The cool, crisp fall weather, the smell of roasting turkey, the prospect of soft, silky pumpkin pie, and a chance to be with family are the usual harbingers of Thanksgiving in America. In pre-pandemic times, these things indicated that it was time to kick back and get into the holiday spirit. Of course, this is 2020, and nothing is like it was before.
Yesterday, when signing off from our weekly partners’ meeting, I thanked everyone for being a constant presence in my life over the past ten months, even if it was just as a rectangle on a screen — or better yet, especially so. After all, that was the closest we could responsibly get to each other as society felt its way through this pandemic-sized disaster. To the extent that we have been able to make any progress, a lot of it was thanks to Zoom. Yes, we may use FaceTime with our family. But mostly, we’ve been using Zoom.
So, on my list of things to be thankful for this year, I’m putting Zoom right at the top. Forget the company and its double-speak and weak security. Forget the obvious problems. Forget the stock. For many, Zoom has been the piece of the proverbial driftwood we needed to hold on to in this year’s choppy seas.
Its prominence in our present also tells us a bit about what’s to come.
Zoom is not just a service. It is a kick-starter for our mostly visual future, where reality, screens, and software seamlessly blend together. It has helped enable the idea of vanishing borders, an idea floated by my friend Pip Coburn. The borders we created around physical spaces — schools, conference halls, office buildings, doctors’ offices — are all now ephemeral lines in the sand.
For as long as I can remember, companies have been trying to build and sell elaborate and expensive video conferencing systems with massive screens, near-perfect audio, super high-definition video, and complex networking software layer to make it all work. These were luxury items, geared toward chief executives and their offices.
The arrival of the pandemic forced us all to seek out the simplest product with the least amount of friction. That turned out to be Zoom. And almost overnight, everyone — from late-night television hosts to the presidential candidates — was Zooming.
The prevalence of Zoom has shown us that working from a home office can be better than sitting in traffic for two hours. Even if, at this point, we find ourselves despising Zoom and complaining of persistent Zoom fatigue, we will not be going back to our pre-Zoom ways after the pandemic subsides. Whether Zoom remains the standard or gets overtaken by some upstart, Bill Gates predicts “that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away.”
So, while we absolutely should be thankful for the way in which Zoom has helped us maintain some semblance of connection and productivity throughout 2020, we must also take a hard look at the many pressing needs this experience has uncovered. These issues will have to be dealt with — and soon.
Already a necessity, broadband access is going to become ever more crucial for participating in society. OpenVault, a company that provides broadband software and tracks Internet usage pointed out that an “average US home in September used 384 gigabytes of data, up slightly from 380 gigabytes in June, but up 40% from September 2019.” The growth — whether it is driven by people working from home, shopping online, getting on-demand delivery, or cord-cutting — indicated that the future got here in a hurry.
Earlier this month, Leichtman Research reported that “the largest cable and wireline phone providers in the U.S. — representing about 96% of the market — acquired about 1,530,000 net additional broadband Internet subscribers in 3Q 2020.” In the trailing twelve months, these companies added 4.56 million subscribers, which represents “the most broadband net adds in a year since 3Q 2008-2Q 2009.”
Shifts this significant have permanent ramifications. We should cast aside any belief that we will return to our previous understanding of normalcy. Many people have tasted the future, and despite its challenges, they seem to like what they have seen.
This is why we need to rethink universal connectivity. We need to view the future from the lens of video and visual interactions, and that is why it is important that every American, regardless of their place on the economic ladder, is connected via broadband.
Research by Michigan State University’s Quello Center shows that, if students have slower connections or no connections, they start to fall behind in homework, as well as the development of necessary digital skills. This has a long-term effect on their ability to attend college and earn a living in the future.
And we have gaping holes. It might surprise you, that 9% of students in rural areas, 6% in small towns, 4% in suburbs, and 5% in cities have no Internet access at all. I don’t know about you, but the image of kids sitting in the parking lots of popular fast-food restaurants logging into their classes because they don’t have an Internet connection at home is not acceptable to me.
Zoom is now part of the cultural zeitgeist. It has trained us to think in terms of work on video, which has fundamentally altered our work habits and expectations.
Whether it is sales calls or conferences or post-Thanksgiving get-togethers, Zoom has changed the meaning of events. We celebrate birthdays on Zoom. I do crosswords on Zoom. And like a rapidly growing number of people, I use it for calls with my doctors.
