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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 14 Issue 3
March 2020
Zoom.us: How to Join or Host an Online Meeting


For many years Zoom.us has been a very good choice for online video conferencing. Ever since the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic took hold earlier this year, Zoom's popularity has skyrocketed, especially among schools, companies, and individuals who have turned to the internet for cloud-based ways to hold classes, meetings, social events, and more.

Bear in mind that while this online technology is fun (and sometimes even amazing), there are plenty of simpler ways to hold meetings, including simply talking on the phone with someone 1-on-1, or using conference calls to include multiple people, with no video or internet.

What Zoom and Skype have in common

First released in 2003, Skype was originally a program that permitted people to have audio-only conversations over the internet with reasonable voice quality, even over dial-up connections. As internet speeds improved, video, group conversations, and other features were added. Microsoft later bought Skype in 2011.

The Zoom video conferencing software was first released in 2013 by a company that was founded by an engineer who had left Cisco because he felt that they were no longer interested in continuing to innovate its WebEx online videoconferencing product.

Both products have the following features in common:
  • Software that they recommend you install on your computer,
  • Web-based versions (with fewer features) for users who can't install the software,
  • Apps for smartphones and tablets, including iPhone, iPad, and Android, and
  • The ability for users to talk to each other over the internet using voice, video, and chat (typing textual messages).
However, these two programs are very different, not only regarding what you have to do to get the online conversations started and what features they offer, but also in what they charge.

What's different about Skype

If two people want to start an online conversation on Skype:
  • They each have to create free Skype accounts, choose their unique usernames, known as "Skype names," and install the Skype software (or use the web-based version).
  • If Person A wants to "call" Person B, A needs to find out B's Skype name.
  • Person A then adds B's Skype name to their list of Skype contacts.
  • Once both people are "online," i.e., signed into Skype at the same time, A can then "call" B to start a conversation.
  • During the call, both people have complete control over their audio (voice) and video.
To start a multi-person conversation on Skype, you create a Group call, add each participant (whether they're currently online or not), and then start the call. Any participants who are already online will see an incoming call and can "answer" to join. Others who come online later while the call is still in progress can join. You can have an audio call with up to 50 people for free, but the number of video callers depends on which type of device you're using.

In other words, Skype is designed for people who already know each other to talk online with voice and video, for free.

What's different about Zoom

With Zoom, one person (the Host) can start a new online meeting, or Schedule a meeting to start at a later date and time. Either way, Zoom assigns a unique Meeting ID (a 9- or 10-digit number) and a Password (6 digits). The Host then invites other people to join this meeting by sharing these numbers (or a clickable link containing them) with other people, who can then join the meeting using them. The very first time they will probably be prompted to download and install the Zoom software if they haven't already.

Only the Host needs to have a Zoom account, Participants are not required to create one. The level of the Host's account determines the features of the meeting.
  • If the Host has a free ("Basic") account, they can have a meeting with one other person and the two of them can talk for as long as they want. However, if a Host with a free account has a meeting with a total of 3 or more people, it will be limited to 40 minutes, starting from the moment when the 3rd person joins the meeting. On the other hand, they can have up to 100 people in a meeting.
  • If the Host has a paid account ("Pro" or higher), their meetings can last up to 24 hours and also have up to 100 people; for an additional cost they can have as many as 1,000 people in a meeting.
Here are two common approaches for setting up a meeting, whether it's a class, lecture, workshop, webinar, support group, social event, etc.:
  • For private meetings, the Host could share the Meeting ID and Password with people they already know via phone, email, text message, or an internal company website or messaging system.
  • For public meetings, the Host could publicize it online using a Meetup.com Event, Twitter, their own blog and website, or other social media, requiring people to register in advance. For meetings requiring a fee to attend, the Host could collect it in advance using a variety of methods, including EventBrite, PayPal, a check in the mail, etc. Once enough people have registered, the Host could create a Scheduled meeting, and then send the Meeting ID and Password (or the corresponding link) to everyone in advance or on the day of the meeting.
While people who know each other can certainly use Zoom, it also works well for online meetings where the Participants might naturally include complete strangers.

