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Microsoft, Cisco chase Zoom on virtual breakout rooms

Zoom is once again out ahead on features with its support for virtual breakout rooms. Microsoft and Cisco are trying to catch up.

Microsoft and Cisco plan to add virtual breakout rooms to their video conferencing platforms, but neither will say when it will add the feature that has been popular with Zoom users for years.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased demand for breakout rooms. The feature lets a meeting host divide attendees into small groups. The parties meet separately and then return to the full session.

The feature is essential for teachers and professors. Customers from other industries have also been imploring Microsoft and Cisco to add virtual breakout rooms in recent weeks.

For example, the tool would help facilitate discussion during training and professional development sessions, said Gemma Paterson, head of development experiences and innovation at a financial services firm.

"I'm looking to use breakout rooms to enrich virtual learning sessions," she said.

Microsoft said in April that it had made developing breakout rooms a priority. But the company has not provided a timeline for when it will be available in Microsoft Teams.

In a statement for this story, Cisco said it would add breakout rooms to Webex Meetings "in the near term." The vendor already supports breakout rooms in Webex Training, its premium online learning platform.

More than 9,000 people on Microsoft's feedback forum for Teams have said they want the feature, making it one of the most popular requests.

With virtual breakout rooms, Zoom is once again ahead of the competition. Zoom has also led rivals on virtual backgrounds, a feature that Cisco still does not support on the Webex desktop app.

Zoom also lets users view more video feeds on a single screen than Teams and Webex do. Zoom has a 7x7 grid, while Webex has a 5x5 grid and Teams 3x3.

Zoom's robust feature set helped the company gain users at a record clip during the pandemic. A recent Wainhouse Research survey of 222 companies found that Zoom benefited the most from the shift to remote working.

Before the pandemic hit, 61% of those businesses used Microsoft Office 365 (which includes Teams), 49% used Webex and 30% used Zoom. Now, 66% use Office 365, 59% use Webex and 57% use Zoom.

That represents 8% growth for Office 365, 20% growth for Webex and 90% growth for Zoom.

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