Blog Post

Josh Silverman: How Video Changes Everything

Whether it’s a clip of “Tajik Jimmy” putting Bollywood soundtracks to shame, catching a friend’s wedding eight time zones away or working “side by side” with coworkers in another country, it’s all video. And it’s changing the way we communicate with one another.

Video technology has become so ubiquitous that we rarely pause to think of the potential implications, both hopeful and sinister. I’ll focus on the sweeter side of its progress.

Take Skype. You could view video calls as a natural upgrade to wideband visuals from narrowband voice conversations. But we believe there’s more to it than just a richer conversation. Voice calls, after all, tend to be transactional: You tell me this; I’ll tell you that. Bye! It can be a difficult way to communicate and we often get little out of it beyond efficient information exchange.

By the way, I’m not dissing voice for the sake of it. I happen to agree with whomever said that radio is television for the mind. But in terms of having a conversation, voice and video are two rather different species.

With video, people are suddenly present without having to be in the same room as one another. The encounter, by extension, is no longer merely transactional. When my friend in Ann Arbor, Mich., turned 40, I joined the party from London over video. The distance between us evaporated — a benefit voice calls cannot deliver. A similar thing happens by way of the permanent live video wall that joins up our offices in Tallinn and Prague: An Estonian engineer’s desk is right next to that of her team member in the Czech Republic.

Video changes the whole nature of “being there” to something between audio and physical presence. (3D holographic video that other companies and researchers are working on makes the experience even more immersive, if not yet affordable.) In other words, a live video conversation is not just a voice call with pictures. It’s not just a milestone in the evolution of the Internet. It’s an entirely different way of communicating.

For hundreds of thousands of years, people have shared meaning through language. Its form has evolved from oral to visual and, for the past few thousand years, written. Yet until the 20th century, true conversations were tied to a shared place or shifted by time (letters). Even then, only being together with someone allowed for rich, full interaction to bloom. Live video conversations are changing all that, combining the oral, visual and written traditions into virtual presence.

Ironically, all this progress means that we can finally return to the basics — stuff that’s worked for eons (but hasn’t transcended place or time). Or, as the Institute for the Future puts it, we’re seeing the “emergence of a new digitally-mediated oral society.” At the very least, real-time video is getting us closer to where the communication medium itself becomes almost invisible, letting people themselves be the platform.

It’s easy to slip into hyperbole. So take it with a pinch of salt when I talk about entering a place of virtual presence that mimics tangible reality, saves time and deletes distance through live video links. Take it with a pinch of salt, too, when IFTF says this new oral society creates a new public sphere. Let’s not forget that it’s still early days. But video already allows Skype users to transcend place and time, whether on the desktop or on a Skype-enabled TV, and some 4 percent of all international calling minutes are now video calling minutes, on Skype. If nothing else, we’ll see a global human video mesh that anyone can tap into, irrespective of location or device. And even that would be pretty cool.

Video is not only an entirely different way of communicating, but a really important one.

Josh Silverman is CEO of Skype.

28 Responses to “Josh Silverman: How Video Changes Everything”

  1. Skype is in a key position to work with A Better Community For All (ABC4All) to bring Global Humanitarian Relief (GHR) to the world.

    With 2/3 of the population owning cell phones, we do not have to be concerned about the Digital Divide with computers and Internet.

    ABC4All WorldWide Network (AWWN) will be run by 77 satellites circling the globe now.

    Burton Danet

  2. I’ve recently become a convert to using Skype in the last nine months. What I’m surprised about is the popularity of the service outside the U.S. Folks here in the states just aren’t aware of how popular it is overseas.

    I do business on a daily basis to London using Skype. As a small company we could never afford traditional long distance that gives us the ability to sell and support product and services internationally. That has given us a new market in many respects.

    Finally, I do believe that video will have its day eventually. The reason for lack of usage is not necessarily quality, but vanity. Who wants to get all primped up for a 10 minute video conference when just a voice conversation and screen sharing will suffice?

  3. Excellent post! It presents a bigger picture of human experience that is little explored in relation to technical influence. Its an opposite phenom to the natural ‘thinking’ communications shorthand kids develop while immersed into a mobile texting world. With video as you present it we are coming back to our fundamental selves as visual communicative beings … for the second time!

