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.


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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.

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