Being a Participant in a Zoom meeting

In order to be a Participant in a Zoom meeting, here is the minimum that you need to do:
  • Before your very first Meeting, you'll save time by installing the Zoom software on your computer in advance (from the http://zoom.us/download web page). Otherwise, you will be prompted to install the software the first time you Join a Meeting, or if you see the "start from your browser" link you can click that to use the web-based interface.
  • Make sure that your computer speakers are on (unmuted), so you'll be able to hear the other people in a meeting.
  • If you have a laptop with a built-in webcam, open the lid (if it isn't already) so your camera can see you. If you have an external webcam, make sure that it's plugged into your computer (usually into a USB port), and confirm that it's working.
  • The Host (the person running the meeting) should have provided you with information about the meeting, including the date and time that the meeting will start, along with either the Meeting ID and Password, or a link containing those numbers, e.g., http://zoom.us/j/1234567890?pwd=XXX or something similar.
  • A few minutes before the meeting is scheduled to start, either open the Zoom software and click "Join" (which will ask you for those numbers) or click that link. Follow the prompts, clicking "Join with Video" and "Join with Computer Audio" to give the program permission to access your camera and microphone.
  • You should then see a window showing you and the other people in the meeting.
Additional things a Participant should know

I recommend that you also keep the following in mind as a Participant:
  • Lighting: Look at the video image that you are transmitting. Try to eliminate or minimize any lighting "hot spots" by turning off (or turning away) any bright room lights, lamps, outside sunlight, etc. Indirect lighting is best. However, don't make your room completely dark, you'll probably look very blue-colored and creepy.
  • Behind you: If you don't want your camera to show what's behind you, either move those things out of view, or put a standing screen or movable room partition behind you. (If you don't want to visit a store, many are available with free shipping from online retailers.) Zoom also has a "Virtual Backgrounds" feature, where the software figures out which part of your live video is you vs. what's behind you, and replaces it (live in the moment) with either a still image of your choice (like a garden, a painting, or a solid color) or a video (like a moving waterfall, a scene playing from a movie, or a landscape rolling by). This requires either a computer with a modern, fast CPU chip (in order to do the image processing), or a physical "green screen" behind you (like television studios use). In theory you could also create a Virtual background that is just a loop of yourself, smiling and nodding in agreement every few minutes.
  • No account needed: You don't need to create a (free) Zoom account if you're only participating in meetings Hosted by other people.
  • Maximize: Make the meeting window fill your screen so it makes the best use of your screen.
  • Control toolbar: Across the bottom of the meeting window there are buttons that let you control things about the meeting, but once you stop moving your mouse around they disappear after about 2 seconds. If you wave your mouse around, they will reappear. The leftmost icon is the most important: It looks like a microphone and is either labeled "Mute" or "Unmute." If it has a red slash through it, then your microphone is off, and other people in the meeting won't be able to hear you. You might be able to click it to "toggle" between "Mute" and "Unmute," but if that doesn't work, then the meeting's Host has most likely muted everyone.
  • Chat: In addition to being heard through your microphone and being seen via your camera, Zoom meetings also lets you type textual comments that either everyone in the meeting can see, or you can direct a comment only to the Host or a particular Participant.
  • Privacy: During a meeting, only your name, video, audio, and anything you type into the textual Chat are visible to other Participants. When you join a meeting you'll be prompted for a name, which you can also change during the meeting using the Rename function. If you're concerned about your privacy, I suggest that you don't use your full name, or sharing anything about you that might reveal who you are or where you're located.
  • Mirroring: In your video settings, the "Mirror my video" option is probably on by default, which means that when you see yourself, your image will be oriented as if you are looking in a mirror, so if you hold printed material up to your camera, it will look backwards to you. You can turn this option off if you'd like, which will reverse what you see. However, no matter how this option is set on your end, everyone else in your meeting will see you "not mirrored," i.e., if you hold up printed material, everyone in your meeting will see it oriented normally and be able to read it.
  • Screen sharing: If you've got an image or handout or slide to contribute to the meeting (and your meeting Host permits it), you can share your entire screen (or one particular window) with the other Participants in the meeting.
  • The end: When the meeting is over, the Host will end it. If you want to leave early, first wave your mouse around to reveal the meeting control toolbar across the bottom, and then click the red "Leave Meeting" button at the lower right.
  • Speaker volume: If you turned your computer speakers up during a meeting, remember to turn them down again after it's over.
  • There are a lot of options you can use as a meeting Participant, including Recording the meeting, "Touch Up My Appearance," keyboard shortcuts, the ability to call into a meeting with your phone for your audio instead of your computer's microphone, and many more.
Being a Zoom meeting Host

