Why Programmable Video Conferences Are Kind Of A Big Deal

Daniel Kaplan | Product Marketing

May 16, 2022

This is a story of how the source of value in video conferencing shifts from “who has the expertise necessary to scale this tech?” to “who builds the most original, interesting, and valuable real time apps and experiences around it?”

What will you create?

High Fidelity Video Conferencing: Where Only Giants Dared to Roam

Until a little over 10 year ago, the story of high-fidelity video conferencing for businesses had been handful of sophisticated, expensive video conferencing products from traditional enterprise software vendors.

Think:

  • On-premise servers with hardware specs optimized to process and render multiple video and audio feeds…
  • Hardware and software interfaces for cameras and microphones from a variety of brands...
  • Back-end software that runs the servers and integrates the output from those cameras and microphones in near-real time into multiple videos with synchronized audio…
  • Front-end software that presents all of it to every meeting participant with low-enough latency that people sitting in video-enabled conference rooms around the planet can have a coherent conversation.
  • Ecosystems of integration partners equipped with the skills and infrastructure to manage inventory, and install, configure, and maintain expensive video conferencing machines and A/V equipment.
  • Complex, drawn out sales cycles with lots of ifs, buts, and what-have-yous
  • A maze of possible product configuration options with complicated naming and versioning conventions
  • Similarly maze-like licensing and pricing structures
"Would you prefer XYZ Video Conference Server 500 or XYZ Video Conference Server 800?
We just launched version 5.0, and our teams are working hard to make sure it works with our company’s completely different internet-first video conferencing product in case your company already uses that.
Want to add video recording? You'll want the ABC Recording Appliance, but if you're still on XYZ Video Conference Server 1000 2.1.-2.8, make sure you get ABC Recording Appliance 1.1-2.6. Oh, you also need video and audio quality analytics? ABC's got an appliance for that, too, for an additional $ABC...
By the way, would you prefer a "per meeting" license or an"all you can eat" annual license and maintenance contract?”

And yet: when your company wanted a reliable, HD-quality video conferencing solution so the executive teams in the Dallas, London, Hong Kong, and Berlin offices can sync with their counterparts in the NY HQ for a week without the flights and hotels, who else you gonna call?

Given the cash reserves and sophistication required, companies with expertise and business models in large-scale telecommunications and internet networking tended to have the mix of competences and incentives to pursue leading positions in this game:

Like: Bell Telephone/AT&T early on, Cisco, Citrix, Huawei, and Verizon's acquisition of Blue Jeans Networks more recently.

And for a time, it seemed to work.

The Internet-Native Challengers Show Up To The Party, But…

    In the background of 2011-2018, a set of intersecting, mutually-reinforcing trends were unfolding:

    • The rapid expansion of "video-on-demand" (aka streaming) apps like Netflix and YouTube gave cloud vendors and ISPs the push and technical experience to deliver huge quantities streaming video
    • Open web standards like Google’s WebRTC emerged to support video conferencing in the browser
    • Smartphones got the cameras and software necessary to record and stream video.
    • Most new laptops came equipped with built-in webcams and microphones.
    • Video calling apps like FaceTime and social video apps like TikTok normalized video as an interpersonal communication medium beyond 1:many broadcasting and occasional Skype sessions
    • In business world, the distinctions between “consumer” and “business” apps were kinda/sorta blurring. 
    • Buzzy, trendy concepts like “consumerization of the Enterprise,” “Bring Your Own Device,” and "Product-Driven Companies" and "Product-Led Growth" were coined to reflect this.

    One of the first sophisticated challenges to the old-guard way of delivering video conferencing came from Google. Its first video meeting app began as a product-line extension to Google Apps for Business (now Google Workspace).

    All that changed when Google's senior leadership team bought into Vic Gundotra's story that Facebook would eventually eat the search market, and the business-focused video chat product got grafted onto the 2011 launch of Google+.

    Around the same time, Microsoft acquired Skype and began to refactor the peer-to-peer internet telephone into a centralized unified communication application with group video conferencing features. 

    Perhaps detecting the challenge, the leading players in the on-prem video conferencing game responded to the challenge by building or acquiring "Internet-Only" video conferencing products. But like so many "web-version" product line extensions from companies that derive most of their profits from installed hardware and software, these tended to bundle complicated UX into less powerful and feature-poor products.

    In the video conferencing market, the on-prem-to-cloud story had a twist.

    In the “classic” cloud storyline (Salesforce for CRM, WorkDay for HR and finance, ServiceNow for IT Service Management (etc), the cloud vendors promise not only more attractive pricing and delivery models than their stodgy hardware-based counterparts but functional advantages, too.

    Yes, you can have:

    • A simpler "per seat" pricing model 
    • A more tax-friendly accounting option of shifting enterprise software purchases from CapEx to OpEx
    • Regular improvements that don't require a professional services team to show up with CD-ROMs or new hardware appliances to install.

