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Webex chases Zoom, Microsoft Teams on virtual backgrounds

Cisco has promised users virtual backgrounds are coming to the Webex desktop app. Customers are calling for the feature that's already in the desktop versions of Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Users are scolding Cisco over the Webex desktop app's lack of support for virtual backgrounds. The feature is already available in the desktop versions of Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Cisco plans to support virtual backgrounds on desktop eventually but hasn't said when the feature will launch. The setting lets meeting attendees select images to display behind them as if they were in front of a green screen.

Users value virtual backgrounds because they keep colleagues from seeing their private homes. The feature can also enliven meetings as coworkers compete to see who can find the funniest backdrop.

"I'd like it primarily for the fun, but also for the times that I might have left a closet open," said Jon Hovland, a Webex user and software engineer. The feature would also prevent people from snooping on a whiteboard inadvertently left in view, he said.

Cisco supports virtual backgrounds in its iOS app for Apple mobile devices and on the Webex Desk Pro, a high-end touchscreen display. But that's not good enough for some users.

T.J. Jankun-Kelly, associate professor of computer science at Mississippi State University, uses Webex for online instruction. He wants virtual backgrounds because he and his students do much of their work on desktops. 

"Virtual backgrounds are good for levity … anything to keep students engaged in an online setting is a plus," Jankun-Kelly said.

Cisco trails its rivals Zoom and Microsoft on the desktop. Zoom has supported virtual backgrounds on PCs (and mobile) for years, and Microsoft added the feature to Microsoft Teams' desktop app this month.

However, Microsoft still lacks virtual backgrounds on mobile. It also restricts backdrops in Teams to a catalog of curated images. In May, Microsoft will let users upload any picture they want.

Zoom has led the way on virtual backgrounds. Its first version, launched in 2016, required a green screen. The vendor eliminated the need for that prop in early 2019. Most recently, Zoom expanded the capability to include video backgrounds on the desktop.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are using video conferencing apps to stay connected with colleagues, family and friends. Microsoft, Zoom and Cisco have all reported massive spikes in traffic. 

Virtual backgrounds are more important than ever before because people are conducting video meetings from home. The feature can keep colleagues from seeing unmade beds and untidy kitchens. 

The sudden spike in remote work has made feature disparities between different video conferencing apps more apparent.

For example, Microsoft Teams users have been imploring the vendor to show more video panels in meetings. Microsoft will soon display up to nine video streams at once, but Webex shows up to 25 and Zoom displays as many as 49.

Microsoft is also taking steps to give IT admins more control over external guests in meetings. The move comes after Zoom altered its security settings to prevent uninvited guests from crashing meetings, a trend known as "Zoombombing."

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