In addition to my advice above about being a meeting Participant, here are the minimum things that you need to do in order to be the Host of a Zoom meeting:
  • You must have a Zoom account, whether free or paid. If you want to have 3 or more people in a meeting (including you) and you want it to run more than 40 minutes, you need to have a paid account.
  • While you can start and run meetings using the web-based interface on the http://zoom.us website, the best approach is to install the Zoom software on your computer from the http://zoom.us/download web page.
  • You will then need to either create a New Meeting (which will start immediately, also known as "Meet Now" or an "Instant Meeting"), or you can Schedule a meeting to start later. Zoom will then give you the Meeting ID (a 9- or 10-digit number) and Password (6 digits).
  • In order for Participants to be able to Join your meeting, they will need those numbers, or a link containing them. The Zoom software has multiple ways for you to compose an invitation to the meeting, including buttons that you can click to copy the information to the Clipboard that you can then paste into an email or other announcement.
Additional things a Host should know

I recommend that you also keep the following in mind as a meeting Host:
  • You don't have to send the Meeting ID and Password right away. You can wait to see how many people are interested, and (for example) wait to send the meeting information until the day of the meeting. Whatever your approach, I recommend stating it clearly in any event description, e.g., "You'll receive the Zoom link the morning of the meeting."
  • As the Host, you have complete control over the meeting, including muting anyone's audio, disabling anyone's video, and even removing people from the meeting if necessary.
  • Once an Instant (non-Scheduled) Meeting is over, the Meeting ID is no longer valid. A Scheduled, non-recurring Meeting can be restarted with the same ID as many times as the Host wants for 30 days. A Scheduled, Recurring Meeting can be restarted an unlimited number of times up to 365 days after the most recent Meeting.
  • If you decide to get a paid Zoom account, you can either pay monthly or get a discount by paying annually. However, according to the "Charges and Cancellations" section of the Terms of Service, if you cancel your subscription (which you can do at any time), your service will continue until the end of the period that you've paid for, so you will not get a pro-rated refund. See http://zoom.us/pricing and http://zoom.us/terms for details.
  • There are a lot of options you can use as a meeting Host, including how to Host meetings with more than 100 people, "Waiting room" (lets you admit Participants into the meeting individually), "Breakout rooms" (lets you split your Participants into smaller groups, and then bring everyone back together again), and many more.
The Chat function and how a Host could use it

The Chat function in particular has many potential uses. While your Participants may use it to type comments during the meeting (to you, to the entire meeting, or to each other), as the Host you can use it as well to interact with them, often more efficiently than taking the time for each person to say something aloud. You could:
  • Survey your Participants: "Can people stay 30 minutes longer than the original ending time? Type yes or no in the Chat," "Sweet or savory pies?" "Who should pay for dinner on a first date?" etc.
  • Encourage people to share information about themselves, including their professions, interests, LinkedIn profiles, contact info, experiences, examples, etc., as appropriate and only if they're comfortable.
  • Ask questions of your Participants ("Who can give me an example of this?" "Should I go into more detail on this, or move on to the next topic?" "What have been your top challenges? Your best silver linings?"), get feedback ("Does this make sense, or am I going too fast?"), and more.
Everyone has the option to save the accumulated Chat log, and you can also send it to everyone after the meeting is over.

