Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Interview with Snapstream's Rakesh Agrawal

I've been a Beyond TV & Beyond Media (both Home Theater PC products) user for the past three years.  So when I saw that Rakesh Agrawal, the founder and CEO of Snapstream would be in Kansas City to talk about his company's latest project, Snapstream Enterprise I jumped at the chance to meet with Agrawal to hear about what Snapstream is working on and learn more about Agrawal and the company. 
Rakesh was generous enough to sit down with me and answer several questions I had for him.  Over lunch, we talked about Snapstream's history, the change in their industry, Snapstream's new Enterprise product, the effect of Microsoft Vista on Snapstream, Integration of DVD & Music playback with Beyond TV and many other topics.
I asked Rakesh how he initially became interested in the Software PVR market.  He explained that the idea took hold when traveling on business.  "We needed a way to stream our shows to the hotel room from our home.  That grew into a concept that became Snapstream Personal Video Station."  Personal Video Station  was even showcased in Bill Gates keynote address at the Windows XP Launch which is ironic since Windows eventually added their own PVR program to their Windows Operating System. Version 3 of Personal video System was launched in May 2003 and in November of 2005 the latest version of Beyond TV  BTV4 (note there has been many free upgrades since 2005) was released. 
Our conversation moved on to how the Software PVR business has changed since Agrawal started Snapstream back in 2000.  Snapstream moved on from "Personal Video Station" to Beyond TV and then Beyond Media (Snapstream's HTPC media front-end software)  These two products were developed separately and continue to act as stand-alone products today.
Screenshot of the Snapstream Website in 2002
Agrawal said Snapstream's focus had been driven by the knowledge that "the consumer wants something that just works."  Snapstream has strived to be the leader in providing the easiest out-of-box experience for their Home Theater PC PVR software although Agrawal feels there is still a ways to go in making the Home Theater PC a product that is accepted by the majority of consumers.  Even though Snapstream's Beyond TV is one of the easier to set up, the Home Theater PVR still requires some real, computer knowledge and the willingness to work at setting it up.
Want to see how the program has evolved since 2003?
Check out the Snapstream Release Notes

