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Nonstop Rob


CNET Newsmakers
October 31, 1996, Rob Glaser
Nonstop Rob
By Margie Wylie and Nick Wingfield
Staff Writers, CNET NEWS.COM

Some people resemble their pets; Rob Glaser resembles his work. The creator of RealAudio is a hyperkinetic ball of rapid-fire verbiage, the words tumbling over one another as if each thought was racing to be the first one out. That somehow seems appropriate for the man who gave the Web its voice.

Glaser says he's always been that way. With that rare, dangerous combination of smarts and action other kids loved to hate, Glaser started his own radio station at age 12; in high school, he founded a PC game software company. Three college degrees later, he went to work for a software start-up called Microsoft. Ten years later, the burned-out Glaser quit to travel and volunteer for nonprofits, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Then he discovered the Web.

Using his Microsoft stock money and investments from industry notables like Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, Glaser started Progressive Networks. The two year-old company cornered the market on Web audio before there was a market. Today, millions of people listen to radio programs, sample music, and tune into conference speeches using the free RealAudio player. (Only the "Netcasters" pay.)

NEWS.COM interviewed Glaser near our San Francisco offices where he talked about what inspired RealAudio, the dual threats of media empires and Internet regulation, and wings of wax.

NEWS.COM: What is it about the Internet that let you create a new kind of audible experience?
Glaser: Aside from the fact that audio only consumes about one-hundredth of the bandwidth of video, I was struck by the fact that there are many applications in which the audio element is the compelling experience. It seemed to me that being able to evoke that kind of experience was a great thing.

I started a radio station in high school. Instead of going to the FCC to get a low-wattage license, we just wired the school buildings. It had a great impact. So, in some sense, 20 years later, I'm doing the same thing, just on a slightly larger scale...

NEXT: Real Audio's real story

Rob Glaser

Age: 34

Claims to fame: RealAudio

Previous life: Microsoft, VP multimedia development

Degrees: B.A. and M.A., Economics, B.S., Computer Science, Yale

CNET Newsmakers
October 31, 1996, Rob Glaser
Real Audio's real story

After ten years at Microsoft, what made you decide to quit and start Progressive Networks?
I first got the sense that the Web was going to be big when I downloaded Mosaic back in the summer of 1993. I was on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which focused on issues of civil liberties in cyberspace. Someone on the board said, "You have to try this Mosaic thing." I downloaded it and all the light bulbs went off at once.

I was thinking that the Internet could be a mass medium, but we're not going to be able to do video at 30 frames-per-second of motion right away. The question then was, "What could we do that was meaningful?" Doing multimedia at Microsoft I learned that, at an equivalent quality, audio was about one-hundredth the bandwidth of video. The data rate of a modem is about one-hundredth of the data rate of a CD-ROM. So, if we could do OK video over CD-ROMs connected to PCs, it seemed to me we ought to be able to do OK audio with modems connected over the Internet.

So I put that proposition to the test, put a small group of people together, and put together a prototype of what became RealAudio. We got the prototype working by May or June of 1994--got it to a sort of "Watson come here, I need you," phase--and proved to ourselves that it was going to work. Then we just went for it.

What kind of pressures have the demands to produce software quickly put on you?
We've all lived the Internet year phenomenon where you do not just one product every 18 months, like the PC software industry, but where you do two or three revs of products a year. It's really challenging because you have to put out great stuff; you have to make sure it's well-tested, well-designed and well-integrated. But there's also a bias towards action. I think we've tried to bring people in who've not only understood that but welcomed it and relished it. The plus side of it is that in less than a year, you get millions and millions of people using your stuff. Later this year, we'll pass 10 million users. That's a company that will have been shipping its product for less than a year and a half.

So, yes, you have to move incredibly fast. Yes, the pace of change in incredibly frenetic, but the impact you have and the feedback you get from millions of people is incredible, at least for me. And for a lot of our folks, I think that makes it all worthwhile.

Have you seen a lot of start-ups doing radio on the Internet?
One of the great things about the Internet is its decentralized structure. RealAudio sits right on top of that. Just a week and half ago, I was in Tokyo and we listened to a Seattle Mariners baseball game and re-Netcast the game live back to the Interop conference [in the United States]. It was like this global village turning in on itself.

On the consumer side, you have thousands of choices; on the programming side, anyone can be a Netcaster.

