Alexei Kuzovkin on the growing popularity of online services during lockdown

Alexei Kuzovkin discusses the growing popularity of online services during the lockdown.

Alexei Kuzovkin is director general of Infosoft, a member of the security technology working group at the Russian Association of Cryptoindustry and Blockchain (RACIB) and former chairman of the board of Armada group. In this article, he discusses the growing popularity of online services during the lockdown.

The COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history not for its global scale but for the tectonic shifts it unleashed in the world economy. Never before in history had so many people – literally hundreds of millions – switched to working from home all at once. Only a year ago, or even more recently, such a "migration" would have seemed impossible, or at least nothing suggested that it could happen. Now it's our daily reality. Moreover, many of the changes are here for good, and there will be no going back to the way things were.

Remote networking solutions have a special role to play in the current situation. What used to be merely convenient tools are now the cornerstone of the world economy and perhaps the only thing keeping it from collapsing entirely.

If you think about it, it was online services that kept classes going in schools and universities, and allowed people, businesses and government agencies to work with one another – how well is a separate matter. Finally, online services, and primarily videoconferencing tools, have enabled people quarantining at home to stay in touch, even if it's no substitute for our social lives before the pandemic.

Understandably, online service platforms became hugely popular, led by Zoom that all of a sudden emerged as the de facto gold standard for multi-user videoconferences. According to the latest data, Zoom's market cap reached $48.78 billion, exceeding the combined market value of the world's seven largest airlines at $46.21 billion. Who could have imagined this just six months ago?

Zoom was already quite popular in December 2019 with about 10 million daily users. By April, the number had surged 30-fold to reach 300 million. Clearly, what was bad for the world has been quite good for the company.

But that growth has come at a price. The more popular a service gets, the more bad actors it attracts. It did not take long for Zoom to run into numerous cyber security and privacy issues. There were also the typical growing pains. With the number of users increasing exponentially, Zoom's systems came under severe strain, causing multiple incident reports, from disruptive intrusions known as Zoombombing to exploiting the platform's vulnerabilities to compromise user systems, and other threats. Zoom will have to invest heavily in solutions to these problems.

However, Zoom is only one of the many examples of newly popular online services.

Google Classroom and the videoconferencing service built into Google Hangouts also saw an increase in user numbers, although less than Zoom. Numbers improved for Microsoft Teams as well.

Demand for VPN services and other traffic protection solutions naturally increased. In fact, VPN providers were among the main beneficiaries of the pandemic, as cynical as it may sound.

The growth in telemedicine services in the United States and Europe since March has been considerable. The main challenge medical providers faced in this regard was the lack of medical professionals ready to provide services remotely.

Online food delivery services have reported a substantial rise in orders, to an extent that in the United States, Uber is seeking to buy the order and delivery platform Grubhub. If this deal materializes, Uber will become a major player in yet another market. Clearly, this sector has reached incredible heights. That being said, analysts forecasted that by the end of 2020 it will be a $111.32 billion global market, which is not that much higher compared to 2019, when the market totaled $107.44 billion. The economic downturn everyone is expecting will cap the growth of food delivery services, analysts believe.

The entertainment segment has been on a roll as well. At a certain stage YouTube had to lower default resolution to 480p, as it struggled to cope with the higher traffic.

Online gaming traffic also surged, partially offsetting the decline in the sports segment, with almost all major events cancelled or postponed indefinitely. The same goes for concerts. Some performances were streamed live, but shows were also hosted directly inside multiplayer gaming worlds, from MineCraft to Fortnite. Entertainment and communication are essential outlets for reducing stress.

With this "new reality" come new rules. User expectations for the stability, speed, performance and security of online services have changed. The response to any signs of underperformance is much swifter.

Incidentally, this happened with some online government services in Russia. Features that were expected to work seamlessly and without interruption in the most critical scenarios failed to live up to the promise. Even more, they sometimes actively caused harm, as if people weren't dealing with enough hardship already. Government officials, facing numerous complaints of crashing software and malfunctioning services and apps, kept releasing upbeat reports on fines collected and inflating app ratings on Google Play and Apple's App Store is an outright mockery. This is unacceptable behavior in principle, and criminal in the midst of a pandemic.

Overall, it is fair to say that when the pandemic subsides, it will still take months for the global economy to recover. And even then, some changes that we saw in the spring of 2020 are here to stay. There is no going back to the way things were. Online services may experience a decline in traffic when the lockdowns are lifted, but they will still be above pre-pandemic levels. Everyone now knows that a lot more can be done remotely than previously thought possible, without necessarily creating risks or excessive losses.

Still, nothing can replace face-to-face human interaction.