    But that’s not all (went the pitch)! You also got more valuable features that only the new "on-demand" applications and their managed server farms could deliver! CRM software was on demand through a web browser. Better pipeline reporting was on demand. A more effective sales process with larger commissions for everyone involved, also on demand? 

    That was the implication.

    For reasons we may explore in greater depth in future posts, the initial video conferencing products built for the cloud weren't quite like that. Yes, the first wave offered the classic advantages of convenience, simpler pricing, speed-to-market, and more intuitive interfaces. But on many of the most important axes for the technology in question, they were meaningfully inferior to their on-premises counterparts.

    You might see a startup offering simple online games + video conferencing so players could see their counterparts across the virtual poker or chess tables. Or more user friendly webinar software with a range of pre-built integrations with popular marketing automation and CRM apps. 

    The founders would often find that as soon as their customer base started to scale, their video conferencing features did not. Some would fold right then. Others would invest years of technical and financial resources addressing the video conferencing scale challenge, taking focus and engineering efforts away from improving their core products.

    Even companies with a deep bench of world-class technical competence and some of the most sophisticated cloud infrastructure on the planet (Google, Microsoft, Amazon) delivered video conferencing products that (relative to their on-prem counterparts) were janky and hard or impossible to integrate with other apps.

    Video and audio quality tended to be spotty at best, and often unusable. Many of the apps simply crashed a lot of the time.

      While one might ague this was the classic “disruptive innovation” storyline, it’s not obvious this mental model applies cleanly to the early versions of internet-native video conference tech for the simple reason that many of the early apps were non-functional at the basic goal of facilitating communication over video.

      This was not for lack of technical brilliance. The whole ecosystem of necessary technologies: video compression standards, web browsers, media streaming protocols, the public cloud hardware and software stacks, smartphones and laptop CPUs and GPUs, even the broadband infrastructure itself had to evolve.

      Video Conferencing use cases tended to be "proven" tactical apps

      Given the technical challenges and business risks, the products built around video conferencing tech tended to cluster around relatively low risk, “established” use cases:

      • Webinars
      • Online Meetings
      • Remote Desktop/Screen Sharing
      • Basic video calls

      As the Google's WebRTC initiative evolved and more software developers integrated the know-how necessary, the use cases for video conferencing expanded:

      • Telemedicine
      • Virtual classrooms
      • Online fitness studios
      • Virtual events
      • Video communication add-ons to social networking, gaming and online dating apps

      All of these use cases existed before COVID, but COVID catapulted them across the proverbial chasm between the “early adopter/pioneer” segments into the early mainstream way faster than nearly anyone tracking these markets expected.

      Many companies pursuing these new opportunities had rolled their own video conferencing tech and ran into the same thorny thicket of technical challenges as their earlier counterparts:

      • Maintaining audio and video quality when every participant may have different devices and have internet connections ranging from a 2mbps mobile connection to a gigabit fiber line.
      • Optimizing bandwidth and CPU consumption so participants didn’t bring their local networks to a crawl while devouring battery life on their mobile devices.
      • Reducing latency/lag so the experience was palatable
      • Ensuring the WebRTC video stuff didn’t break at scale

      As before, the teams building video conferencing features into more sophisticated products had to invest substantial resources building, scaling, and maintaining the video infrastructure instead of more unique and original forms of innovation.

      Into this context zoomed Zoom, but with a catch…

      Zoom's origin story would be an ironic fable if the basic outlines weren’t a cliché about innovation at big companies: The founder and CEO of Zoom had been a VP at Cisco when he came up with the notion of a much simpler and more user-friendly video meeting app built on AWS.

      He pitched the concept to his colleagues and SVPs, who told him WebEx was just fine, thank you. So he left Cisco and went on to build the product that would turn Cisco's video meeting offerings from "clear market leader" into "software some of us used to use before Zoom came along."

      Relative to WebEx, MS Teams (née Skype), Google Meet (originally: Hangouts), and the on-prem market players, Zoom had obvious, dramatic advantages in usability, simplicity of pricing, and reliability. What the app lacked in customizability, flexibility and options for deep integrations into websites, apps, and business workflows, Zoom made up for with video conferencing tech that actually worked most of the time.

      Also, its UI was simple enough that even tech-shy people over 50 and 60 could figure it out for themselves after 1-2 calls to their children for IT support. But there was a catch:

      But after COVID-fueled necessity skyrocketed Zoom’s adoption in the enterprise, the constraints of its technical architecture and its roots as a downloadable video meeting and webinar app started revealing themselves.

      Sure, Zoom’s talented and well-resourced technical team could add the “enterprise-y” features like single sign on and LDAP support. Sure, they could attempt to make the core app into a “platform." But the Zoom Platform would inevitably seem bolted on…a collection of apps that could natively generate links to open meetings in Zoom rather than apps with Zoom-like capabilities embedded into them.

