"In the race to enable real-time video in the browser, we believe we are a year ahead of Skype, WebEx, HDFaces, and other providers," Mark Weidick, cofounder and CEO of TenHands, said in an interview. Weidick, who previously ran a Cisco Telepresence business-to-business connectivity service, started the company with Jack Blaeser, former president of BT Conferencing, to make desktop videoconferencing more widely available. They said their forthcoming freemium service, now in open beta, takes advantage of Amazon.com's EC2 cloud infrastructure to host their switching and mixing software at low cost and combines that with emerging Web standards that eventually will enable plugin-free deployment.
The TenHands service makes use of HTML5 and WebRTC, a standard being developed by a World Wide Web Consortium working group and supported by an open source project for making audio and video communications a native capability of browsers, without the need for plugins. Google is a vocal supporter and an early version of WebRTC can be enabled in the current stable version of Chrome. Firefox and Opera are not far behind. Microsoft weighed in recently with an endorsement of the concept, but warned against implementing the technology before its technical concerns are addressed.
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Weidick said there is "still a lot of healthy technical debate" about issues such as which multimedia encoding schemes should be supported by WebRTC implementations, but he still sees adoption of the technology moving very quickly. "Our service will only run natively in a certain version of Chrome today, but that will go away very quickly … certainly within 12 months, which is much faster than I ever expected," he said. In the interim, TenHands supplies a browser plugin that enables WebRTC on browsers that lack native support.
"Our plan is to launch a commercial service on a codebase that democratizes realtime communications through the browser for millions and millions of people," Weidick said. Once WebRTC is commonly available in browsers, videoconferencing business models predicated on distributing desktop software are doomed, he said. Meanwhile, TenHands wants to torpedo the tradition of videoconference server hardware priced at thousands of dollars per port. With a virtualized, cloud infrastructure, TenHands will be able to perform the same functions at a negligible cost, he said.
By the end of the year, TenHands plans to offer a free multipoint videoconferencing service with a capacity limit--say, three hours--and charge a low fee like $10 per month for accounts that include unlimited audio and video conferencing.
"If we monetize once get to a threshold of three hours, that's a ROI guaranteed cost model. I would call that a fairly heavy user, but this pricing also means they're not paying for something they barely use or don't use," Blaeser said.
While Skype offers free videoconferencing, a paid plan is required for multipoint sessions (more than two users at a time). Google Hangouts are free, with support for up to 10 simultaneous users, but they are tied to the Google+ social network and Gmail.
TenHands believes it has a better service for business. The company name comes from the basketball coaching philosophy of UCLA's John Wooden, who emphasized the value of teamwork and insisted that all ten hands (five players) touch the ball before shooting.
TenHands also integrates with Box, Dropbox, and Join.me to enable document sharing and screen sharing in conjunction with a videoconference.
One thing TenHands is not investing in yet is interoperability with existing videoconferencing platforms. Weidick said he's not so sure that will be necessary--even though services such as Blue Jeans and Vidtel are creating entire businesses around cloud-based interoperability for videoconferencing.
"If and when WebRTC succeeds, and there billions of users of this technology out there, the videoconferencing equipment makers may have to create interoperability with WebRTC clients on their end," Weidick said. "I understand it's the topic of the day, but I think it's about to be turned on its ear."
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