Power

Big companies dominate video chat. Meet the startups racing to disrupt them.

As videoconferencing becomes part of everyone's work life, several startups are betting there are better ways to do it.

Whereby

Whereby wants to be "not just be a place for meetings, but a place where people work together," one of the co-founders said.

Photo: Courtesy of Whereby

Videoconferencing has gone from novelty to niche to necessity in record time. But while a handful of tech giants dominate, with Zoom, Google, Facebook, Cisco and Microsoft onboarding huge numbers of new users and scrambling to support new use cases, there's a class of startups coming along with disruption on their mind.

They're betting that video is turning into a commodity, that "I can see you!" won't be impressive for long. And they're trying to take video way beyond meetings.

A few days ago, I set up a meeting with Steve Gottlieb, the CEO of Shindig, a video platform that specializes in large virtual events. Rather than invite me to a meeting, Gottlieb sent me a link to an in-process panel about COVID-19 testing. There were almost 600 people in attendance. A moment after I joined, Gottlieb's face showed up on my screen, and we started a private chat in the middle of the audience of the larger panel.

Shindig's big idea, Gottlieb told me, is that a good video experience for two people is completely different than for 200. And two-person video is basically a solved problem. "The big technical challenge 10 years ago was the fact that there was no standard in the browser, and you had the problems of interoperability between mobile and the operating systems." That's been figured out, thanks to the WebRTC standard and other tech. It's now not much harder to build a half-decent videoconferencing service than to do messaging or email.

Webinars, though? Gottlieb hates webinars. "Events work because they marry the group agenda with the individual agenda. Webinars don't work because they don't. You're going to give your undivided attention and have no agency? Why show up at a particular time and place if it's no different than watching the video?"

The Shindig video platform. Unlike most videoconference services, Shindig is designed specifically with large groups in mind.Photo: Courtesy of Shindig

Shindig's hope is to help define the virtual future of all the conferences getting canceled this year. The service tries to more accurately reflect the experience of an in-person conference: Panelists can easily invite attendees to the virtual stage, or take and share questions. Attendees can start private chats with a couple of clicks, not unlike whispering in the audience or hanging out in the lobby of a real-life convention center. (Remember those?) Even the user interface looks more like a stage and a crowd rather than simply a grid of faces.

Shindig has been around for almost a decade, but Gottlieb senses this is his company's moment. After initially building on Flash, Shindig rebuilt its tech stack, allowing it to handle the huge uptick in users over the past few months. Politicians have used the platform to host interactive town halls, and authors have had book events. Gottlieb told me he's been talking to a bank that might want to pay to stage a number of virtual high school graduations.

"We could bring up each student one after the other to have their moment of acknowledgement with the principal, in front of family, friends and everyone," he said. "And then stream it on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to everyone else."

A second startup, Remotion, has almost the exact opposite idea. Rather than build a virtual event that deserves and rewards your whole attention, Remotion wants to make video as low-key as possible. Alexander Embiricos, one of Remotion's co-founders, described his company's product as a replacement for the casual drop-by chats you might have in a physical office. Lots of video services think this way, but Remotion designed around it: Calls live in a small round window, as if you're chatting through a ship's porthole.

But Embiricos echoes the point that the video isn't even really the thing. "Our thesis is that the reason you don't talk to people frequently when you're remote is because you don't have that team awareness of who's free versus who's heads-down," he said. On top of that, scheduling a video call immediately makes it feel like a meeting. Remotion spent a lot of time working on a sort of status system: Users can mark themselves Away, Around or Open, and can say what app they're currently using or who they're talking to. If someone's Open, all you do is click on their face and start talking.

"Teams are really used to having informal chats that are unscheduled," Embiricos said. "They're not trying to create a new behavior — they're trying to get this behavior back even though they're remote." Leaving a Zoom call on all day might approximate the same thing, he said, but with a much higher psychological (and bandwidth) burden. Remotion mimics some of the dynamics of an office — closing your door to signify you're busy, poking your head into someone's cubicle for a quick chat — through video.

Remotion app The Remotion app tries to make video chat as easy as texting or dropping by someone's cubicle.Photo: Courtesy of Remotion

Remotion only launched its first private alpha test in January, but it sped up its plans as more teams started working from home. In a way, it and Shindig are both trying to create a new type of virtual office culture. The video chat giants have turned remote work into an endless series of meetings; these apps are trying to rebuild the rest of work life in a virtual space.

That brings us to the question of how to work while on video. That's what Ingrid Ødegaard told me her company, Whereby, is thinking about right now. Whereby first found an audience that loved how easy it was to start and join meetings, but now is finding that users want to do more than just chat. "We've had this vision for a while," said Ødegaard, the co-founder and CPTO, "that we want to not just be a place for meetings, but a place where people work together."

