Welcome to 'Synergizers: The Experts Behind Video Interop', the series where we talk to and spotlight the developers and innovators of interoperability and video conferencing! These are the movers and shakers of our multi-vendor video conferencing world and are on a solid mission to simplify video meetings across the globe.
Meet Egil Hasting, CTO at Synergy SKY.
While it's not easy to say who the mother of our interop solution is, most people at Synergy SKY would agree that Egil is the undisputed father. He was responsible for conceptualizing, developing, and strategizing how to bring the product to the market. If there is anyone with a good understanding of our video interoperability, it's Egil.
Can you tell us a bit about your background prior to Synergy SKY, how you got into developing, and what a typical workday looks like?
I'll address the latter part of that question and say that there is no such thing as a typical workday, and that's one of the best things about what I do. Thankfully, it has been like that since I began my career in video conferencing in 2001 with TANDBERG, which was then a global video conferencing leader. After six years, I moved on to a system provider called UmoeIKT, where I worked for a year and a half with telephony centrals (AVX systems). Years later, after joining the Visual Conference Group and seeing it being acquired, Pär Svensson, Patrik Christiansen, and I decided that we wanted to do something together. That's when we invested in Synergy SKY, then called Synergy Consulting.
Not long after I started working at Synergy, where I focused mostly on Sales Engineering and only gradually became involved in the R&D aspect of the job. Our first project together was the Synergy Satellite, which was an earlier version of what would later be known as Synergy SKY MANAGE. Initially, I worked primarily as a Sales Engineer and Technical Manager with some development on the side.
I've always enjoyed tinkering with things ever since I was young, though. The very first thing I developed was a game when I was nine years old because my mom wouldn't buy me a Nintendo console. It was only when I was 17-18 years of age that I became more serious about development.
" We shouldn’t forget the reason why people build their own standards is that when they look at the existing ones, they don’t see enough possibilities to invent "
You'll soon be celebrating 10 years as Synergy SKY's CTO. What have been the biggest industry achievements you've observed since starting the job, and which ones have been most often overlooked?
It's a bit hard to say because all the technical changes that take place area mostly driven by business decisions, and only seldom are there incredibly surprising turns. When they do take place, it's usually due to events like 9/11, COVID, the financial crisis, and other major socio-political events along those lines.
Let me give you an example in the operating system world. Before Linux became big in the early 1990s, there was already an open-source operating system called FreeBSD. If it hadn't been sued for copyright infringement it almost certainly would have had major adoption thanks to its sturdiness and stability. They were basically locked down in a courtroom for ten years or something. Meanwhile, Linux came and was basically the same thing yet got incomparable traction. Many didn't dare to pick up FreeBSD because they were hooked up in that courtroom. Eventually, the company that sued them lost. They didn't have anything, but the foundation was ruined.
Another example I can give is that of browsers. Internet Explorer dominated the web world because of Microsoft, but then the EU authorities hit them with an antitrust charge, and they couldn’t bundle it anymore. Mozilla Firefox got traction, and eventually, Chrome did, which changed everything. It has to be said that Microsoft didn’t put that much effort into updating and keeping Internet Explorer on track. If they hadn't had the antitrust case, where would we be? It's hard to say.
Now, going back to our reality – there have been no revolutionary developments in the videoconferencing industry in the recent past. When I worked at TANDBERG, many of my colleagues envisioned that eventually, video would get proper adoption, and we started doing the math on the money that could be earned per meeting... the problem was that the price of the endpoint was the reason why it didn't get traction to start with. It's a bit silly, really.
I would say the most interesting things have been taking place since last year as a result of COVID. It's not that many different innovations are happening. It's just that now, there's actually a strong contextual incentive for implementing and putting together existing technology and the common user tends to overlook this fact. The tools we use in Teams, for example... there's nothing new about it. Sharing whiteboards, sharing presentations, collaborating on documents, etc. All these things are as old as the computer itself.
Solutions like Microsoft Surface have been around for ages, but now there is a strong incentive for widespread adoption because the masses are acquainted with video conferencing. That's why I'd say that more important than focusing on which new features are being developed is to keep an eye on the actual uptake.
Likewise, what innovations or trends do you think are overly hyped?
I didn’t even have to wait for you to finish your question; this one is easy: Crypto! Hahaha. I’m just kidding. Video has been underhyped for decades. It's very hard to overhype what we do, to be honest.
We know from a market perspective that the COVID pandemic has brought natural changes to the market, with people acquiring and buying things that they're not going to have for a long time. That was to be expected. It’s also clear that Zoom absolutely benefited from this situation, but there's no overhype here. It’s just the natural result of the sudden increase in demand for their services. Constant shifts from platforms and/or systems are to be expected.
Sure, there are technologies like VR that some would claim were hyped up as a result of Meta’s investment in that technology, which appeared to create some momentum at some point. But this hasn’t materialized, and I don’t think it ever gathered that much discussion.
Do you remember 3D television? Just ten years ago, all TVs were sold with this functionality. Now, it’s non-existent. That’s an overhyped fad. They were just trying to sell something that nobody else was asking for, and no surprises here, nobody used it. Right. But it's there, and everybody talks about it, so people actually believe it must be good and end up trying it.
Many organizations still struggle to have business meetings both internally and externally when using different video platforms. Why?
