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Rob Glaser on how startups, video, mobility and the cloud restored RealNetworks

ITProPortal recently caught up with RealNetworks founder, chairman and interim CEO Rob Glaser, to chat about new products and the ways in which his company has developed over the past few years.

Most of you probably remember RealPlayer, a product that originally launched in the mid-1990s and was used to play media files on desktop computers all over the world. Just a few years ago, I would almost exclusively use the software to play video clips on my PC, but in recent years I admit it had fallen off my radar. That was until last September, when RealNetworks relaunched the service to US consumers as RealPlayer Cloud. The product has now been rolled out globally.

RealPlayer Cloud is a media player/cloud service combination designed, as RealNetworks would put it, as a means of "taking the guesswork out of sharing video." Available across the iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows devices, the Kindle Fire, Roku and Google Chromecast, Glaser believes it to be a product that solves real problems. According to RealNetworks, many of its customers find the process of transferring a video from one device to another incredibly frustrating, and often resort to email, Facebook and YouTube to carry out the task. This can lead to further issues, such as with compatibility, privacy and size. RealPlayer Cloud enables users to watch and share video files without any such worries - even bandwidth and screen size are taken into consideration.

While the original version of RealPlayer still boasts around 25 million active monthly users, the cloud version of the product has attracted over 500,000 customers in the space of around five months. With its global launch, Glaser wants to rid RealPlayer of its desktop image and instead bring it into the mobile era. "This is like a coming out party for RealPlayer on all of these devices," he says proudly.

With the rise of video consumption, mobility and 4G coupled with the forecasted death of the PC, Glaser says that the cloud was the natural way forward for RealNetworks. "Putting your video in the cloud, you have access to it not just whenever you want it but wherever you want it. What's happened is broadband has become more pervasive as 3G goes to 4G, so people have good connectivity wherever they go and storage has become cheaper. The quality of experience you can deliver and the economics associated with it have become more and more favourable.

"We aren't the first to observe that we're in the cloud era. What we've done is taken a major product from the PC/Internet era and modernised it and arranged it around the cloud and diverse digital devices."

Glaser is certainly not short of ambition, and is currently in talks with device manufacturers and mobile carriers over the prospect of building distribution relationships. If all goes to Glaser's plan, RealPlayer Cloud will build up a user base of hundreds of millions of people over the next five or so years. "We want this to be everywhere," he says. "Anywhere people want to create or download or watch video, we want to be there."

RealPlayer Cloud is available in three different versions: free, premium and professional. The standard offering provides users with 2GB of free storage, which can be boosted by successfully referring friends to the service. The premium and professional models, on the other hand, deliver more storage for different prices. Glaser is slightly concerned that users might stick with the free version of the software instead of upgrading but he is very happy with the product as a whole and is convinced it will be profitable. "The history of the Internet shows that if you create something that's very popular, you can build a business out of it."

One question I cannot resist asking is that of RealNetworks' steady demise prior to the recent launch of its cloud-based product. After setting up the company in 1994, Glaser served at its helm for 16 years before stepping away in 2010 due to difficult personal circumstances. After asking about the job his successors carried out, Glaser says, "Have you ever seen the movie 'This Is Spinal Tap'? It just didn't work out." For anybody that hasn't seen the film, the word "incompetent" sums things up neatly. Before long, the RealNetworks board asked Glaser to return to the company he founded.

"When I came back we had really good products but we hadn't moved them forward from the PC/Internet era to the cloud one," says Glaser, who reckons this is a common problem for a lot of companies. "They keep doing what they've been doing for a long time. It's not like there's one day when it [strategy] stops working - it just becomes less and less effective."

During his time away from RealNetworks, Glaser joined venture capital firm Accel Partners, which helped Facebook become the tech superpower it is today. While there, he invested in a number of companies, which allowed him to step back and see the broader picture of modern business from a vastly different perspective - that of startups. "I got to see what the future looked like from the standpoint of all these companies that started from scratch. It was a real eye-opener to see how they worked and how different they were, and so when I came back to Real I had a very direct and vivid view of things that we needed to do differently."

One of those things was transforming the overall culture of the company, ditching outdated practices for more efficient, modern models. Agile working methods have gained a lot of traction over recent years because they can hold the key for greater flexibility and responsiveness, leading to higher levels of output, competitiveness and morale. "We used to primarily develop software through the waterfall methodology," says Glaser. "But what's happened in software development now is that agile and scrum have become much more common. I've become a big believer [in agile], having seen not just small projects but larger projects... being completed that way."

However, bringing about this change was no easy task, since most employees at the time were unfamiliar with such approaches. By standing by the revolution and providing employees with a helping hand whenever necessary, Glaser succeeded in making agile stick. "In some cases, we brought in new engineers who had been trained in agile. In some cases, we brought in people to re-educate our team members on how to do agile. It was a case of having to change both what we did and how we do it."

Whether RealPlayer Cloud succeeds in bringing RealNetworks back to the top of the industry remains to be seen. Only time will tell. However, Glaser's determination, love for the company he established 20 years ago and willingness to modernise himself have convinced me that any possible failure won't be for lack of trying. Before his return in 2010, RealNetworks was stuck in a rut, but the cloud, mobility and a generous helping of startup inspiration have got the organisation moving again. "I guess I would say that it happens in a lot of organisations, where you keep doing the thing you've been doing and the world changes and you've got to adapt," says Glaser. "When I came back in, I needed to sort of jump-start that."