Zoom’s impact on how we work is frequently discussed, but to me, there are two other particular areas where Zoom is going to have a sustained and consistent impact: Medicine and education.
Telehealth has been discussed since the turn of the century, and nothing has come of it for the longest time. Thomas DelBanco, the John F. Keane & Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in an interview pointed out that, prior to the pandemic, less than 8% of care was remote. Today that number stands at 95%. “There are times when doctors, nurses, or therapists really need to see you — no question about it,” DelBanco said. “But there are also times when they really don’t.”
“Behavior change is the biggest barrier to progress in any industry, and it has been particularly challenging in healthcare,” said Annie Lamont, co-founder and managing partner of Oak HC/FT, a venture-capital firm spun out Oak Investment Partners said in a conversation with McKinsey. “There is no doubt that the patient-provider experience during the past several months has accelerated virtual models of care by five to ten years.” For instance, she expects home care “to be dramatically impacted.”
In time, better tools will emerge to enable telehealth. We are going to overcome the patchwork solutions that have been put in place, and who knows, we might see a specialized version of a Zoom-like service in the future become as popular as Zoom itself.
In the education arena, Zoom has exposed kids to the idea of screen-based learning. A whole generation of kids has now been forced to go to school on “video.” Attending classes online will be as normal for them as touching the screen and talking to Alexa. At the same time, more people have been acclimated to the idea of on-demand media, both visual and auditory.
We have seen this sort of thing happen before. Take Google, for example. In a perfect confluence of events, Google’s simple and elegant search engine launched just as the demand for broadband started to grow. That made it easy to search and find things on the Internet. It helped that Google’s results were faster, better, and cleaner than those of, say, Yahoo or Excite.
And over the course of a decade or so, Google changed our behavior (and cashed-in big while doing so). No more trying to save bookmarks or remembering things. Google started augmenting our memory, and now it is the most perfect crutch. Google is a habit.
Nir Eyal, the author of the seminal book Hooked, describes habit as “an impulse to act on a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Eyal also warns that “products that require a high degree of behavior change are doomed to fail.” Viewed from a different perspective, behaviors that change with minimal friction tend to become sticky and become habits. That is a good lens to view the current pandemic. The shift in our behaviors and how we interact with retail outlets, restaurants, and transportation have evolved as a result of this persistent use of the network.
Search as an internet behavior led to the rise of what we Silicon Valley insiders used to call “the vertical search engines.” Most of them failed, mostly because they tried to mimic Google and its interface. Others became giants in their own right. For instance, searching for homes is why Zillow is so massive. Searching for airline tickets created another opportunity. Searching for cars and deals, another opportunity. None of these engines looked like Google, but they benefited from the Google-created habit of searching on the Internet.
As I attempt to peer into the future, I am not saying Zoom is going to be the next Google. For one thing, its interface is limited. It’s still mostly good for business calls. But it has established this generalized behavior of using video calls for everything. I wonder what the new vertical uses of Zoom will be. Will there be a modular, interactive, and customized learning process that merges the idea of Zoom-interface with Netflix-like on-demand capabilities? What about different platforms for allowing us to constantly upgrade our abilities?
Today, to keep up with the rapidly changing world of technology, I turn to lectures on YouTube, online courses offered by colleges and universities. I can’t help but think of the future where, in order to become or remain employed, one needs to keep constantly upgrading skills. As Issac Asimov said, ”Education is not something you can finish.”
Does this mean our education system has to evolve? Do colleges start evolving into a different kind of teaching environment? This need to upgrade skills is an opportunity. Those that help facilitate easy learning platforms, for example, will have a big role to play. I will be keenly following the fortunes of new companies such as Udemy co-founder Gagan Biyani’s new company and SuperPeer. Many more are waiting in the wings.
Of course, like all rapid changes, we don’t know the full extent of the problems ahead or how to address them all. For instance, we are working longer hours despite not commuting. We are dealing with mental health challenges that come with working from home and less human interaction. We don’t know exactly where to put the line between the private and the public. But these changes will eventually be tackled.
What is more challenging is the divide between those who can live in the future and those who are already being left behind. The current change works for those who have jobs that can accommodate it and those who have network connectivity. But it is not working for those who are disconnected, and it threatens to leave them permanently stuck in the past. We can’t afford to do that. Connectivity is part of building a better future. It is part of our resilience. I think about this divide all the time.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be thankful for Zoom — especially today!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
November 25, 2020, San Francisco