  4. When some company finally implements mobile-to-mobile video calls in a high-quality, fast and one-click easy package (namely Apple), then telepresence and all that Silverman is talking about here will take off at a hot pace.

    The bottleneck seems to be the location of screens and speed. Video Skype with Pops on Sunday morning at respective computer desks, and colleagues in high-tech offices with video walls are nice but most people do their phoning on the go, and at the speed of 3-clicks and ‘call’.

    If video calls were that fast and mobile, I’d prefer it.

  5. Framing the issue as video versus voice does not work. All video gets delivered as video AND voice. Plenty of Skype calls remain voice only and no Skype calls exist as video only. Video remains an adjunct to voice. A more useful framing for communication solutions is the extent to which they deliver the “being there” experience. Video does contribute to a being there experience, but I would argue even the video Cisco’s telepresence falls far short of being there. High definition voice available via Skype and the HD enabled IP phones from companies like Polycom, AudioCodes, snom, and Gigaset moves the audio aspect of being there much further than Skype or telepresence in the case of video.

    The larger issue with Skype is the unrepentant pursuit of AOL’s early 1990’s strategy seeking to lock users into a closed proprietary network. I invite Skype to join the companies working with Jeff Pulver’s HDConnect Project in pursuit of interconnection solutions for the high definition (voice and video) offers made possible by VoIP and the latest HD capable devices.

  6. Skype and the management team is clearly on a drive to monetize and increase cash flow. The article above is a hint that Video will be a charged for product in the future at skype. Clearly the cost structure requires many more servers for Video, hence it would be natural to charge a view pennies. The private equity backers are behind these moves to increase cash flow. The most drastic has been the doubling of the Call setup Charge to a Healthy 9.1 cent (almost 10 cent). . Having been in the world of mobile and landline communication, we know the average paid for call time is about 2 minutes. Average through the network, meaning a skype out call is now very expensive, almost 6- 7 pence making the service one of the least attractive. So reading small print within articles about Video is as important as reading the small print on skypes call charges “connection charges”, call setup charges. Hence I believe Video will unfortunately go down the same path. Charged for product. Skypes freemium model is becoming less free by the minute….

  7. Not to sound the party pooper..but video doesn’t change everything, at least not yet. It can make a big difference when the occasion demands it, but it doesn’t seem to be replacing voice and text anytime soon. Like someone remarked, “I don’t want to comb my hair when the phone rings”. Nor would the youth of today switch away from the convenience of SMS.

    I expect video calls will rub shoulders with voice and text calls, but only when video calls get as inexpensive and as ubiquitous. This is of course already happening, but there is still quite some distance to go.

    Personally, if I had all the three options (voice, text, video), I would choose one based on my needs per call. It would be interesting to know if Skype (or anyone else) has market research on whether consumers will see video as a value added option in addition to voice and text..OR will consumers embrace video as a successor of voice and text.

  8. We’ve come quite a ways in terms of technology from CU-SeeMe, 160×120 grayscale pictures, reflector scalability, and the rarity of a video camera being paired with a networked computer.

    I think the key for Skype — and video in general — is going beyond the confines of the desktop, laptop, and expanding to the ubiquity of mobile devices and every surface.

    Cisco Telepresence has to realize a 50:1 reduction in TCO and become an expectation just as the Nortel phone handsets were expectations in the workplace as modern key systems and PBXs tied them together in ways we both loved and hated.

    Dick Tracy is now or never.

  9. Dane Jasper

    Why can’t skype video look as good as Apple’s iSight stuff? It always looks like pretty bad, it only supports two party (person to person, not three or four video users in a conference), it’s just not compelling.

  10. Good post Josh. Besides the high video calling percentage in consumers- 35-40% I am told, I think Skype can practically change the way Enterprises use video calling today.

    Cisco’s break the bank Telepresence isn’t going to become mainstream anytime soon, despite their interest in Tandberg.

    Video adoption is a user experience issue, not a tech problem anymore.

    Besides that, the “new” Skype, should bring video calling inside browsers, open up APIs for web devs to embed video calling in games, social apps, and nail the mobile calling experience once front cameras arrive.