NEXT: Internet media empires

CNET Newsmakers
October 31, 1996, Rob Glaser
Internet media empires

Do you ever worry that huge media conglomerations will erase some or all of the equalizing influence of the Internet?
The preexisting power and economic structures will be influenced by this new world, the Internet, and [vice versa]. I think that's going to be a net positive, but I don't think it completely obliterates previous competitive advantages that were held by large media entities. But I do think that the Internet will look far more like the magazine rack at your local magazine shop than it will look like your cable TV dial. I do think that inherent in the openness of the infrastructure is the fact that there is plenty of shelf space for low-volume magazines, all the way up to specialist publications, all the way up to Time and Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. And will it be hard for start-ups to stay small and be Time and Newsweek? Absolutely. Not everybody has to be the People magazine. Not everybody has to be CNN. There are plenty of spaces in the food chain for Whole Earth Review or the Internet equivalent for a much wider spectrum of information or perspective.

In contrast, the big cable operators choose [to carry] only channels that they own a percentage of; current cable systems also have limited channel capacity. The Internet doesn't have that gatekeeper element or the channel limitation of cable. There will be quasi-gatekeepers in the sense that whoever controls the default home page that you go to has an influence. For instance, we saw that where Netscape decided that they wanted to charge [when] before they were giving it away. They were hosting Yahoo, and then nine months later they were charging Yahoo and four others $5 million a pop each to be on their search page. So there is a gatekeeping function, but it's a much softer gatekeeping function [than with cable].

I think that in the real world power does accumulate. In the car business, there are 15 major car companies on a global basis. That's way better than if there were one; it's not as good as if there were 500. But 15 is a lot better than the number of cable companies you can choose from, which is one, or telephone companies, which is one.

Not everybody can get their magazine at the newsstand; not every magazine that's popular sells to newsstands, but typically good newsstands in big urban areas have hundreds of magazines that you can choose from, and it feels like a much more diverse range of information, opinion, and interest types than what you get in other media.

So that's hopefully not a Pollyannaish perspective, but it is overall a more positive than negative perspective on what's going to happen.

Has your former employer, Microsoft, been good at allowing power to distribute throughout the broad spectrum of start-up companies?
I don't think the current nature of the Internet ecology is based on a conscious choice by any one company, including Netscape or Microsoft. It's been far too organic. I do think that Microsoft understands its own hierarchy incredibly well, and in their case (and I've talked to Bill Gates about this), owning the APIs (application programming interfaces) that are the popular APIs used by developers, and having the mind share with developers is themost important thing. So Microsoft's operating system franchise is fundamentally built on that, and many of Microsoft's businesses are built on or leveraged off of that position.

I think that Microsoft is using every weapon in its arsenal and is busy creating new ones to strengthen its position in the hearts and minds of developers. The particular PC real estate they're focusing on, above all others, is Web browser market share. I think it would be great for the industry if five years from now there were three to five players in the Web browser market, with each having between 15 and 30 percent share. I think as a practical reality that would keep [the Web] vibrant and open and prevent that particular influence point from being a choke point controlled by one company.

Do you think on the Internet we'll see any FCC regulation of things like RealAudio Netcasts?
I got a chance to meet FCC Commissioner Reed Hundt about a year ago to show him RealAudio and explain how it works. His attitude was that this is clearly not something that the Federal Communications Commission has appropriate jurisdiction. We're using the common carriage structure, there's no bandwidth limitation, there's no spectrum allocation, so from that standpoint, the FCC has no role.

Now the government, with this really terrible piece of legislation called the Communications Decency Act, has tried to regulate types of content. Fortunately, we have judges who read the Constitution, and now in two different cases [they] have thrown it out.

I do think there is a specter of content legislation. Those of us in the industry who care about keeping it an open, democratic place have to be very proactive to [implement] systems like the PICS filtering standard, which we were very involved in establishing into practice so that educators and parents can have the kind of ability to steer their kids away from content that they don't want them to see. If we all do that, hopefully the public policy folks will understand that the Net needs to be this open, vibrant place. That regulation, number one, inherently would stifle and censor, and number two, given the global reach of the Internet, it wouldn't work.

Are we overburdening the Internet's infrastructure the way that some doomsayers like Bob Metcalfe would say?
I talked to Bob about this last week. It's good to have a little bit of a Cassandra out there, because otherwise I don't think we would look at the aggregate impact of things. Still, I'd say no.

