Our crazy long-haired Hookflash advisers

Our crazy long-haired Hookflash advisers, Cullen Jennings (aka fluffy – Left), Alan Duric (Right). Cullen is the IETF Working Group chair for RTCWEB. Alan is a media genius and co-founded Camino Networks / Sonorit which was acquired by Skype / eBay. Gotta love these guys 🙂

I don’t like phones and I don’t like most phone calls.

I don’t like phones and I don’t like most phone calls.

They’re a primitive Pavlovian mechanism, the bell rings and we respond like a salivating, trained dog. Phones enable anyone at anytime to interrupt whatever pleasurable or productive activity we may have been engaged in.

Frankly, I’m surprised phones have become as pervasive as they are. It’s a testament to the incredible value we place on the ability to communicate with each other. There have been valiant attempts to make the technology somewhat more civilized. Voice mail, so we actually can ignore the damn thing. Call Display, one of the more popular and valuable features; at least I can decide who gets to interrupt me. And a great symbolic response to the worst elements of the technology: the “Do Not Call” list. Pity the plight of the lowest paid, lowest ranking role in many businesses, the under-appreciated receptionist. And what horrible task are they relegated to? Answer the telephone.

To make matters worse, telephone service (that’s an oxymoron) has been delivered by monolithic oligopolies. They manage to make getting a phone line installed or a phone number moved more complex and painful than organic chemistry or getting your teeth drilled. The Brits demonstrate a particular knack for complaint letters as demonstrated below in a missive to a British cable/phone provider:

“I thought British Telecom was crap; that they had attained the holy-pot of god-awful customer relations; and that no one, anywhere, ever, could be more disinterested, less helpful or more obstructive to delivering service to their customers. That’s why I chose NT and because, well, there isn’t anyone else is there? How surprised I therefore was when I discovered to my considerable dissatisfaction and disappointment what a useless shower of bastards you truly are. You are sputum-filled pieces of distended rectum, incompetents of the highest order.

BT — wankers though they are — shine like brilliant beacons of success in the filthy mire of your seemingly limitless inadequacy.”

It’s no wonder a new generation of alternative providers, such as 8×8, RingCentral and CBeyond, became great growth stories in the past decade. What brilliant innovation have they brought us? Using new technology (VoIP) to emulate a terrible model: telephony.

So it comes as no surprise to me that one of the fastest growing, most valuable businesses of the 21st Century is a newer, better alternative to the telephone and phone companies: Skype. Only eight years old with over 660 million users who made over 100 billion free calls.

But I don’t think it’s just free phone calls that made Skype so wildly popular. Video has obviously been one important component. Non-verbal communication cues are often estimated at over 90% of a conversation, and many people simply enjoy “seeing” each other, so the value of getting more than a disembodied voice is apparent but I still think there’s more.

What has often been considered a shortcoming of Skype’s technology – that a Skype session must be scheduled elsewhere – may be one of it’s greatest strengths. Skype gives people back more control over their communications. Maybe a Skype session is actually more like a meeting than a phone call, and maybe that’s why I like it better than phone calls. When I log in to Skype and see the status of my contacts, and they see mine, it feels similar to walking in to the office.

Most of my Skype sessions are scheduled and if someone wants to get on a spontaneous voice or video call, they IM me a note request, “got time for a call?” A subtle but significant difference from simply being interrupted by a phone call. (Remember when they taught us it’s impolite to interrupt in kindergarten?) That overture before the hard interruption is like having a receptionist or Executive Assistant announce “Mr. Smith on line 2.” I can choose whether to take a live call or not, and how I want to talk: text chat, voice, video or some blend. A significant improvement, and one of the reasons that a technology designed and built for consumers continues to be a work tool.

And what is Skype doing to support and grow a new community of business users? Adding new business features and upgrading the user interface for work purposes? No!

Instead Skype is turning back to the 1900s by emulating phone service. So-called “Skype for business” with telephone line trunking to connect to traditional phone equipment and a new consumer ATA (Analog Telephone Adaptor) so we can do what with Skype? Use it as a phone. Hello! We already have phones, but thanks for supporting our bad habits. I’m also not holding my breath that the creators of Windows will bring fabulous innovative progress to Skype.

A number of other significant things have been happening while Skype was showing us a better way to communicate – broadband continued to get better, faster and cheaper; Wi-Fi continues to become more ubiquitous; almost all computers now have cameras and microphones built in; and Apple changed the world by validating the tablet category with the iPad.

