As a small-business owner, video conferencing may not have been on your radar in the past, but with the COVID-19 crisis all that has likely changed: You need the ability to meet with employees, customers, suppliers, and others without doing so in person. 

If you are considering video conferencing for the first time, there's no reason to buy a lot of equipment, hire a new IT team, and invest in all the bells and whistles that come with a full-blown video conference platform --especially if you need to be up and running as quickly as possible. Some very good video conferencing systems utilize existing equipment, including desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and an internet connection.

Best-of-class systems let users share screens, chat, exchange and work on files, utilize whiteboards, and broadcast to large groups. Even if those features don't apply right now, they may in the future. That's why scalability is so important. Except for the free video chat options listed below, all the platforms mentioned here come with free to low cost basic options and all the way up to those needed to cover large scale operations.

Here's a quick rundown on some of the best services available, how much they cost, and what they might be able to do for you.

Start With Free Video Chat 

You may already be familiar with video calling via your smartphone. These free mobile apps don't include very much, if anything, in the way of group collaboration, file sharing, or screen sharing. But if being in touch with employees, vendors, and customers is all you require, video chat may be as far as you need to go-- for now at least. 

Google Duo requires no subscription, and works with both iOS and Android devices as well as with Google Chrome browser on desktops and laptops. It can even be installed on Mac OS X. As of March 27, 2020, Duo allows up to 12 participants in a video call at a time. Simply have everyone download the app, sign up with their phone number, and follow simple set up instructions to begin.

Duo optimizes the call quality, even when bandwidth is limited. It switches between cellular and Wi-Fi without dropping the call and features end-to-end encryption, even with group calls, to keep your conversations and company secrets safe.

Facetime, a well-known free Apple video chat app, can also work for small businesses, provided they interface on the iOS platform. Since Facetime only works on Apple computers and devices, it isn't as flexible as Google Duo. However, if your company is all Apple and your video conferencing needs only extend to your employees and others on iOS, Facetime does support group video conferencing with up to 32 people, 20 more than Google Duo.

As with Google Duo, you can Facetime with anyone in your contacts list using an Apple computer or device. Facetime lets you use the front-facing camera to show your face or the back camera to show objects in the room. Facetime also works over both cellular and Wi-Fi, like Google Duo.

Best Scalable Video Conferencing Platforms

If your needs extend beyond talking into more collaborative work--sending and sharing files, viewing screens, access desktops, etc.--then you need a true video conferencing service. The platforms listed below tend to get the highest ratings from tech reviewers like TechRadar, PC Magazine, and ZDNet. Each of these software platforms is scalable, meaning you can start small (and cheap) and grow the platform as your business needs grow. While pricing is easy to compare, features vary greatly once you get past number of participants, number of meetings, and meeting length. 

Zoom Meetings

  • Free version
  • $12.49/host/month or $16.66/host/month* (annual plan)
  • $14.99/host/month or $19.99/host/month* (monthly plan)

* Minimum of 10 hosts

Basic free features: 

  • Up to 100 participants
  • Unlimited 1 to 1 meetings
  • 40-minute limit on group meetings
  • Unlimited meetings
  • Video conferencing
  • Web conferencing
  • Group collaboration
  • Screen sharing

All plans, features, and pricing can be viewed here.

Probably the most popular of the video conferencing platforms, despite some recent concerns about privacy, Zoom Meetings is easy to set up and offers a wide range of scalability. It provides HD video and audio and can support up to 1,000 participants at a time with as many as 49 videos on a single screen. You can save meetings locally or to the cloud and include searchable transcripts if desired. Your employees can collaborate by sharing screens, engage in team chat that includes file sharing, a searchable history, and an up to 10 year archive. The platform works on Mac, Windows, Linus, iOS, and Android and includes desktop and app sharing, whiteboarding, and annotations. Microsoft Outlook and Chrome plugins can be used for scheduling meetings and administration.

Built-in security, which Zoom is beefing up, uses Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and AES 256-bit encryption for both meetings and shared files.

GoToMeeting

  • 14-day free trial (no credit card required)
  • $12/host/month or $16/host/month (annual plan)
  • $14/host/month or $19/host/month (monthly plan)

Basic plan features: 

  • Up to 150 participants
  • Unlimited meetings
  • Unlimited meeting durations
  • Screen Sharing
  • Web Audio
  • Dial in conference line
  • Business messaging
  • Personal meeting room
  • Meeting lock
  • Mobile conferencing including Siri voice commands
  • Workflow integration including Slack launch, Office, and Google calendar plug-ins

All plans, features, and pricing can be viewed here.

