ComVu offers IT-free direct-to-blog mobile Webcasting solution

Vancouver-based ComVu, a developer of software and automated video delivery technologies, recently demo’d the “direct to blog” feature of its live mobile broadcasting service. The technology lets mobile users transmit live video broadcasts of any length and to any size audience using the company’s do-it-yourself video network. It’s targeted to technology marketing and media professionals as an inexpensive means of broadcasting breaking news, spokesperson interviews and product demonstrations to stakeholder audiences. Pipeline spoke to CEO William Mutual last week.

Pipeline: First of all, tell me a bit about how the direct-to-blog technology works.

William Mutual: We provide client software that you install on your camera phone, or it can also reside on a desktop PC, and that harvests the video from your camera. We encode it in real time and automatically create a tunnel to our server network. It logs you in and automatically knows who you are and what you’re able to do. It provides a one-button Web casting end-to-end solution, so the client software is a very efficient conduit to our automated streaming network. It really overcomes two inherent problems that streaming media has been plagued with over the last 10 years. The first is the inherent “burstiness” of the business: No one uses as much bandwidth as a Webcasting company. We’ve been at it for decade. My team has done probably a third of the largest Webcasts in history, and the problem is when you do a large transmission you need a phenomenal amount of connectivity and then the rest of the month all those servers are sitting there doing nothing. So all the Webcast companies have the same problem — they have to amortize their hosting costs for a very small number of clients, and that’s one of the reasons it’s still a very expensive communication tool. No one previously had figured out a way to automate everything and provide the levels of economy we offer. The second issue is the sheer amount of manual labour that’s involved. Webcasting is still almost exclusively used by large Fortune 500 companies today for things like quarterly reports, product announcements – the companies that will spend US$15,000 for a complete solution, which, compared to television (ad) costs may be inexpensive, but for 99.9 per cent of the businesses out there the $200 per seat it turns out to be is just not economical. With our do-it-yourself approach, we put a bit of the onus on you. You have to be able to set up your camera, focus it and point it to the right place, you’ll have to press one button and you’ll get the same ability the market right now is charging you $15,000 for. It’s a lot simpler effort. We give a tremendous amount of extra opportunity to our clients, and they don’t have to involve their Webmaster, it’s an IT-free solution.

Pipeline: What models of phones and PDAs can you use right now?

WM: Theoretically, all Windows 5-enabled phones will work. We’re finding, though, we have to spend a day or two on any one of them to optimize them. But beyond that we’ve also enabled quite a few of the high-end mobile Windows 2003 and CE phones. We probably have globally 20 phones that can leverage our services, and a month ago we had two phones, so we’re at a real nice convergent point right now. We’re harvesting every possibility on those phones just as the latest and greatest are hitting the market.

Pipeline: Of those 20, how many are in Canada?

WM: Right now not there are not any yet for sale in Canada, but they’re coming into the market in January.

Pipeline: Whom do you see as the initial adopters of this – will it be more on the media side or more on the marketing side?

WM: We have a bit of a division on two fronts geographically. Right now in Korea, for example, one of our phones has four million units on the market, and most of those people have a broadband connection. Wth that kind of deployment, that immediately potentializes a huge consumer play. A few other territories in Asia have the equivalent immediate possibilities. Everyone has the latest, greatest phone — they don’t have a desktop generally, it’s a mobile-centric world. In Europe it’s a synthesis of mobile and desktop. There are consumers or businesses that might want to use our technology from a hand phone or potentially the desktop application. In North America we’re years behind, even though there are the inklings of 3G networks, but so few people have bought services, it’s a very embryonic marketplace. The desktop application we have is basically you have your DV (digital video) camera, which plugs into your laptop or PC, and you have either Wi-Fi or DSL, or however you connect. We think that application, known as Broadcaster, will see a lot more immediate adoption and it will be much more in the business environment. We have people running dog shows who want to start transmitting it to their audience, we have instructional people, we have bloggers galore who want to start transmitting from conventions, anything from car lot grand openings, so we’re enabling all these people with extremely easy access to live and on-demand video. You can watch it live and you press one button and all your e-mail contacts get notified, but the reality is most people can’t watch at that moment so all that video is concurrently archived on the servers and it’s available for video on-demand usage post-transmission. Then you can decide if you want to charge for it or send it to specific groups of users. You have a very extensive ability to reutilize your assets after you transmit the live show.

Pipeline: I can see lots of other applications, like porn on the video iPod.

WM: Yes, there are some other consumer verticals that one would think would be very interested in this, particularly since we’re enabling user-generated pay-per-view, but we don’t really dwell on that a whole lot.

Pipeline: You must have enormous storage requirements.

WM: Enormous storage and bandwidth. But due to the economy of how we have built our whole network structure, it’s very easy for us to scale, so we don’t have to overbuild. We have a lot of experience in transmitting umpteen gigs of data at a time, and it’s very important that you don’t get ahead of your customer base. We have very substantial resources right now, and we’ll build out as client demand requires, so it’s a very scalable model both business and networking that we’ve designed.

Pipeline: What are the advantages of this particular solution for IT marketers?