Our discussion of the changes in the PVR business and how it Snapstream has evolved with those changes moved on to Snapstream's latest venture - Snapstream Enterprise.  Up until the past year or so Snapstream has focused on the consumer/home PVR market.  I asked Agrawal what prompted the move into the enterprise market?  Agrawal says "we saw a market for a hardware/software combination product that would handle the media monitoring needed by public relations and public information organizations to monitor and respond to TV coverage."  Snapstream calls their enterprise product an "appliance" since they are selling a high-powered server hardware with all of the software configured and ready to use. 
A graphic from Snapstream's Enterprise Website.  Note they are selling the product as an "appliance."
Actually, the enterprise product is the reason Rakesh was in Kansas City in the first place.  He was at a trade show for the nationwide city & county marketing association.  Rakesh said Snapstream is attending many similar conferences and trade shows where they are trying to learn about potential customers who might have a need for the enterprise product and give them an opportunity to show off the product.
Many of the organizations Snapstream is selling to still use VCR tapes or TIVO's to record media coverage of interest to that organization.  Managing such a library and constantly setting up the recordings can be an overwhelming task without the high-powered media server like what Snapstream offers.  To get a good idea of the enterprise product and what Snapstream is selling to government organizations, political organizations and professional sports teams; check out the video demo they have up on their Enterprise website HERE.
When I asked about the balancing of development time between Enterprise & Consumer products, Agrawal said that "Snapstream Enterprise is still an experiment, something that we're continuing to explore.  There are a lot of complementary features that might be developed for one version that would be carried over to the other version and vice versa.  For example, the iPod integration we built into the last consumer release is something that we're now productizing in the enterprise version of the software.  While the balance in the past year has been about 50/50, it's hard to say what it will be in 2008.  Maybe the same, maybe more of one or the other"
If you had any doubt about how the new Enterprise product has taken hold at Snapstream, you need to look no further than the recent award won by Snapstream from "The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship" at Rice University's 5th Annual IT and Web 2.0 Venture Forum.  There, Snapstream was chosen as one of the "Top 10 Most Promising Information Technology and Web 2.0 Companies."  More interesting is the description of Snapstream's business used in the Rice University press release
"SnapStream Media (www.snapstream.com) is media monitoring technology used by public relations organizations to monitor and respond to TV coverage."
As Agrawal confirmed in our discussion, this of course doesn't mean Snapstream is leaving their flagship product Beyond TV, but it does reflect a significant new strategy for Snapstream to split their energies between Enterprise and Beyond TV.
vistabtvAlmost a year ago Brad Linder of PVRWire (now part of TVSquad) interviewed Rakesh(listen to the PVRWire Interview with Agrawal HERE) and one of the things discussed was Microsoft Vista and how that might affect Snapstream.  Agrawal at that time felt Vista would change and hopefully increase consumers awareness of PC/PVR's.  During my discussion with him he said this did not work out the way he had expected.  Because of Microsoft's struggle with driver support and stability, the widespread adoption of Microsoft Vista has not happened they way he had anticipated.  He thought the publicity and push by Microsoft for the HTPC would push PC makers to bundle the video card more with their PC products and this didn't happen.  He also thought that publicity from Microsoft for the HTPC would be stronger than it was.  In the end, Vista has not thus far become a "game-changer" for the media center market.
Couchville, formerly known as the "Columbus Project" during its early development started with a bang when it was dugg by Kevin Rose himself (of digg.com) and reached the front page of digg.
Couchville is a simple but useful ajax-based TV guide site Snapstream developed last year.  The Couchville guide project was done separately from Beyond TV since BTV uses its own online web guide and there was once discussion of merging the Couchville guide in with BTV's online web-guide, but nothing ever came of it.  I asked Agrawal if there were any plans in the near future for Couchville.  He said that Couchville development was really in a holding pattern at this time and there were no plans currently for changing the site from its current functionality.
Another topic covered in Brad Linder's interview with Agrawal just over a year ago was the topic of integrating DVD playback, music playback and photo display among other media features with its flagship PVR product, Beyond TV.  In that interview, Agrawal implied that integration of Beyond TV and Beyond Media was possible, but didn't see where there was as much of a place for Snapstream to differentiate from the competition in this realm. 
Beyond Media Is Snapstream's HTPC front-end software developed several years ago. 
It hasn't been updated (other than adding Vista compatibility) for well over a year.
Since that time, there has been some discussion on the Snapstream Forums of reworking the Beyond TV user interface to allow "Beyond Media-type plugins" as well as other desired features such as picture-in-picture.  I asked Rakesh if this was still in the plans.  He said that while this was still on the list of possibilities, there was no timetable and it wasn't one of their planned features for the near future at least.  Agrawal has said more then once that "TV is and will continue to be our focus" when asked about the Beyond Media/Beyond TV integration of Music, Movies and Photos into the Beyond TV interface and I think (my opinion, not necessarily Rakesh's) that this TV-focus continues to move the "integration" of these features lower on the list of priorities at Snapstream.
He said that such a user interface overhaul would require a great deal of development time and resources.  Instead their plan was to develop features for both the enterprise and consumer products and port any complementary features from either version to the other where appropriate.  He said there will be plenty of new features for both the Enterprise and Consumer products in the next versions, but didn't speculate on what those might be.
cablecardAs more and more consumers purchase HDTV's for their home, the desire to be able to tune HD content on their PVR's will become greater and greater.  Snapstream has had the ability to tune OTA (over-the-air) HD content for two years now since the release of BTV 4.0 and in April of this year added the ability to tune unencrypted QAM through the HDHomeRun Tuner Card.  In a conversation with Agrawal since our interview he mentioned that there are plans to support more 3rd party QAM devices out there although there isn't a specific schedule for that at this time.
Even with the HD tuning ability available through OTA and unencrypted QAM tuners, Snapstream's Beyond TV as well a most other HTPC software products available today cannot tune HD content encrypted by Cable and Satellite providers.  The only HTPC product with this capability thus far is the Microsoft Vista Media Center with the Cablecard tuner built-in (only pre-built HTPC's).  When asked about Cablecard support, Rakesh stated that as it is today, he doesn't  see any way for smaller companies without the name Microsoft or Apple to offer the Cablecard tuning in their products.  Rakesh also said he felt the Cablecard had been pretty much a "bust" considering the hefty investment Microsoft likely spent on it. 
That covers much of what we discussed last month.  Being a long-time user and fan of Snapstream's products this was a great experience for me.  Many thanks to Rakesh for taking the time to meet with me.  My impression of Rakesh is that he is a very down-to-earth, intelligent and super-nice guy.  I could tell from the short time that I spent with him he really enjoys what he does.
If you're interested in Snapstream's consumer or enterprise products head over to Snapstream.com for more information.   If there's anything I didn't cover that your curious about or if you want my opinion on anything I've discussed above, please let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to respond.

Interested in more articles on Home Theater PC's?  Click HERE