Important Zoom options for Hosts and Participants to adjust

I also recommend that you change the following options from their default settings:
  • When you're a Host: There have been a number of reports of Participants disrupting online Zoom meetings by using the Share Screen function to maliciously blast everyone with pornography. This is called "Zoombombing," derived from the term "photobombing." In order to prevent this, I recommend that you adjust your "Screen sharing" settings, changing the "Who can share?" option from the default of "All Participants" to "Host Only," or turning it off entirely.
  • When you're a Participant: Consider turning on the "Always show meeting control toolbar" option (which is off by default), especially if you don't like the behavior that I described above, where the row of important control icons across the bottom of the meeting window disappears 2 seconds after the mouse has stopped moving around, requiring you to move your mouse cursor around to make them reappear.
Both of these settings are not in the Zoom software itself. You'll find them by signing into your account on the http://zoom.us web site, and then going to Personal->Settings->Meeting->In Meeting (Basic) and then scrolling down a little. You may then have to close the Zoom software (or Restart your computer) before changing these settings takes effect.

For more on Zoombombing and other ways to minimize disruptive people, see:
Using Zoom for medical or therapy use

If you're a doctor or therapist and want to use Zoom as a Host for talking with patients online, you should know that:
  • For the regular types of free and paid Zoom accounts -- Basic (free), Pro, Business, and Enterprise -- none are HIPAA-compliant. Only the "Zoom for Healthcare" account is appropriate for medical use, but it is designed for group practices of 10 or more doctors or therapists, and is far too expensive for a solo or small medical practice. For more information, go to http://zoom.us/healthcare or to http://zoom.us and click Solutions->Healthcare.
  • However, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) has announced that they are temporarily suspending enforcement of the HIPAA requirements (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) for telemedicine and telepsychiatry during the COVID-19 pandemic, so medical providers are permitted to use noncompliant online services like Zoom without penalties for now. However, once the crisis is over, the regular HIPAA rules will apply.
For more information, see http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/emergency-preparedness/notification-enforcement-discretion-telehealth/index.html - "Notification of [HIPAA] Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications During the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency"

Benefits of (and issues with) using Zoom

Having participated in a number of Zoom meetings over the past few weeks, here are some things that I've noticed:

  • Zoom is a very mature platform, with many features that are implemented very well.
  • It provides the basics of online audio and video, and has lots of advanced features and options as well.
  • Compared to meeting in person, online meetings can eliminate many issues, including travel to and from the location, parking, traffic, the weather, food considerations, allergens, wheelchair accessibility, whether the room or the seating will be comfortable, the awkwardness of visibly having to leave early, as well as concerns about getting or spreading infections.
  • Depending on the topic and limitations imposed by the Host, in theory many more people can participate online than in person, and they can be located anywhere in the world.
  • While online meetings with video and audio are expedient and avoid any risk of COVID-19 infection, they not the same as meeting people and talking with them in person.
  • Like any other use of technology, problems can come up, including issues with installation, audio (accidental muting of one's speakers or microphone), video (poor lighting, glare, inappropriate things or people visible in the background), and more.
  • The medium-to-high level of technology required (a reasonably recent computer or mobile device, a reasonably high-speed internet connection, etc.) may exclude some people from participating at all.
  • On Microsoft Windows, in order to completely close the Zoom software you have to right-click the little Zoom icon in the notification (or "tray") area of the Taskbar and then click "Exit," or Restart your computer. Simply closing the main window doesn't actually close the program. However, on Macintosh, the Quit command does fully close the program.
Zoom has lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings for free accounts for certain users in certain countries during the COVID-19 crisis

On February 26, 2020, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan posted this announcement: "For our Basic (free) users in China, we've lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings with more than two participants, providing unlimited time to collaborate." He also listed numerous other things that Zoom is doing to support users in China and around the world.

See http://blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/02/26/zoom-commitment-user-support-business-continuity-during-coronavirus-outbreak for more information.

Zoom has also announced that it is temporarily lifting the 40-minute limit for schools with a free (Basic) account in a number of countries during the global COVID-19 pandemic, including Japan, Italy, and by request for K-12 schools in select countries, including the US, Canada, many European countries, Israel, and others around the world. Any school that hasn't already had this limit lifted can submit a request online. For more information and how to apply, see:
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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