Last year Whereby rolled out a feature that let people embed Google docs or Trello boards in the chat and work on them together. Now it's looking at other apps, other integrations, other ways to help people get stuff done in a virtual chat the way they might in a conference room.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


This effort shouldn't be surprising. Because on the flip side, video chat is fast becoming a core feature of productivity tools. Miro, which provides a virtual collaborative whiteboard, offers an integrated video chat for up to 25 people at a time. Taskade, a project management tool, offers a similar feature. You can now video chat inside Airtable, monday.com and many other tools.

The point is, simply enabling video-based conversations won't be enough for long. The next step for Zoom, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco and the rest will be to build on top of video — to make it more fun, more productive, more functional for all the different ways people naturally talk and collaborate. There are billions of dollars up for grabs for whoever can figure it out, and more competition than ever.

The fast-growing paychecks of Big Tech’s biggest names

Tech giants had a huge pandemic, and their execs are getting paid.

TIm Cook received $82 million in stock awards on top of his $3 million salary as Apple's CEO.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tech leaders are making more than ever.

As tech giants thrive amid the pandemic, companies like Meta, Alphabet and Microsoft have continued to pay their leaders accordingly: Big Tech CEO pay is higher than ever. In the coming months, we’ll begin seeing a lot of companies release their executive compensation from the past year as fiscal 2022 begins.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht
Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

COVID-19 accelerated what many CEOs and CTOs have struggled to do for the past decade: It forced organizations to be agile and adjust quickly to change. For all the talk about digital transformation over the past decade, when push came to shove, many organizations realized they had made far less progress than they thought.

Now with the genie of rapid change out of the bottle, we will never go back to accepting slow and steady progress from our organizations. To survive and thrive in times of disruption, you need to build a resilient, adaptable business with systems and processes that will keep you nimble for years to come. An essential part of business agility is responding to change by quickly developing new applications and adapting old ones. IT faces an unprecedented demand for new applications. According to IDC, by 2023, more than 500 million digital applications and services will be developed and deployed — the same number of apps that were developed in the last 40 years.[1]

Keep Reading Show less
Denise Broady, CMO, Appian
Denise oversees the Marketing and Communications organization where she is responsible for accelerating the marketing strategy and brand recognition across the globe. Denise has over 24+ years of experience as a change agent scaling businesses from startups, turnarounds and complex software companies. Prior to Appian, Denise worked at SAP, WorkForce Software, TopTier and Clarkston Group. She is also a two-time published author of “GRC for Dummies” and “Driven to Perform.” Denise holds a double degree in marketing and production and operations from Virginia Tech.

Hybrid work has some distinct advantages when it comes to onboarding.

Photo: LogMeIn

Jo Deal is the chief human resources officer at LogMeIn. She is responsible for leading global people strategy with a focus on attracting, developing and engaging talent.

The desire for change that sprung up during the pandemic resulted in the highest attrition levels in decades and a fierce war for talent playing out in the market. The Great Resignation forced managers to suddenly make hiring their top priority, and recruitment partners became everyone’s best friend as leaders scrambled to replace key roles within their teams.

Keep Reading Show less
Jo Deal
Jo Deal serves as LogMeIn’s Chief Human Resources Officer. She is responsible for leading global people strategy with a focus on attracting, developing and engaging world class talent by expanding LogMeIn’s reputation as one of tech’s most desirable career destinations, and by providing a collaborative learning environment where employees can grow their careers.
Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Entertainment

Peloton’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year

2022 just started, and Peloton has already halted bike production and is talking about mass layoffs. How did the pandemic darling get here?

How did Peloton go from pandemic star to sinking ship? One answer is the classic problem of supply and demand.

Image: Peloton; Protocol

It’s been a hell of a ride for Peloton. The headlines have been practically nonstop, from 2019’s cringey wife ad to 2021’s series of unfortunate “Sex and The City” events. But in 2020, Peloton could do no wrong. The at-home fitness company saw a 172% spike in sales over the course of that year, buoyed by the pandemic forcing wealthy gym-goers to stay home.

But nothing is ever easy or certain when it comes to Peloton. In the past week, Business Insider reported that Peloton is considering laying off 41% of its sales and marketing staff and closing down stores. CNBC learned that the company has hired McKinsey & Co. to help cut costs. And yesterday, CNBC reported that Peloton is temporarily halting production of its bikes. Peloton shares promptly plunged 24%.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Entertainment

Netflix looks to expand gaming with major IP deals, Fortnite-like updates

Remarks made to investors and recent job postings hint at big ambitions for Netflix’s nascent gaming efforts.

Netflix may be taking some cues from games like Fortnite and Apex: Legends for its own video game initiative.

Photo: Cameron Venti/Unsplash

Two months after launching mobile games to all of its members, Netflix is looking to double down on gaming: The company told investors Thursday that it wants to expand its portfolio of games “across both casual and core gaming genres.” Recent job offers suggest that this could include both live services games as well as an expansion to PC and console gaming, and the company's COO hinted at major licensing deals ahead.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories
Bulletins