Firespotter Labs has shifted from developing apps for the restaurant industry to helping business communicators. Call it a food-to-phone transition.
The San Francisco company, orginally tagged as a “technology accelerator,” first developed apps for restaurant management, including NoshList, a mobile waitlist app designed to replace the infamous wait buzzer by notifying guests when their table was ready. A couple of years ago, it decided to do more than make food-services apps. Those were moved into a separate group called Nosh. Then it went back to the communications roots of its founders. Its next product, Uberconference, has done well to serve the needs of people that want a more sophisticated and Web-connected way to do audioconferencing.
This all all makes sense, because two of Firespotter’s co-founders, CEO Craig Walker and VP of Technology Brian Peterson, came from Google’s Voice division. Walker was a founder and CEO of Grand Central, which was acquired by Google (GOOG) and became the foundation for Google Voice. Before that, he had started Dialpad, which was acquired by Yahoo (YHOO).
But as Peterson explained in a recent interview in Firespotter’s San Francisco office, the company was anxious to get back to its communications skillset and “fix” the audio-conferencing business. That resulted in Uberconference, which launched last year.
(Editor’s note: There is an umlaut over the “U” in Uberconference. But I spent way too much time trying to coax an umlaut out of my MacBook, unsuccessfully. So if anybody can explain how, please email me.)
Walker and Peterson, describing their future to Rayno Report in a couple of recent interviews, are now confident that Uberconference can be successful based on once premise: The standard voice-conferencing experience kind of sucks. They’re also excited about the potential for WebRTC, an standard set of Internet collaboration technologies which are gaining momentum.
Below is a condensed interview with Peterson, which I recently conducted at the company’s San Francisco office.
Rayno Report: Explain. Firespotter vs. UberConference. The company is Firespotter, but the new product is Uberconference, yeah?
Brian Peterson: Firespotter started off as a product accelerator. It started out when we and Craig left Google. We didn’t want to do telephony for a while. We also didn’t want to step on Google’s toes. If there’s one place that needs better software, it’s the restaurant industry. So we started Nosh.
Being connected in the cloud, I should be able to do everything with a restaurant from my mobile device. Also, restaurants should’t have to buy custom hardware. It was going to be a platform for more interactivity with restaurants. NoshList is an iPad wait list. Buzzers were more expenseive, and people steal them. Everybody has a smart phone and a smart phone.
RR: But that’s not your focus anymore.
Peterson: Our main business now is Uberconference.
RR: Why did you make this move?
Peterson: We wanted to do advanced audience conferencing. That was in the plan anyways, to do modern audioconferencing. There is a lot of politics with POS (Point of Sale) systems in the restaurant industry. We had to get back to the best of what we do, which is telephony.
Uberconference won TechCrunch Disrupt last year. That turned us into Series A and got people a lot more interested. All of our main customer focus is now on Uberconference.
RR: What happened to Nosh? That still sounds kind of tasty.
Peterson: We have a separate group of people working on it. Our biggest asset is NoshList. We’re in every Red Robin, we’re in lots of independent restaurants.
Now we’re focused on uberconference and most of the company will be telphony
RR: Tell us the vision of Uberconference and where it’s going.
Peterson: You need to think about how the application is different than Google Hangout, and Webex. They are collaboration products that include video, audio, screen-sharing. They are peer-to-peer things. You have to have a computer, Internet access, Web cams. At first we’re just trying to make audioconferencing better.
Audioconferencing is a $3B market. We looked at the industry and there had been zero innovation in 20 years. Freeaudioconferencing.com looks like it was built in 1997. It’s got bullet points of different things you can do.
[The business] still has all the same problems. You get a phone number and a PIN that you can’t remember. You do the standard: “Here’s a beep — who is this?” You can’t know who’s talking.
We have our expertise. The Web guys are not getting together with telephony guys. You need to bring Web, mobile, and telephony together which has not really been done.