The world needs a truly new way to communicate and work together. A way that doesn’t pander to the shortcomings of telecom technology developed in the 1940’s and 50’s, and a way that doesn’t have to “sneak” into the workplace an eight year old consumer technology based on music file sharing to have an easy call, conference call or meeting. That’s why we’re building hookflash – for the way we work today. Stay tuned!

By Trent Johnsen
(revived from the hookflash archives)

The trivialization of place

iPass reported on the mobile workforce in 2010. They predicted “the trivialization of place will increase.” That resonates with our Hookflash experience. From the report:

The New York Times had an interesting article last summer titled “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits.” It turns out that simply alternating the room improves retention. Take this theory and apply it to the workplace, and you have to wonder how effective people are in the office. The office is a distracting place between interruptions and meetings — tons, and tons of meetings. However, working remotely gives employees a change of venue, often removes distractions, and can help them be more productive.

Work is something people do, not a place that they go. We believe that where people work will matter less and less. For numerous reasons from improved productivity to decreased carbon footprint and reduced office expenditure — a workforce that works anywhere, anytime is a boon to business.

This continues Frances Cairncross’s 1997 The Death of Distance theme, where moving bits replaces moving atoms, and changes nearly everything.

As this trend continues in workplaces, three counter-themes rise.

Face-to-face is back. Agile teams know the value of quick “stand-up” status meetings for checking in. Startup Weekend throws strangers together in a big place for 54 straight hours of entrepreneurship. Meetup.com and Plancast are more active than ever. Co-working spaces are popping up in every metro. But the new ‘face time’ is different. We spend less time on small talk, on getting up to speed, because we already know (and can know more about) each other. We share common purpose before we show up at the same spot. And we follow up faster and more often because our social tools provide conduits for continuing the conversation after we part. Our digital experiences make the collocated ones more fruitful. Online is complementing offline, not just replacing it.

Software tools are not even close to modeling the best parts of working together in person. When was the last time you were able to get the “sense of a room” in a conference call? Has any virtual whiteboard offered the experience of standing next to someone, each with markers, drawing out your ideas? We’re still lacking the richness of peripheral vision, of body language, of group dynamics, of visual thinking. One of our goals at Hookflash is to restore some of the natural conversation flow millions lost as we moved out of shared workplaces.

Bad things from offices haunt us. iPass talks about the pain of meetings and mind jolting interruptions. Virtual workplaces come with alert overloads, back-to-back calls, and everyone at work seeing your check-ins and photos. Adults are still defining work/life boundaries and learning to control what we share; sadly, our controls remain primitive. We’re still surviving inbox overload and cultivating less interruptive behavior. We’d thought we’d left Dilbert’s workplace behind. We haven’t. It’s just digital.

That said, more of us are working “remotely” or even at companies without a physical headquarters. This shifts the cost of office space from employers to workers (I miss my living room), makes it harder to be connected with coworkers in the social sense (virtual coffee breaks?), and changes how we organize our time, our teams, and our work. While office space may be less important for many, the challenges posed by the shift to virtual workplace are far from trivial.

P.S. This post was written at a pool hall, my home office and a food court. Where do you work?

Hat tip to Trent Johnsen for the topic and the iPass report.

By Phil Wolff
(revived from the hookflash archives)

RTCWEB / WebRTC video codec debate

There is a storm brewing in the IETF and W3C in relation to video codecs to be included by the browser vendors et al, as part of the proposed RTCWEB standard.

I applaud the recent plea by Dean Willis @dean_willis, who proposed that we agree on a mandatory baseline codec that is not encumbered by royalties or potential IPR issues…

In today’s meeting I made a plea for a mandatory baseline codec that is approachable to the small developer without the cost and IPR risks of either H.264 or VP8.

I believe that some sort of baseline codec is required to jump start the protocol. It’s OK if this isn’t the best possible codec. Market forces will assure that commercial implementations converge on a higher quality when the market requires it.
While I proposed today that H.261 could serve as a baseline, we know this would be “extremely basic”. In other words, it might not pass the “good enough to use” test required for a successful launch.
Stephane and several others suggested H.263 as an alternative during the after-meeting chat. While it is not as IPR-safe a choice as H.261, it is relatively mature and the known challenges have generally failed. Implementations are reasonably available and should make it possible for smaller implementers, students, and hobbyists to play ball. It’s not all that network efficient and is outright piggy at higher resolutions, but it probably works “well enough to use.”
So I propose we set H.263 as the baseline ( I expect a bit of profiling may be necessary to further qualify the baseline) and run with that for now. If the situation changes, we can always replace it before final publication.