      If an entrepreneur pioneering a new vision for healthcare, education, fitness, entertainment, or digital commerce wanted to integrate Zoom’s capabilities deeply into her own app or build sophisticated (even unprecedented!) new experiences around them? She would find her design options highly constrained. 

      Software developers tasked with the integration work would find Zoom’s available “embeddable” functionality hard to use, heavyweight, and a meager shadow of the native Zoom app.

      Likewise: If a forward-thinking product leader inside a larger company perceived the opportunity in “video-first” sales, customer support, recruiting, and internal training and tried sculpting their vision around MS Teams, Google Meet, or WebEx? Fuggedaboutit.

      Stated bluntly, the mainstream options in video conferencing tech do not make it easy or economical to integrate video conferencing capabilities deeply into web and mobile apps. And while there are a couple of players offering WebRTC video and audio conferencing tools to developers, their offerings tend to begin and end there.

      Building a bridge that can span:

      • The old-school means of connecting with customers, partners, prospects, recruiting candidates, and fans (phone calls, text messages, social media)...
      • The currently new and exciting channels (real time interactive video and audio)...
      • And the immersive computing interfaces glimmering on the horizon (AR and VR)...

      ...has been something science fiction authors could write about and pioneering visionary types might dream about, but lacked the tools to actually materialize. At least: without the cash reserves, risk tolerance, and vision to invest in a decade or more of R&D ahead of launching a product.

      All that changes today.


      Introducing Programmable Video Conferences: Embeddable, Extensible Video Conferences That Get Better All The Time

      Programmable Video Conferences walk the delicate balance between the ease of use and efficiency of “low-code” embeds, the flexibility and customizability of a well-crafted API, and the "automagically" improving features of SaaS. 

      With a simple visual builder that does not require writing any code yourself, you can

      • Set optional start and end times for the video conference
      • Set the video quality (720p-1080p)
      • Choose the maximum number of simultaneous participants with video and audio turned on (20-300)
      • Toggle automatic recording on and off
      • Customize the colors and UI controls to match your branding.
      • Add participant lists
      • Generate invite links to join the conference even before it’s embedded
      • Turn on “Live Previews” to sample the activity in the conference before joining.

      It's easy enough that one of our copywriters with zero coding experience embedded a video conference into Wordpress and then used Google Mediapipe to add background blur effects.

      Unlike standard "embeddable" products that limit your customization options to the WYSIWYG UI, Programmable Video Conferences empower you to write your own code around the embeds and create new features or build entirely new capabilities around them.

      Like:

      • Leveraging other company’s APIs to integrate new features (like user auth/SSO with Auth0, pay gates with Stripe, contact forms and lead-gen forms, etc)
      • Sending data to and from third party apps (like CRMs, LMS, e-commerce back-ends, EMRs)
      • Integrating real time natural language processing and machine vision capabilities
      • Customizing the UI.
      • Whatever you can imagine and build with code.

      As we roll out new features, these become available to every Programmable Video Conference you’ve embedded that same day, with minimal or no new development on your part required.

      So over the rest of the year, when we ship built-in chat, SIP and traditional telecom integrations, those are just there, waiting for you to build new capabilities around them.

      The back-end benefits of SignalWire's platform also come bundled in:

      • The years of WebRTC expertise required to navigate firewalls, manage bandwidth, video and audio quality in unpredictable device and connectivity scenarios
      • The dev ops work involved in making internet-native video conferencing work reliably at scale.
      • The telecommunications sophistication necessary to interface WebRTC with arcane telecom protocols, so your video conferences can dial out to and conference in old-school phone numbers, integrate deeply into call centers and existing business phone systems

      Programmable Video Conferences handle all this for you, freeing you to focus on building something unique.

      The gift AND the challenge.

      Programmable Video Conferences point the way to a not-too-distant time when “making video conferencing features that actually work at scale” is no longer an obstacle.

      As the technical and business risks historically involved disappear, the opportunity to prototype, pilot, and launch use cases beyond the “obvious” ones rapidly opens up. Those new doors begin to open. 

      At the same time, in-house WebRTC expertise ceases to be a significant source of competitive advantage in this category. The basic capabilities of Zoom, Google Meet, MS Teams, and WebEx are becoming a commodity. And if the ecosystem of APIs continues its Cambrian-like trajectory over the course of this decade, even the more advanced features will, too

      Real time transcriptions and meeting summaries, translations, sentiment analytics, even 3D avatars cease to become differentiators when they are only an API call away.

      So with the launch of Programmable Video Conferences, the opportunity and the value in video conferencing begins to shift. The story changes from “who has the expertise necessary to scale this tech?” to “who builds the most original, interesting, and valuable real time apps and experiences around it?”

      We’ll ask again:

      What will you create?