It's complicated! There is no single global standard, unlike telephony, on how platforms should interoperate or communicate in the video conference world today. When making a phone call, everyone is aware that they need to know the country code, area code, and personal number. This is all based on standards set by the ISU. Video calling on the other hand is only straightforward when we're calling from a single agreed platform, which is often not the case. There are various apps available (such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, Ringcentral, Skype, etc.), vendors (like 8x8 BlueJeans, etc.), and standards (such as W3, IETF, etc.) in the market. Many of these options are incompatible with each other, necessitating a gateway that can translate the different protocols. The user experience consequently becomes far from ideal.
Dialing into a video call is more complex compared to sending an email or making a phone call, as it heavily depends on the platform and devices being used. Private IP addresses can't be reached from outside. There is no equivalent to the "yellow pages" or switchboards in telephony. Typically, video calling in web conferencing is done via email addresses, but how do we call meeting rooms? The fact many users out there don't know the answer to this is only one of the many challenges that arise from the lack of standards.
The standards we often talk about, like WebRTC, are merely frameworks on how different features and versions are working. There are, of course, attempts like Direct Guest Join, which is a consortium of sorts between Microsoft and Google. That allows them to join each other. You can join from a Zoom Room into a Teams Room by responding to a browser and engaging. So, there is some attempt to bring them together. But it's not truly bridging things together. It still requires a lot of effort from organizations. This is the challenge Synergy SKY solves.
So, let's take the example of Teams. Initially, when Teams was introduced, the video side of it was more or less like a pure media platform, and it looked like WebEx in many ways. No surprises there. But then, Microsoft wanted to introduce something called PowerPoint Live. This is new. This is not video anymore. It's application sharing embedded into your workflow. This is just one example of where the existing standard isn't really suited for that kind of thing.
This is not something specific to our industry, to be clear. I think you can say that ever since Microsoft Word and WordPerfect came up, there have been initiatives to create a proprietary standard that is superior to the others. Over the course of time, we’ve reached a point where we have a common format in word processing software. But we shouldn’t forget the reason why people build their own standards is that when they look at the existing ones, they don’t see enough possibilities to invent.
" Right now, I would say there is nothing as important as the issue of interoperability. Many users might assume there is room for improvement in video and audio quality, for example, but in reality this issue has already been "
Where do SIP and WebRTC come into all of this? They are ubiquitous in today's videoconferencing landscape – how do they compare?
Our industry derives from telephony, specifically Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN). ISDN technology was brought into IP, and a protocol called H323 was built, which is based on the ISDN protocol named H320. They are quite similar, but not the same. Then SIP came, which was an attempt to create proper standardization that could be used in a multipurpose way. SIP was an attempt to harmonize voice over IP, video, chat, and everything, but it has some weaknesses, and people wanted to communicate more efficiently on the web. SIP can be seen as a shopping bag. It gives you something to carry, but that doesn't necessarily mean that its content is standardized.
WebRTC is quite related to SIP in terms of the communication stack; it is built upon it. WebRTC is a collection of different ways of interacting with the browser and having the browser interact with the world. The transition from the SIP-based world to the WebRTC-based world is what creates a gap.
What people want at the end of the day is to participate in easy meetings. Your meetings as you know them today may very well not be the ones of tomorrow. You never know what the next best thing is. As long as you can mitigate this uncertainty with some component or service, there is no need to be in the risk zone of "choosing the right technology." This way, there is no need to deal with waste, and people can continue doing what they have been doing while being compatible with whatever new comes.
The thought of making a high investment in technology that might be rendered useless the day after can be daunting. What can organizations do to prevent this from happening?
I have a good example of why this truly is an issue throughout the technological world. I once bought a Jambox Bluetooth speaker with the ability to be updated with software. Years later, I faced a bug, and the company went bankrupt, so their servers turned off, and I could never upgrade the software - the device became nothing short of junk. There is no way of fixing it. This has also happened in our industry. Equipment has been developed tied to a service that doesn’t exist anymore.
Our solution strives to address this exact issue and bridge technologies that would otherwise remain unconnected. One of the challenges is to do so without introducing new workflows to the user. We are focusing on enhancing the experience of the conference provider natively, which is not the case with other interim interoperability solutions out there. It’s crucial for us that the user gets not “our” experience but Microsoft’s, which is the one we think they should expect when in a Teams call. We closely follow whatever happens on the cloud to avoid any unnecessary adaptation costs.
What big obstacles still need to be overcome to provide simpler meetings for organizations globally?
Right now, I would say there is nothing as important as the issue of interoperability. Many users might assume there is room for improvement in video and audio quality, for example, but in reality, this issue has already been solved. What we have ahead of us are minor refinements.
Business decisions are not always based solely on reason but also on the ideas and visions of humans striving for improvement. One of the fascinating aspects of IT is that businesses constantly seek to enhance what already works, so I am curious to see where we will be in five to ten years. I am convinced user experience will dictate the prevalence of one player over another in our industry. Video conferencing has come a long way, and many major technical challenges have already been solved.
Our role remains to contribute to the harmonization of standards and address upcoming challenges in collaboration. Back when we set out to develop CONNECT, we wanted it to be a testament to the power of our vision to help everyone collaborate with others, regardless of their location or technical ability. As time passes, we’re getting more and more convinced that our patented interop solution is the future of videoconferencing meetings. A future where there are no unnecessary frictions to the user. There is no doubt in my mind that a user-centered approach can drastically drive innovation and improve video conferencing experiences. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead!