Rob Glaser Deserves More Credit Than He Is Being Given By Bloggers

Rob-glaserx-inset-community Yesterday, after sixteen years as CEO of RealNetworks, the company announced that Rob Glaser would step down as the CEO and the day-to-day operations of the company. Rob will still maintain his chairman of the board duties and is still the largest single shareholder in RealNetworks.

When the news broke, it was very interesting to watch how many bloggers jumped on the story and published a post without really knowing anything about Rob, what he accomplished with RealNetworks and the role he played in starting the entire online video revolution. Many were quick to say he should have stepped down long ago, wanted to imply that RealNetworks business is in trouble or wrote about the "format wars" from nearly ten years ago.

The reason for this is that none of the bloggers I read are actually in, or from, the online video industry. They weren't around in 1995 webcasting with RealAudio 2.0 software, weren't encoding video two years later when Progressive Networks introduced RealVideo and they never had to negotiate a contract for a RealNetworks license. They simply don't know how important of a role Rob and Real have played and the groundwork they laid for the technology we have today. Half of them, including sites like USAToday.com, don't even know how to spell the name of the company or the word RealPlayer correctly. They are both one word, not two.

That's not to say I think Rob and Real did everything right and Rob and I have disagreed on many things over the years. Probably the biggest thing was in 1998, while at Globix, I negotiated a $200K Real license to be able to deliver content on our network, only to then find out that Real also planned to compete with us for the same business with their own network called RBN. That was a really bad move on Real's part and was one of the reasons Microsoft was able to get their foot in the door since so many delivery networks were upset with Real's licensing practice.

I also remember bashing Real in an article for Streaming Magazine in 1998 when Real decided to limit their support for the Mac client and I also didn't agree with many of the bets Real made over the last few years with regards to the iPod. But disagreements like those aside, while they don't deserve all of the credit, Rob and Progressive Networks started this industry, which can't be debated. Even former Microsoft employees who don't like Rob won't deny the fact that he deserves credit for what he's accomplished.

Today, many talk about multi-bitrate video delivery probably without even knowing that Real invented the technology ten years ago when they launched their G2 system and called the technology SureStream. Real was also responsible for the wide adoption of the RTSP protocol, the first video platform to support SMIL and a whole host of other firsts. Today, most don't know how the online video industry started, what companies were around back then, how the technology evolved or who was responsible for it. The media is so quick to judge companies with the what have you done for me
today mentality, as opposed to looking at what they have accomplished over many years.

As was evident by a lot of the bloggers who covered the news, most of them only know Real as a format that use to be around after losing the format wars to Microsoft. While that's accurate, that took place almost ten years ago and Real moved away from the online video format business nearly eight years ago. Today, they only think of Real as a gaming or music company and are quick to dismiss Real as a company that is struggling, without really knowing anything about their core business or where they get their revenue.

There is no question that Real has gone through hard times over the past eighteen months with lower revenue, layoffs and a sagging stock price. But show me a company who hasn't experienced the same thing? It's not like Rob left the company in some kind of financial turmoil, like other CEOs we could all list. As of Q3 2009, RealNetworks had $373.2M in cash and short-term investments. For the third quarter, their revenue declined 5% year over year, which considering the economy we are in, is not bad at all. Many companies would give anything to get a number that low.

While Real has not yet reported Q4 numbers, for all of 2009 the company will have generated more than half a billion dollars in revenue. That alone should get Rob some respect. In addition, Real's carrier platform is used by 85 mobile operators in more than 45 countries and in Q3, the company generated $47.4M in revenue just from their technology products and solutions alone. And for all the industry people who want to talk about the monetization of video, Real will generate close to $100M for all of 2009 from selling premium content services, syndication and player licenses. How many other companies are generating nearly $100M from content today?

