Today’s column is a Q&A with RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser on his departure as chief executive, plans for the future and outlook for the digital media industry.
Here’s a longer version with more Q&A than what fit into the paper:
Rob Glaser’s resignation last week from RealNetworks seemed abrupt, but it was actually in the works for several years.
Glaser said he had the first “serious conversation” with Real board members about stepping down more than two years ago, not long after his first kids were born.
But the discussion was interrupted before it went too far.
“When the great recession hit, I just put my head down and I’m like ‘I can’t even think about this for 2008, most of 2009. I’ve just got to focus on helping the company through this rough period of time,’.” Glaser said Friday in a wide-ranging interview about his past, future and final days running the pioneering Seattle digital media company he founded in 1994.
Glaser, who turned 48 Saturday, stepped down as chief executive Wednesday afternoon, then flew to Washington, D.C., for a White House meeting with a group of executives providing advice on federal technology spending plans. It was the longtime Democrat’s second visit in the last month; President Obama also invited him and his wife to a Christmas party in December.
On Friday, Glaser was back in Seattle, reflecting on where he and the digital media industry are headed next. He already helped Real develop a new strategy that will be revealed in a few weeks by Bob Kimball, its general counsel and now acting chief executive.
Glaser has been under pressure from investors who watched Real’s leadership position and value erode over the past decade. But he characterized the decision to find a new chief executive as his, and one made amicably.
“I feel very, very happy with the decision,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. I’m very proud of the company and thrilled I get to stay associated with the company in my capacity as chairman, a signicantly shareholder.”
Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:
Q: It seemed abrupt when you stepped down and immediately left town.
A: Literally, I sent the message to employees and did the final tweeting of it sitting on the plane going to D.C. It was one of those photo-finish kind of deals.
Q: You said you’ll get more involved in civic projects. Like what?
A: There are two or three projects associated with the [Glaser Progress] Foundation that I’m very excited about. There’s some AIDS relief work we’re involved with in Rwanda, a team on the ground in Kigali that does amazing work. I’m hoping to get there this summer. That’s an example. Rather than going to Rwanda every five years maybe I can go every one or two years now.
After our kids were born in 2006 I pulled back. I have not engaged in much of that because my life was 110 percent full being a husband and a dad and my day job.
Before 2006 we would give two, three or four political fundraisers a year; since then we’ve probably given one a year. To some extent it’s about getting back to the level of civic engagement I had before we had kids.
Q: Will you run for office?
A: I think that’s pretty unlikely. As much respect as I have for [politicians]) and as mch respect I have for the importance of what they do, I’m not sure that role on an executive level or a legislative level is the best fit for me personally.
I think you’ve got to say ‘never say never’ when you’re 48 years old, and you’ve had the incredibly lucky life that I’ve had, but I would say it’s definitely in the unlikely category.
Q: What’s next for Real?
A: We kicked off a strategy process in the middle of last year, the most thorough and rigorous review in the company’s history. We did great work. Bob and the team will talk more about it soon, when the time is right. It’s not my place to initiate the discussion about it.
Q: Is there animosity between you and the board?
A: These are people I’ve known for a long time . The right way to think about this is, once you decide to do something like this, the interesting debate is, “Do you do it slow or do you do it fast”?
Q: Looking back, what are you most proud of, and what would you do differently?
A: I can give you the proudest one: I’m incredibly proud of the team here and the innovation that we’ve created. I can think of three or four things we’ve done that had never done before, going back to creating streaming audio 1995, making streaming video practical in 1997, what we did with sort of birthing the casual games industry in the early 2000s, weathering the dot-com crash in some pretty intense competition that might have involved questionable practices from an antitrust standpoint.
But rather than curling up in a ball we weathered that and came out stronger on the other side, pivoted the company in some interesting ways around first consumer services and then carrier applications and services solution like ringback tones and music on demand and video on demand and the like.
There’s some stuff in the pipeline that will rival those innovations in my view if we do a good job with it, rolling it out in the market, so I feel like I’m passing the baton at a time where not only did we weather the downturn . The pipeline for where we go next is in great shape.
Q: What’s going to happen to the digital media business five years out?
A: Speaking from a conceptual level, when I got involved in this I thought digital media is going to be a 25-year thing, which is to say there’s going to be a long period of time before the innovation flattens out. We’re 15 years in — we launched RealAudio in April 1995. The industry as a whole has taken tremendous strides and there’s a lot of work to do.
Think of it from a consumer standpoint. You want to be able to watch any piece of video you have a right to watch anywhere at any time. There are pieces of the solution, but the thing you really want is that seamless “it just works.” It’s not 10 minute videos on YouTube or buying things on your iPhone that you may already own.
There’s enough of the pieces in place where you can envision how it all comes together, but it will be three to five years before that seamless thing that Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner dubbed “TV Everywhere.” Rhapsody is the best of that in the music world, but today those are not mainstream, seamless experinces that work for tens, 100s of millions of people. Big picture, for audio-video, that’s the biggest set of things that I think are coming.
Q: It seems like pieces are falling into place like 3G and 4G networks and cloud services.
A: I would say the barriers at this point are as much business models and alignment of rights as they are technology. I knew it 16 years ago, but I would say I understand it more vividly now. The technology is a necessary foundation element but it’s not sufficient.
You have these industries that set up windowing of content, methods of distribution, different rules for rental vs. purchase that make sense in a physical context. But in a digital world you need to harmonize and integrate all those rules and business models and it’s a hard thing to do that.
Really, in my view, it’s the intersection of the technology and the business model/economics. That’s where the complexity lies and frankly where the opportunity lies if you can fit those pieces together in a way that works for everybody.
Q: Why is Apple now the dominant digital media company and not Real?
A: Fundamentally we’ve been in area where it didn’t all work seamlessly. The best way to make it work seamlessly was to go vertical. You make the hardware, you make the software, you connect it to your services. That’s a totally different business than the historical business that most companies were in that were in the software-services business.
On one hand, you can count all the companies that have fit all those pieces together. It’s a huge undertanking. I’d say BlackBerry pulled it togoether in their space of messaging. Apple’s done it twice, first witht the iPod and now with the iPhone/iPod Touch, and you could say Amazon’s on the road to doing it with the Kindle.
Think of the IT industry. IBM was vertical. The minicomputer industry was vertical, then the PC came along and it was horizontal. Those of us that grew up in that area made the supposition that the horizontal model was going to the dominant model in this business.
It’s very complicated to go from being horizontal — like Google is or like Microsoft and Real — to go vertical. There are many successful companies but you have to say that in the digital media space the biggest successes have been these vertical successes. That’s something that’s incredibly hard for a startup to do.
If I knew in 1995 what I know now, would I have approached the vertical-horizontal thing differently? Maybe, but the wreckage of companies that tried to go vertical – Go/Eo, WebTV, I can go down the list, there are dozens of companies — it’s super, super hard to do that vertical thing. I’m very proud of the success and scale we got to taking the horizontal approach we did.
If you take the long view – the next five or 10 years view — I think there’s going to be a renaissance of that horizontal model as the standards come together to link together all these things.
This next decade, I think it’s a very interesting strategic question, which model is going to be dominant.
Q: Has Seattle’s opportunity passed?
A: No, I would say the opposite. The Seattle high-tech community is alive and well for sure. Hopefully, we played a role helping seed the ecosystem.
Q: Will you get involved with other companies, as well as civic affairs?
A: I don’t know what the mix is going to be yet. I turn 48 tomorrow [Saturday], not 84. I feel like I have time in my life to pursue a mix of things depending in what captures my passion.”