GoToMeeting is a longtime standalone web conferencing service that features audio and video conferencing as well as screensharing. It is one of the most mobile-friendly packages on the market. You can set up and start a conference on your smartphone, maximize image quality, and invite participants with one tap.

Security includes SSL encryption, AES-256 bit government grade encryption, SOC-2 certified data centers, HIPAA ready platform, and a risk-based authentication system.

BlueJeans Meetings

  • 7-day free trial (no credit card required)
  • $9.99/host/month or $13.99/host/month (annual plan)
  • $12.49/host/month or $17.49/host/month (monthly plan)

Basic plan features: 

  • Up to 50 participants
  • Unlimited 1:1 meetings
  • Unlimited group meetings
  • Unlimited meeting duration
  • 5-hour meeting recording/host
  • Meeting highlights
  • Action item tags
  • Intelligent recaps
  • Video conferencing including Dolby Voice and HD Video
  • Web conferencing including whiteboarding
  • Mobile conferencing including iOS and Android screen sharing

All plans, features, and pricing can be viewed here.

BlueJeans is a cloud-based video conferencing platform that works best if you just need to meet, whiteboard, and screenshare. The Dolby Voice audio is particularly effective when it comes to audio clarity. BlueJeans has all the necessary features and is compatible with multiple operating systems and browsers including Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, & Android, Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, & Opera.

Security features include random meeting IDs and passcodes, meeting lock and participant removal, fraud detection, and AES 256-bit encryption.

Google Meet

  • 14-day free trial (requires credit card)
  • $6/host/month or $12/host/month or $25/host/month

Basic features:

  • Up to 100 participants (250 until Sept. 30, 2020)
  • Native apps for Android and iOS
  • Presentations
  • Screen sharing
  • External participants
  • Dial in both U.S. and international numbers
  • Record and save meetings (until Sept. 30, 2020)
  • Live streaming (until Sept. 30, 2020)

All plans, features, and pricing can be viewed here.

Google Meet (formerly Google Hangouts Meet) is part of the G Suite office productivity platform and, like G Suite, is a web-based experience requiring no software downloads except for iOS and Android apps for the mobile part of the platform.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Google has made some features normally reserved for its high-end Enterprise platform customers available to all G Suite customers. The features include up to 250 participants per call, live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers per domain, and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive. The additional features will be available until September 30, 2020.

In addition to the web experience and dedicated mobile apps, Google Meet also works with existing conferencing hardware so long as it follows SIP and H.323 standards for Skype for Business users. The ability to use data from the G Suite platform makes collaboration and calendar-sharing easy.

Security protocols include encryption, counter-abuse measures, secure deployment access controls, and incident response, all outlined in detail here.

Beginning in May and rolling out over several weeks, anyone with an email address can sign up for a free if slightly scaled-down version of Google Meet without subscribing to G Suite. Available features will include simple scheduling and screen sharing, real-time captions, and layouts that adapt to your preference, including an expanded tiled view. You can sign up to be notified when Meet is available and also sign up for a free Google account here

Microsoft Teams

  • Free (no credit card required)
  • $5.00/host/month or $12.50/host/month (annual plan)
  • $6.00/host/month or $15.00/host/month (monthly plan)

Free features

  • Unlimited participants
  • Unlimited chat and search
  • Unlimited group or 1:1 audio or video calling
  • Screen sharing
  • Background blur
  • 10 GB of team storage
  • 2 GB of file storage per user
  • Real-time collaboration with web-based Office apps
  • No end date for this offer

All plans, features, and pricing can be viewed here.

As a direct response to COVID-19, Microsoft announced on March 5 that it would make Microsoft Teams unlimited and free with no end date. Free means free. You are not required to subscribe to Office 365 (soon to become Microsoft 365) in order to use the features included in the free version of Microsoft Teams. In fact, you get access to web versions of several Office products including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You can, of course, sign up for one of the paid business or enterprise versions and get full use of all Office apps. If you are used to the Microsoft brand, the switch might be an easy one. If not, there is a learning curve and you will have to master it to take full advantage of this high-powered package.

Security on the free version includes data encryption at rest and in transit. Paid versions add single sign-on to all apps and services, multifactor authentication, and advanced auditing and reporting.