While looking through a lot of the comments on other blogs about Rob stepping down, folks were quick to say how Real is losing the music battle to Apple or how five years ago they used the RealPlayer and didn't like it. I get the sense that the vast majority of people don't know what Real's business is today and it is very clear that many of the people writing about the news don't know the history of Progressive Networks and the important role they played.

Many bloggers were quick to try and get their post up first about the news that I found it sad that none of them, that I read, took the time to talk to one of the many folks who have been in the online video space since the early beginning, to ask them what Rob really meant to the industry. That alone is a good story, but many bloggers are less concerned with telling stories these days and just want to be the first to report news.

In many industries, most companies don't last sixteen years. In the Internet space, it's even more unheard of. In that time, Rob managed to not only start the online video revolution but stay the CEO of a company and grow revenue to half a billion dollars. Like it or not, it's pretty hard to argue with those facts. You don't have to agree with everything someone says or does to show them the respect they deserve for what they have accomplished.

Rob, for your efforts over the past sixteen years, and for what you have done for the industry over that time, you have my thanks.

  • Todd Loewenstein

    Dan, you’re definitely right about the important role Rob has played in the industry, when it wasn’t really an industry at all. I also agree with you 100% on the mistake RBN made competing with the same people that RealNetworks sold licenses to, all the time pretending it was a “separate company”. The only time I can recall having a knock down, drag out, scream at the top of our lungs fight with someone in the space was negotiating licenses with Real for my former company. Not only did they want Real license revenue, but they wanted a % of all non-Real revenue (Windows Media, QT, and webconferencing) from our company, which took a tremendous amount of nerve. Nonetheless, streaming veterans should honor the contributions Rob has made to the streaming space.

  • “Many talk about multi-bitrate video delivery probably without even knowing that Real invented the technology ten years ago when they launched their G2 system and called the technology SureStream”
    While newer dynamic or multi-bitrate solutions offer more features and resiliency, I find it interesting that many who espouse today’s dynamic streaming options have never even heard of SureStream (or SimulStream or a variety of other multi-bitrate solutions that have been tried before). Copies of 12-15 year old press releases come in handy as a way to educate, although there’s often as much hype in the old releases as there are in the new ones.
    Hats off to Rob and the team for getting there first in several key innovations.

  • Rob and I had so many toe to toe arguments/screaming matches and battles that I lost count. But through all of them I respected him as one of the smartest, if not the smartest guys in the space.
    Rob is and was at the heart of the content distribution business. Its unfortunate that so few have any understanding of its history. We are watching history repeat itself time and again.

  • Eh I think Real was present, but not innovative, in our space. And I was there from the very beginning in 1996, and had one of the largest Real licenses while at Speedera. SureStream was not the first multi-bitrate solution- VDOnet in 1997 was- and they had video before Progressive Networks had video.
    RBN was an also-ran CDN- never really significant. The share of RealPlayer was always far smaller than press releases.
    I was never sure how Real generated any revenue at all- I’ve never had or needed a RealPlayer on any of my computers outside of for testing reasons while at Speedera 10 years ago.

  • Oh but I should say I did have some pretty loud arguments with them due to server bugs and lack of support even though I operated one of their largest deployments- in that I have the same view as the rest of the posters. But never with Rob.

  • Rafat

    curious why you always think bloggers are all that, and you’re all this…someone’s humble. and since you probably include us in that category, i take offense to it. i know enough about realnetworks, and especially rob, to have my own opinions on it, including the fact that he should have left 5-7 years ago.

  • Dick Jones

    All the accomplishments you cite were some years ago. There have been no real innovations for some time, poorly structured partner deals and expensive lawsuits. At some point, you have to take a fresh look at how to reformulate the company for the present tense, and not dwell on past accomplishments.