WM: It’s a completely IT-free solution. Nobody has time to learn another technology, and to find sysadmins or Webmasters or whatever to integrate the technology with the Web site to make things work. Frankly, streaming media is still, I won’t call it black voodoo, but it is not IT-friendly to begin with. It’s very resource-consuming, and this is why most Webcasting gets subcontracted. We propose you keep subcontracting it, but now you are going to shoot the camera and press a button, but it will be totally IT-free and it will work and it will be incredibly cost-effective. Now if you’re CEO of a big public company and you’re forced to do a  quarterly report, you’re going to want the camera crew to come in, you’re going to want all that hand-holding, you don’t care if it’s $20,000 for a Webcast and we really do not think we’re going to compete in that marketplace. Instead, we’re completely predicated to that other 99.9 per cent of business users for whom it would be unimaginable to pay those costs, so we see we’re in a completely open territory here. Being in the Webcast industry for a decade, I have a pretty good idea of what technologies and systems are being used out there. I am unaware of a single other automated streaming network in the world.  So we feel we have a pretty substantial technical lead in facilitating that 99.9 per cent of the marketplace and I guess the best proof is there is no low-cost Webcasting service available. Very shortly, we’re launching a $99 Webcasting special and that will allow you to transmit for two hours to 70 people at broadband speed. All the video is archived for a month for you and it includes notifications – all the things you would need to provide a live on-demand transmission. If you can’t set this thing up in two minutes I would be shocked. This is grandma technology we’ve built. To think that for two hours, for $1.30 a seat you can transmit live, high-quality video to your target audience — this is an incredibly cheap communication tool. The only other somewhat similar technology is WebEx, which has a pay-per-use system. It’s a bit different because theirs is sort of a collaboration videoconferencing idea, but their service, which is a do-it-yourself system, works out to $36 for two hours. We’re coming in at about $1.30, and WebEx was considered a phenomenal disrupter to the market when they launched this service. Then compare that to a quarterly report where your seat fee is probably in the hundreds or thousands of dollars range.

Pipeline: What are some of the constraints of the technology at this point?

WM: This is real-time transmission so it recognizes the kind of network you have available. Any connection has two components — an uplink and a downlink. We are one of the rare (companies) in the wireless world that leverages the uplink, so when you transmit from your hand phone to viewers, the video is going via the uplink channel through the operator to our servers. We build a tunnel from your phone and all your viewers get to see the same quality that you originally transmit, so the weak link in the food chain is how much bandwidth you have on your hand phone. Right now we are doing lot of transmission in the U.S. on Sprint and Verizon EVDO networks. That gives you a reliable 80 Kbps uplink, which is pretty good quality video, and they’re very quickly moving to the next enhancement of EVDO, which about triple the capability. Telus launches a similar network in January, and Rogers is under way with field trials with its next-gen 3.5G network, so Canada does have the networks imminent and we’ll just maximize whatever your capability is. The higher the bandwidth you have, the better quality video you can obtain and the more resources you’re consuming on the wireless operator side and also on our server side. It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re going to use ComVu services, it only makes sense if you have an all-you-can-eat data package, and that’s where Canada has really been way off-market. Right now Telus is the only provider that has an all-you-an-eat data package on their 1X network. Rogers killed Fido’s offering and they’re charging 10 cents a kilobyte. These are really restrictive business models. They are going to stop anyone from not only watching video but also using our services, as opposed to in the U.S., Europe and Asia, where you’re paying anywhere from $30 to $60 for as much data as you need, and that’s going to be a requirement if you want to use our services from a mobile device.

Pipeline: How do you see this developing over time?

WM: Immediately, we’re having a great interest from large media companies and from early responders. You are going to start seeing a lot of ComVu usage on the nightly news. We’re outfitting a number of big household names with our technology and they’re going to be sending reporters out with a small DV camera. They’re very intrigued with the idea that they don’t have to send out satellite truck — that they can have all these enabled reporters out there with very low capitalization, and it provides much better video than you see every night on CNN live from Iraq. So they think right now the quality is good enough that they can integrate it immediately into the nightly news for the roving reporter and also provide an online experience. On the early responder side, everyone from the intelligence community to police, fire, ambulance — anyone who needs to get the video message across now to headquarters, we’ve had just huge response. There are some incredibly expensive solutions being used that give you competitive capabilities right now, but they tend to take hundreds of pounds of equipment, like satellite transceivers and all this proprietary stuff, whereas for us even today you buy a $400 phone, you buy a $60 a month data account and you can view it on a standard PC. We’ve taken all the $10,000 toilet seat mentality out of the equation, and that’s really resounding with all these public entities. Most of them don’t like getting fleeced, and the fact we can provide a secure, very friendly environment and really do the job better is very much resounding with them. With those two verticals kicking off immediately and the $99 Webcast, that is our immediate go-to-market strategy and all of these are really gunning at showing the operator there is real business here. Consumers are going to become quickly aware they can transmit video from a hand phone. One thing about our technology is it’s very understandable across the board. The idea you have a TV station in the palm of your hand is not that hard for people to understand. Whether they can identify how they will use that, that’s another thing, but at least what is being brought to market is easily perceived. We’re quite aware of what hand phones will be capable of a year and a half or two years down the road. There are some really interesting developments about to come into the marketplace. The foremost of these is vary optic lenses, which is a liquid plastic lens. Right now about one third of all phones have cameras and that number will probably move to about 98 per cent within a year and a half and they’re going to have these fantastic, scratch-proof 400-1 zoom, everything in focus lenses, and virtually all phones will soon have enough processing power to do real-time video encoding. A great number of them will have data connections. What we’re moving to is an inexpensive phone with the same video quality as your home DV camera.

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