company’s valuation soared, Yuan crashed into the Forbesbillionaires list.
But almost as soon as Zoom became ubiquitous, its vertiginous rise was imperiled: Security flaws left users vulnerable to surveillance and harassment. Its very popularity produced burnout while exposing the gap between white collar households and those without even Internet. Some accused Yuan of being just another complacent Big Tech guru whose product heightened division and misinformation.
Yuan responded with swift course correction and transparency, at least to the security issues, gaining the trust of many critics—and the company’s stock has tripled since April. Zoom was named Apple’s most downloaded free app of the year. It won the 2020 video wars partially because, like its founder, it’s flexible, intuitive and pretense-free. It was adaptable in a year when there was hardly a more vital attribute—and it offered glimpses, promising and ominous alike, of what human connection might look like for years to come.
It might be fair to call Zoom a product of young love. In the late 1980s, Eric Yuan, born Yuan Zheng in Tai’an, China, was a math and computer-science student at Shandong University. The woman who would become his wife attended college 10 hours away. On his way to visit her, Yuan would doze off, dreaming of a way to instantly see her face.
Yuan became obsessed with the dot-com boom, but his American dreams were stalled when he was rejected for a visa eight times. “I was just so frustrated,” he says. “But I was going to keep trying until they tell me, ‘Don’t come here anymore.’”
Yuan was finally granted an H-1 visa in 1997 at the age of 27. (He became a U.S. citizen a decade later.) He started as a coder at WebEx and soon became integral to building its video-conferencing platform. After Cisco bought WebEx in 2007, Dan Scheinman, senior vice president of Cisco Media Solutions Group at the time and now a member of Zoom’s board of directors, remembers learning of Yuan’s reputation as “demanding, technically gifted, one of the best product people in the world and incredible in front of customers,” he recalls. “It was a bit like we had Mozart, but no one realized it.”
Yuan’s restless energy comes through bright and clear, even on Zoom. He shifts from side to side, his sentences rushing out in declarative bursts, his lines of explanation linear and logical, and often predicated on the belief that humanity is inherently good. “The world is fair,” he says at one point. “Keep moving forward, and focus on the things you can control.”
It was this confidence that led a few dozen WebEx engineers to decamp with Yuan in 2011 when he announced that he would be leaving the company to start his own video platform. Zoom’s software launched in 2013, touting a free basic service along with several paid tiers for different-size organizations. While many other startups leaned heavily on free products to induce widespread saturation, Zoom targeted modest school and business networks that would pay for subscriptions year after year.
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After nearly a decade of steady growth, the company went public in 2019, to considerable fanfare. Unlike other tech IPOs racking up huge losses (like Uber, Lyft and Slack), Zoom was both debt-free and profitable. And thanks in part to Yuan’s oft repeated emphasis on “delivering happiness,” Zoom was also one of the highest employee-rated companies to work for, according to surveys from Glassdoor and Comparably. Yuan had carved a reliable lane and was cautious about moving into the consumer market too quickly. “In December, our plans were the same as the year before: no big ideas, just keep innovating,” he says.
Then the pandemic hit, forcing hundreds of millions of people across the world to shelter in place. They doomscrolled and binged Tiger King; they baked and bought guitars. And in surging numbers, they logged on to Zoom. They used it for birthday parties, family gatherings, workouts, company meetings, happy hours, blind dates. Saturday Night Live returned with Kate McKinnon yelling, “Live from Zoom, it’s sometime between March and Auguuuuuust!” New York legalized Zoom marriages, to Yuan’s delight. From January to April, the company’s metric of annualized meeting minutes jumped twentyfold to more than 2 trillion, while revenue soared 169% compared with the same quarter in 2019. “You feel like your dream is coming true after many years of hard work,” Yuan says.
Clockwise from top left: A wedding in New York; dancers of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow perform in their homes; a family in New York celebrates their child’s first birthday; a church service in GermanyThomas Dworzak—Magnum Photos
How did a niche platform vault past bigger competitors like Apple (FaceTime), Google (Meet), Cisco and Skype to define the medium? Off the bat, Zoom is free, at least for 40-minute periods. It’s strikingly easy to operate: you don’t need to download an app, use a specific browser or operating system, or even have an account. The company’s cloud-based operation allowed it to scale relatively seamlessly. Virtual backgrounds lend both novelty and privacy.
A snowballing effect fueled momentum: the more users signed onto Zoom, wrote trend pieces, created Zoom memes and saw it being used on TV, the more others gravitated toward the platform. It didn’t hurt that the once ubiquitous Skype had stagnated as its parent company Microsoft prioritized another video platform, Teams, or that young people were already familiar with the platform, thanks to its presence in educational institutions.
Zoom may have been boosted by its very name—crisp, familiar and informal, with positive connotations. “I’ve never seen anything happen so fast,” says Carmen Fought, a linguistics professor at Pitzer College in California, “but it’s never been the case that everybody needed a word for something all at the same time.”
Professional sectors were the first to adapt to Zoom en masse. By June, 42% of the U.S. labor force was working from home full time, according to a Stanford study. Big banking and international businesses turned to Zoom in droves; so did 125,000 K-12 schools, partially because Yuan offered them the platform for free.
Zoom also became a lifeline for fostering community at a moment of acute isolation. Sprawling video parties broke out every weekend, including Club Quarantine, a queer virtual Toronto nightclub that blossomed into an international phenomenon. On Saturday nights, stars like Charli XCX and Lady Gaga stopped by to cavort with hundreds of revelers, including those with disabilities who had previously been shut out of nightlife culture. “Accessibility has been a gap in the industry. It wasn’t in the forefront until we were all forced to be online,” Ceréna, a co-founder of Club Quarantine, says.
But while some events moved smoothly to the virtual world, other, weightier ones—like religious ceremonies and funerals—proved more challenging. When Estelle Kaufman, 92, died in San Antonio in July, her grandson Brad and their Jewish temple organized a Zoom memorial service. The service went off without a technical hitch: family and friends from around the country tuned in, reminisced and shared their pain. But Kaufman says their emotions were somewhat dulled, the catharsis shallow. “It seemed hard for some people to get out what they wanted to say, because of the box they were locked in,” he says.
Zoom’s greatest strength—its accessibility—allowed it to be used in a seemingly unlimited variety of ways. But the company’s focus on ease of use soon became its greatest vulnerability. “This is the Silicon Valley way: get to market as fast as you can, make it super user-friendly, and security is an afterthought,” says Patrick Wardle, a security researcher at the software company Jamf.
Because Zoom wasn’t particularly well known pre-pandemic, it hadn’t been extensively targeted by hackers or researchers. But its shortcomings started to become clear in the spring, with alarming headlines piling up by the day: Malicious interlopers, dubbed Zoom-bombers, were crashing meetings or classrooms to deliver lewd, racist or sexist tirades. Zoom was quietly sending data to Facebook without notifying its users. Zoom lied about offering end-to-end encryption, leading to an FTC investigation.
Wardle poked into Zoom’s code and was taken aback at how easily he was able to find two bugs, including one that would allow a hacker to take control of a user’s camera and microphone. Wardle’s findings, published on March 30, contributed to a widespread backlash—Elon Musk banned the use of Zoom at SpaceX, and the New York City public school system nixed its use for remote learning.
CEO Eric Yuan on a video of a recorded Zoom conversationFarah Al Qasimi for TIME
“It was a shocking thing,” Yuan says. “I felt like we were working so hard—so why was there so much bad press?” He apologized profusely and announced he would spend the next 90 days improving the company’s privacy and security. Privately, he reached out to Wardle and other security researchers to ask for guidance. “If you do not listen to them, how can you fix that?” Yuan says.
Night after sleepless night, Yuan stayed up monitoring server functionality and reviewing new security features. He hired prominent security researchers, upgraded the platform’s encryption and expanded its bug-bounty program to compensate ethical hackers. The transparency and urgency with which Yuan acted impressed Wardle, who is used to tech companies obfuscating. “Their feet were held to the fire, and they took a really emotionally mature response,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest lingering issue is censorship. In June, following pressure from the Chinese government, Zoom suspended the accounts of three activists who had planned a remembrance of Tiananmen Square. Having already faced scrutiny for its use of servers and developers in China, the company felt a significant backlash. Yuan reversed course, apologized and severely limited Zoom access in mainland China. But the damage was done. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley insinuated Yuan held a torn national allegiance between the U.S. and China, an accusation that pained Yuan. “I’m a Chinese American. Zoom is a proud American company. That’s a fact,” he says, his voice rising.
Still, censorship remains the dilemma that faces any nominally global platform operating at the pleasure of national governments that define free speech their way. “If someone tells us, ‘There’s a terrorist group identified by our government,’ then we are going to shut them down,” Yuan says.
In November, when Pfizer announced the initial results of its vaccine, Yuan’s net worth plunged $5 billion as investors cast doubt on Zoom’s post-pandemic relevance. The news came as a relief to Yuan: he hasn’t much cared for the notoriety or the unpredictability this year has brought him. “I still want to go back to the product side—that’s my strength, not as a public figure,” he says. “I just do not enjoy that.”
But it doesn’t seem as if Zoom will shift into the slow lane anytime soon. At the end of November, Zoom’s revenue had hit $777 million, up 367% from last year; it now boasts 433,700 paying subscribers with more than 10 employees, a 63% increase from just six months ago at the height of the first wave. Companies are increasingly willing to forgo costly office space and hire employees regardless of location. According to the U.S. research firm Gartner, only a quarter of workplace meetings will take place in person by 2024, signaling a hybrid work future.
The continued proliferation of video calling comes with plenty of concerns. While productivity has held, mental health has slipped worldwide; many users are complaining about “Zoom fatigue,” in which constant video calls exacerbate burnout and exhaustion. The calls can highlight disparities among participants, severely disadvantaging those with crowded or chaotic home situations or limited access to the Internet. At the same time, these new modes of communication have widened the gap between white collar workers and the essential workers forced to risk contracting the virus every day they report to their in-person jobs.
But there are ways that a new Zoom reality could also break down long-standing norms. Zoom offers the potential to reset hierarchical workplace dynamics (when everyone’s on the same screen, there’s no corner office). It cuts down on needless business flights. Studies have shown how increased flexibility positively impacts women in the workplace, particularly mothers with newborns.
Whether or not Zoom ushers in a more equitable future, there are few who will be able to forget the first year spent on the platform. The McCabes, healthy and at home, are looking forward to showing Emberly Anne the Zoom video of her birth 10 years from now. “To live in this world we do with the tech we have, we got really lucky,” Roxanne says. Zoom was not what we imagined for the year, but it’s the best we had—and it held us together, one flickering call at a time. —With reporting by Charlie Campbell/Shanghai and Billy Perrigo/London
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