One of the features of our server is that it communicates with the client. So the client sends back to the originating server's quality-of-service information. We monitor that on our own site. We ask customers about it. And the quality of service has remained basically constant. The one caveat is that there will be storms from time to time that come up, where a given router that's pretty busy on the Net gets flooded or a given segment is overburdened. But the economic imperative is so great that, at this point, whenever that happens it's a business opportunity for someone else.

I can't say there won't be cases where we won't get some bottlenecks. I think the principal bottleneck is going to be the last mile. You need to collaborate with either the cable company or the phone company. Until it's trivial to compete on an end-to-end basis with those companies, which it's not today even with the regulation of telecom, we're going to have an artificial slowing down.

NEXT: The importance of being Rob

CNET Newsmakers
October 31, 1996, Rob Glaser
The importance of being Rob

What kind of kid were you?
I've always been a pretty high-energy person. When I was a kid I wouldn't sit still very easily. You know, in third grade you have little islands of desks. I would sit and just bob and bounce around; I think it distracted the other kids. So what this teacher did was actually create an island of one desk, so I could sit and talk to other third graders and have fun. But when it came time to sit and work, I was sitting there working away and I would be very focused on the work, but kind of in a hyperactive way, and the other kids wouldn't be distracted.

I was this hyperactive little kid....[they] shut up by letting me go to work on the high school computer when I was in fourth grade. When I was 12, I had a camp counselor who worked for the college radio station. I wanted to do that, and for whatever reason, I had parents who didn't tell me that my wax wings might melt if I got them too close to the sun, and so I just tried it. We probably broadcast five or six hours a day, five days a week, and then special events like football games. I always had an interest in that and computers. It was just a matter of gluing all those pieces together. So I guess I was lucky enough to grow up in schools that didn't try to stifle the energy and tried to channel it.

So how did you come to Microsoft?
I worked for IBM in the summer of '81, which was the summer the IBM PC came out. I didn't think I wanted to work for IBM because I was much more interested in smaller, entrepreneurial kinds of companies, ones that seemed more software-oriented than hardware-oriented. I started a software company with some friends when I was in school we kind of self-mockingly called I Be Research that made games for the PC. I did that while I was finishing up college, because I was also doing a master's degree in economics at the same time as getting a B.S. in computer science. I was always kind of interested in business as well as technology and media. Politics, I guess, is the fourth thread.

So I had this company that in '83 had written a couple of games. We made enough money for it to be sort of a reasonable summer job, but we didn't become the next Microsoft. Then I met Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder, in the spring of '83. I went to Seattle and met Steve Ballmer, the head cheerleader among other things at Microsoft, and just thought "Wow, this is an incredibly high density of really energetic, smart, interesting people. I'll do this for a year or two until it gets boring," and then ten years later, I left. So it was a great ten-year ride. I think when I was offered the job they had 200 people. By the time I started there was 250; then there were 15,000 when I finally got off the bus. It was quite a ride.

When did you first hear about the Internet?
I used it when I was in college. I always had accounts on four or five different online services, but it was really after I came back from traveling abroad that I got into the Net. The first thing I did [after leaving Microsoft] was to travel abroad to clear the cobwebs, doing the typical thing of visiting the tombs, visiting the pyramids to sort of remind yourself that they were there 5,000 years ago before the Web and before Microsoft, and that they will probably be there 5,000 years from now, after there was a Microsoft.

Did Microsoft really leave you with that feeling?
Not because of anything that Microsoft had done that was untoward. I joined Microsoft when I was 21. I really sort of parachuted into Seattle, so my Seattle frame of experience was very deeply intertwined with Microsoft.

I wasn't sure what I would do next. I kind of knew I had always been sort of an entrepreneurial person and I always had an interest in this mix of media and technology. My dad owned his own printing business, so I worked for him in the summers when I was a kid. I saw a lot of the pros and the cons of having one's own business. Because of that, I had more of an association and orientation towards being entrepreneurial than somebody whose father worked for General Motors.

I actually got on the boards of some nonprofit civic groups. One was the foundation that puts out Mother Jones magazine. They had one of the first Web sites of any online publication. Another was the EFF, which is very focused on issues of community and civil liberties in cyberspace.

Through the EFF, I first saw Mosaic and I had only sort of heard a little bit of the Web, but it was so vivid, so evocative. It was like the first time I saw the Xerox Star, which was the precursor to Macintosh and Windows. The implementation wasn't quite right, you knew it wasn't the final implementation, but as Allen Kay once said about the Macintosh, it was good enough to criticize.

Rob Glaser