  • It’s always difficult to evaluate a legacy. While Rob smartly moved RealNetworks forward in fits and starts he also controlled the company (and it’s offerings to the market) so tightly that it forfeited a much larger potential. Real was exquisitely positioned to exploit the video and online content market, but they *only* built up to $500MM. I think a lot of that was due to their focus on immediate revenues at the expense of user experience. You don’t create a great company by making your customers lick-spittle furious at your product. He also moved into online games very early, but clearly new startups in the Valley have eclipsed him in this domain as well.
    While I give Rob credit for surviving in a turbulent sector (bridging the technology and content worlds was extremely difficult during his time, especially in the late 90s-early ’00s), I do discount his legacy for leading a company culture that focused as much on greed as enabling a fantastic customer experience — a requirement for the digital media markets.

  • Hi Rafat, I don’t think there is anything wrong with someone writing that Rob should have stepped down earlier. Maybe he should have, maybe not. I don’t have an opinion on that either way. But for all the bloggers who wrote about the news, I didn’t see any of them give any insights into their thoughts. That’s the problem to me.
    They covered the news, made some comments, but then didn’t expand on any of them. Many said Rob should have left earlier or “it’s about time” but none of them, that I saw, said why they thought that way. As a reader, that’s what I want to read about, the insight into the business. Maybe he should have stepped down five years ago, but if so, why? Where’s the story behind that? Why didn’t anyone expand on that?
    Most wanted to focus and debate whether he was pushed out or not, which is part of the story, but no even talked about Real as a company or how this might even impact their business. The CEO of a company for 16 years just stepped down, what does this mean to Real? How will this impact their revenue and business? No one’s talking about any of that. Why?
    As a reader, not a blogger, that’s what I would want to read about. Yes, I know you and PaidContent.org have much more knowledge than most of the other blogs out there and I’ve always like that PaidContent tends to focus more on the business angle of stories.
    But I was disappointed that the story was only that the CEO is stepping down, with no mention of the impact that might have on Real. Ok, so Rob left, but he is leaving behind a company with half a billion in revenue. What happens to them now? What’s the impact? It’s clear that looking at the comments on many of the blogs that a lot of folks don’t even know who Real is anymore, what they do or where they get their revenue. That’s a story in of itself.
    I am interested in what you and others have to say on the subject and wanted to read more about that, but no one provided anything more than simply reporting on the news.

  • Interesting post, and good discussion here on how bloggers/journalists cover the news.
    As technology journalists here in Seattle, we certainly covered the news. And my colleague, Todd Bishop, tried to put the news event in perspective in his initial post. (Note many of the comments support the thesis in your post above)
    http://bit.ly/6WOcoC
    But we’ve also been following up on the story. I took a look at the entrepreneurial impact of RealNetworks in Seattle in this story:
    http://bit.ly/6oYKaF
    And we’ve followed up today with more news on the stock surge. We’ve got other stories planned too, providing analysis on what’s going on with the company and where they are headed. That story may take a little time, since it requires more in-depth reporting.
    But we are working on it.
    John Cook
    Executive Editor
    TechFlash.com

  • Seth Weitzman

    It must be noted that RBN evolved into something a lot more and was a very wise step in the right direction for Real. It should not be thought of as a CDN and never will be one. But, it moved into video ingestion, encoding, mobile device profiling and delivery for PC and mobile as a hosted service. Today, Real’s infrastructure (that includes the old/new RBN) powers AT&T’s CV as well as Verizon’s V CAST mobile video services. These guys are doing a lot more than is known by all of us yet do not get the credit. Visit them or go to a trade show booth some time, then we can get the Real story.

  • Hi John, thanks for the links. They are good to see and one’s I did not have in my RSS reader. A brief look at them shows there is some good background details on the subject and some insight into it. Thanks.

  • Lodgegoat

    I remember working with RealAudio 1.0, and Robs first personal assistant, who was the glue when the team was under 20 people. Given all the bad, the bloated player, in the beginning he broke the barrier…
    Anyone remember Vivo… and FutureSplash.
    dating myself.

