Imagine you’re on a business trip and killing time at the airport before your next flight. You’re excited to get home because you just put in a bid on the perfect house. The market is competitive and your biggest fear is losing out because of a paperwork glitch.
Suddenly, the phone rings. On the other end is the escrow agent. Sure enough, the paperwork is incomplete. For the next 25 minutes, you both fumble your way through setting things right. You can’t see the forms, of course, so the agent has to describe everything. Sorry, it’s this one, not that one, you’re told. This figure, not that one.
On and on it goes. It reminds you of every time you’ve had to call a support center and been forced to describe a problem instead of show it to someone. A flawed piece of clothing. Two bike parts that don’t seem to fit. A confusing government form. When you hang up, you have a familiar sense of anxiety.
I hope they got it right.
Now envision a scenario that starts with an alert from your agent. She wants to have a private video chat in your browser to go over the paperwork. You accept the invitation, pop open the session, and in a shared-screen environment you can see the forms to complete. In five minutes, you’ve provided the missing data, reviewed everything one last time, and signed off.
In the past, only companies with deep pockets could create this kind of on-the-fly video link – and even then, it required plug-in software on your end to get started. Today, any firm can have high-quality video and audio conferencing at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems – and without yanking out their old equipment. It all revolves around a group of startups that are using open-source code to rewrite the rules of a $20 billion market.
Let me tell you about one of them.
Just Two Lines Of Code
What struck me when I first saw the software of CafeX in action was the result. A consumer visits a Web site – their insurance carrier, bank, or favorite clothing store – and for some reason needs help. With a push of a button, they’re in a video chat with a service agent who knows exactly where they are on the site and can help them immediately.
And all it took was two lines of CafeX code.
I’ve since made the company part of my investment portfolio for two reasons. The first is CafeX can apply this contextual, personalized assistance in any setting. Consumer sites are an obvious application, but just as important are day-to-day business uses. A call center supervisor can share a screen with a new employee for training purposes. Engineers can review a wiring diagram on the same screen instead of passing it back and forth via email. In each case, the communication is instant, private, and invoked on an as-needed basis.
The second reason I’m drawn to this approach – known by the admittedly dull moniker of unified communications technology – is that it provides these benefits at a fraction of the cost of video conferencing systems. It can also plug into an existing communications system.
This flexibility creates an incredible level of opportunity. The unified communications market is about $20 billion today. I expect it to grow and change to an even greater degree – and all because of a technology you probably never heard of, one that got its start a half-dozen years ago.
It’s All In The Plumbing
An easy way to think about the core functions of the Internet is to imagine the plumbing where you live. Data flows through digital connections like water through a pipe. Over time the nature of that pipe has changed. First, it could only accommodate e-mail, then basic Web pages, and then evolved to handle everything from animation and video to secure transactions.
You paid nothing for these capabilities; there were just built in.
What’s been missing, however, have been freely available, high-quality, communications tools – tools that let you fire up an audio or video chat session in your browser whenever you like. Enter an open-source project called WebRTC. Released by Google in 2011 and now evolving into a worldwide standard, it eliminates racks of expensive equipment and creates an immense opportunity for companies like CafeX.
WebRTC works as an on-demand, private communications service. If you use it to open a conversation with a loan officer, for example, no one is aware that you’ve done so. And once you’re done, the communications channel disappears.
Just like closing a browser window.
Major Players Making New Market
The unified communications market is primed for success. In part, it’s because it offers something we always wanted but never knew we could have: the ability to connect with people via audio and video, when we need them, using nothing but a standard Web browser.
The other thing that grabs my attention as an investor is that some of technology’s heaviest hitters have lined up behind WebRTC. Alphabet, Mozilla, and Microsoft have committed to put it in their browsers. AT&T, Telefonica, and Telenor have publicly announced their support for it across their communications networks. And an estimated2.5 billion people will be active users of WebRTC tools just two years from now.
They’ll be thrilled when they see what they’ve been missing – and I expect the market to react accordingly.