The problem I see with this is that H.263 is a lower quality codec and quality is king, especially on new iPads where consumers outlaid a heap of cash. It’s also still not clear if this codec is completely unencumbered of any potential IPR claims.

Although, to Dean’s point, we need to agree on basic codecs in order to get this thing out the door, so he has my vote on that one.

Currently, Google’s webrtc.org project uses the open sourced GIPS code, which includes the ISAC codec for Audio. Google also opened up the IPR on their webm project Video codec, VP8.

VP8 is inline with H.264 in terms of quality and compression (close enough for a discussion here at least). H.264 has clearly defined royalties making it a potentially poor choice for developers looking to deploy a product for free or low cost. The developer could end up handing over most of it’s revenue to the MPEG-LA and associated IPR holders of H.264. Even then it’s not clear when receiving the green light from the visible patent holder that a developer will be in the clear, consider the exiting Motorola vs. Microsoft lawsuit.

So why then would we not just use VP8? After all, Google just opened the flood gates right?

Additional IP Rights Grant (Patents)

“This implementation” means the copyrightable works distributed by Google as part of the WebM Project.

Google hereby grants to you a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable (except as stated in this section) patent license to make, have made, use, offer to sell, sell, import, transfer, and otherwise run, modify and propagate the contents of this implementation of VP8, where such license applies only to those patent claims, both currently owned by Google and acquired in the future, licensable by Google that are necessarily infringed by this implementation of VP8. This grant does not include claims that would be infringed only as a consequence of further modification of this implementation. If you or your agent or exclusive licensee institute or order or agree to the institution of patent litigation against any entity (including a cross-claim or counterclaim in a lawsuit) alleging that this implementation of VP8 or any code incorporated within this implementation of VP8 constitutes direct or contributory patent infringement, or inducement of patent infringement, then any patent rights granted to you under this License for this implementation of VP8 shall terminate as of the date such litigation is filed.

See also: Software License

Hmm, not so fast.

The IPR issues surrounding VP8 could be even more foggy than H.264. Here Paul Jones describes some of the issues he sees in VP8 to Basil Gohar and the rest of the list…


> What you are asking for is something no one in the media industry offers
> for something comparable.

I know, but the reluctance to do so means that Google knows that there *may
be* IPR on VP8.  This is just the facts of life.  I believe it’s extremely
important that people know and understand that nobody knows the IPR
situation with VP8.  If they did, they would offer indemnity, because there
is nothing to worry about, but nobody can.

> As was pointed out elsewhere on this list, even
> the H.264 standard has been updated to include additional patents over
> time deemed to be “essential”.  One could be non-infringing in the past
> and suddenly find yourself infringing.

Indeed, but I have a significantly higher level of confidence that I can
identify all of the legitimate companies with IPR on H.264, whereas I
haven’t a clue where to start (outside of Google) for VP8.

So where does this leave the developer? The WebRTC proposed standard hangs in the balance and anyone who is working with Google on the webrtc.org project must be asking themselves this question as well?

Would Google fight for the developers if an IPR claim arose regarding the implementation of VP8?

In answer to one of Paul’s comments, Jean Marc Valin had this to say…

> If I owned IPR on VP8 (which I don’t personally; can’t speak for my
> employer), I certainly would not tell you and I would not join a patent
> pool, either.  I would wait until you adopt VP8, build it into software and
> hardware products, have it massively deployed, and then I’d come along and
> collect my royalties.  There is absolutely no financial incentive for an IPR
> holder to join a patent pool.

I assume this is why we’ve seen all these lawsuits against Google,
Microsoft, Cisco, Apple… over their use of Vorbis and Speex, right?
Seriously, I can count at least 10 free AV codecs and none of them have
had any patent lawsuits that I’m aware of.

So, as of today, it is still very unclear what will make it into the browser, although it might be safe to assume that Google will include whatever mandatory baseline codec is selected by the IETF Working Group but will also include VP8. It seems clear that they will not include H.264 at this point, after all, they yanked it out of YouTube, or did they? Hmm, maybe it’s not so clear.

And recently Mozilla seems to have had a change of heart around H.264.

Well, we are not waiting for the decision to come down, that much is certain. There is safety in native software, which is where we will focus until this mess is sorted.

But make no mistake, we are watching closely and will be participating more in the standards discussions as things progress.

W3C: http://www.w3.org/2011/04/webrtc-charter.html
IETF: http://tools.ietf.org/wg/rtcweb/

/Erik @elagerway