  • Thanks, Dan, for reminding us all of the pioneering role that Rob Glaser and RealNetworks played in online streaming.
    I started working with RealVideo and RealAudio back in 1996 when the platform was really the best choice. Working in education their SureStream technology truly made my life easier in a world where I could not depend on students and faculty to have any clue what kind of bandwidth they had. Giving them one link that would given them video at a variety of bandwidths saved us tremendous support time.
    As well, during the early to mid-2000s when we had three formats fighting it out, being able to stream Quicktime, Real and Windows Media from one server saved us a lot of headaches. I actually had very good experiences with Real’s staff, but that was in the 2000s, and in an edu context.
    Indeed the streaming market has changed tremendously in just 4 or 5 years, and Real certainly made strategic errors with regard to that market. But Glaser and Real are still due their props.

  • Steve brings up an interesting point on firsts. I came into streaming in 1996, led to the “new kid on the block” from a five-year stint in videoconferencing.
    At shows like Telecon, multiple bitrate desktop video conferencing codecs were in play by 1994. VDOnet came along a few years later, joined the videoconferencing space, and then also discovered streaming, after H.324’s late ratification and limitation as a POTS-only implementation succumbed to streaming’s IP delivery promise. (http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-18756894.html is an interesting read on VDOnet’s video phones).
    Interop was a huge issue in video conferencing (and in cable MPEG transmissions before that) which took a few years to catch on in streaming space.
    The RTSP interop that Progressive, Netscape (and VDO) drove forward, coupled with a workable (not perfect) streaming server solution, brought the first real play in the multi-bitrate space with SureStream.
    But don’t take Steve’s or my word for it: here are two interesting reads on multiple bitrate, including the pre-streaming era (1994) (http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel5/3904/11334/00518957.pdf?arnumber=518957 pre-streaming) and the VDOnet comments that Steve is referring to.
    Someone else asked about Vivo – that’s a blast from the past, as is the fractal video compression that Real licensed around the same time.

  • I still don’t know where/how Real earned any money. Technology licensing to mobile providers and others? Who puts their content in Real Format? The Real Player was always like a virus- taking over content types, installing startup items, etc… a total mess.
    The server was buggy and expensive.
    Yet somehow they were always considered a ‘force’ in the industry…
    I’m glad everything has standardized on Flash and MP4… life is much easier.

  • Seth Weitzman

    Steve Lerner needs to check out Real’s website and my previous post above to understand that Real is more than the Real format. Large mobile operators around the world, including the two largest mobile ops in the USA use their hosted mobile video service, mobile ring back tone service and their mobile music service. Income is coming into Real from several areas and into several divisions, checking out http://www.realnetworks.com will teach you a lot.

  • I’m not too big of a fan of marketing as a source of information, Seth. I prefer customer contracts and financial reporting (in that order.) My point is that Real have hundreds of millions in revenue, yet I *never* encounter their products, anywhere, for almost a decade now. I was one of their largest clients, and a key global partner, yet usage of their format was still near zero at the time. And I am currently very deeply involved with digital media distribution on a global basis…That is the interesting phenomenon here.

  • Mark McKee

    I’ve been around since the beginning, struggling to provide the best video quality, at the lowest bandwidth, for all platforms since 1996. Since the headlines are now fraught with “glory of h.264”, I’d like to point out that the Real codec stands to this very day as the highest quality/ lowest bandwidth codec ever made. Shame on Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, (and soon Google), et. al. for their pissing wars and their avoidance of codec development. If these companies had spent 1/2 of the money they put out on marketing FUD, to build on what Real had done, we’d all be better off. I cringe everytime I see video from any of these “superior modern”codecs encoded at 384 kbps. I produce for the University of New Mexico, and we are fiercely committed to true distance education. Our rural users have severly limited bandwidth, so we are well aware of the performance of these codecs at lower rates, and since Real went away, frankly there hasn’t been a codec that I would deem even remotely acceptable in terms of quality. I’ll certainly miss Rob as I miss his old codecs.