There are lots of things annoying about audio conferencing: You don’t know who’s talking, you don’t know who’s invited, you don’t really know who’s on the call. We’re solving that. The other thing we did is you can go to the conference page and look at all the social information about people on the call. It gives a background report on people in the call.
At the end of the call it sends out a call summary. You can remember who’s on the call. There is a link to the audio recording if you recorded the call. It’s like taking everything that was missing and putting it on audio conferencing. This was a quick market to hit. The bar is incredibly low, at least in our opinion.
RR: Those are some good points. You talk about the difference between Uberconference and WebEX and gotomeeting, but the point is audioconferncing is still popular is because everybody still uses the phone.
Peterson: Right. With something like Google+, you have to add somebody to circles. With Skype, they have to have the software.
RR: And then there’s people that don’t even use those applications.
Peterson: For the longest time, phone numbers were the largest social network in the world, because everybody had them. That’s why audience conferencing was still going strong. People said video is the next big thing. We’ll probably get into it. It’s not our top priority at the moment.
RR: Because audio conferencing is ripe for the picking?
Peterson: It is. There’s still so much to do. And once you do video, you go into the Webex, Google Hangout collaboration space, which is pretty filled. Not that it doesn’t have issues.
We don’t have a lot of requests for video, but we do get a lot of requestes for screen-sharing. Now that people see what audio conferencing does, you don’t have as many questions as video, because we’ve solved a lot of the problems that video will solve, such as who is talking and who is on the call.
RR: Yea, I’ve always wondered how much people really want video. It’s still hard to get somebody on Skype video.
Peterson: They have to install software, they neeed an account. There are a lot of problems.
(Editor’s note: Or they are in their pajamas.)
Google’s Chrome launch gives us desktop clients. You get instant alerts if somebody joins your call. This is from WebRTC.
RR: Yes, I’ve been hearing a lot about WebRTC being hot, why?
Peterson: It’s going to be the future of communication. It will be built into whatever people are suing. Chrome is becoming th enumber one browser in the world, and it’s built into it.
RR: What about the other browsers?
Peterson: It’s not in all of them, but its open source so it will spread. Firefox just came out with it. Safari will have it. IE will eventually have it. They are trying to work to make it part of the HTML 5. Every browser will have it and it will be free to include.
Google took the codecs and basically said it could be free. WEbRTC is integrated with the Opus codec, which is th ebest codec on the planet. Need to support to somebody calling form the browser and connecting ot the PSTN, it will downgrade it and connect.
(Editor’s note: A codec is the technology used for “endcoding” the media stream, which can make it sound better by using better compression to send it over the bandwidth that is available.)
RR: I’ve noticed that many codecs are better on the Web calls. Basically, VOIP with a great codec is better on the Web than on a regular voice conference.
Peterson: It’s a thousand times better. You’re only good as your worse connection. The PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) uses a worse codec that’s been around for a long time. Now, Web to Web sill sound 1,000 times better.
(Editor’s note: If you are using an application that has a good codec, that is. Both Skype and WebRTC voice applications can sound excellent, for example.)
RR: So, to summarize, most people, when you go Web to Web with audio and the right codec, you can get really high-quality audio. And the reason why WebRTC is important, the codec tools are integrated and eventually it will already on my browser and I can connect to somebody across the world without having to install anything.
RR:So, obviously, this is a threat to Microsoft, which is big in collaboration tools and also bought Skype, one of the largest peer-to-peer audio Web conferncing apps on the planet. Is that why it’s not on IE (Internet Explorer) yet?
Peterson: That’s definitely why it’s not on IE. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft came out with their version [of WebRTC] that’s not the same.
RR: I guess that some things never changes?
Peterson: What’s good for us is that Microsoft is losing share in the browser market. Chrome’s growth is crazy. It’s on every platform, it’s already the number one browser in the world. That means there is good news about our service, because if you don’t already have it, if you have Chrome, you can still get on the call.
RR: Thanks Brian.
Peterson: Thank you.
(Shows editorial minion around office common area, which includes an Xbox and guitar, feeds him lunch, then migrates back to cube.)