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Alexey Gavrilov
April 18, 2015

Interview with Zello's CEO Bill Moore and CTO & Founder Alex Gavrilov


Bill Moore, CEO, and Alex Gavrilov, CTO, were interviewed about Zello on the VOIP Users Conference Show, April 17, 2015. Find out about the origins of Zello and how Zello affects people from around the world.


Host: [...] We're talkin Zello, this is a push-to-talk app and I can let go of the button, pften compared to Nextel but we will get into that in just a minute but first of all let's go to Bill Moore, CEO of Zello, thanks for joining us Bill and welcome.

Bill: Thank you very much, it is great to be on the program. I am here with the founder of Zello, Alex Gavrilov, our CTO.

Host: You are going to love this because we make a lot of noise in this field and the hopefully we'll get some interesting comments and I think there's already some feedback from us because we're big time into this kind of technology but before we get to answer questions or so on, let's hear from you folks on maybe the origins. Alex, maybe this is for you, to talk about the company if you'd like. 

Alex: Sure, yeah. It was started in 2005. The idea came from me trying to use ICQ on the telephone, it was the time before the iPhone and smartphones. It was insanely cool, cause you could send messages and not pay for messages. It had all kinds of cool notification sounds but it was really difficult to use on the T9 keyboard. So, I was thinking if I could [create] an application that would do the same but send voice instead, it would keep all the great stuff from ICQ but take out the difficulty of using [a] mobile keyboard. It was two year until it became a mobile application, an application for PC created in 2007. It was launched as [an alternative for Skype for people, for people who wanted to exchange messages]. You don’t need to wait on a call, you can send out a message, whoever you're talking to can reply. It didn’t take off until we have a mobile application. We saw some nice traction right away, we could see people talking across countries, across continents. Because it was a small community of really tech savvy people who knew how to download apps but it was a sign of something is there and something is working. It really took off when we ported it to Blackberry. At that time the iPhone was around and could have applications, same with Android. By that time we started to sell it as a business application and the thing people asked most about was the Blackberry. That sounds strange now, but was true back then. So we launched it on Blackberry, there was no app store, you just downloaded a file from the website, which was LoudTalks back then. So people downloaded the file and that was insanely popular. We went from 10,000 users to two million users in under three weeks. Which was a huge change to our architecture and everything. From there, that’s where the modern history of Zello started. 

Host: Well, so you're also on Windows phone which there is not a huge library of apps on that so, that's I guess you know, kudos to you for that. 

Alex: Well, Microsoft gets kudos to that because they've really worked hard to get apps on that platform. It’s disappointing from a developer standpoint, it doesn't get much use on that. Some countries use it more than others, like in Brazil and Russia there are users but overall about 1% of our users on Windows phone. 70% are using Android. 

Host: 70% using Android? 

Alex: Yes.

Host: Okay, interesting. I've got some more business-y questions for Bill, but I wanted to ask you first of all a tech question Alex and I think this is your domain, which is… developing for 4 platforms, I mean a lot of things start on Windows or sometimes they start on Android. They spend months before they can get onto the second platform. Not that many people support four, I mean, you've been around and so I get that but how hard, how difficult is it to be supporting the four platforms, I mean these are for totally different things, right?

Alex: Right, well maybe it’s even more than four, there's Android, Windows, then there is Windows Core, which is a completely different platform, which made it difficult for Microsoft to get apps there because it’s just completely different. 

Host: Because there's a Windows version, not the phone, there's a Windows version, right? I didn't realize, I didn't think about that. I think I saw it but didn't know.

Alex: Yeah, some people still use this. 

Host: Windows 10, the phone, will be the same as Windows 10, right? So you'll lose…

Alex: Yeah, that's the plan and I hope it works. It was difficult and it was a hard choice because for a communication app like Zello, you want all your friends to be able to use it. Adding additional platforms makes it more useful for everybody. Like Android phones benefit from Windows being supported. It’s a big advantage, but this advantage slows you down because when you want to add a new feature you need to spend four times the time on it, which is a big cost. 

rasteurized devices in a line (1)Host: Okay, here a question for whoever would like to field it. And of course, we have a bunch of people here and a lot of them have questions but here's my last one for a moment which is - what applications do you know about? I mean, one can imagine, very easily, groups and by the way we need to talk about the pro version, there are groups like volunteer fire departments.I know that's how we found out about it because one of our members is in that, is in his local or has something to do with that, are there any really unimaginable uses for it? What do you know about these cases you guys? 

Bill: Lately, our most famous use is protesters,I don't know if you know that we call it the consumer side/ social radio and applications for business side but it was the number one overall app out in Egypt during their Uprising and then number one overall when that happened Turkey. That's above Twitter. above Facebook, above YouTube. Anyway, the same phenomena repeated in Venezuela, the government attempted to shut down the application, which was newsworthy. That was a year ago now. It's also been the number one overall app in Ukraine so that's kind of interesting and makes sense because, you know, your mobile and you need real-time communication. It's extremely popular with people driving who are bored with groups to use it instead of texting or messaging. Our particular emphasis has been on live public conversation and creating value in the same way as HAM radio or CD radio which is because it's live human voice. It's a much more intimate communication than texting and other alternatives. We see groups that have campouts together, a coffee shop in Singapore that is branded Zello and you know, blood donations where the group's get together and they hold really strong communities and really great friendships. Because it's live voice, it's how we naturally communicate, it's their business. It’s the 9-1-1 system for South Africa, for example. It’s kind of risen informally. If we didn't mention, there's 80 million registered users around the globe. It’s not as strong in the United States but it’s really popular in big parts of the world. 

Host: We all get the Paradigm as a lot of us are former HAM radio operators. I know James, I’m going to be reading some of the IRC stuff, James why don't you go ahead, you have to unmute first. 

James:  I have been using the Echolink for a couple years now. How does Zello differ from Echolink? I noticed you have some features that you can interface with radio radios. But I guess there are other differences too. 

Alex: Yeah, Zello is quite different from Echolink. Echolink is great at work for connecting radios over the internet, the application is for radio operators. Zello is easy to use as an application. Zello is used to connect with radios and radio channels, which is kind of similar to Echolink, but the main user is using Zello, radio-style, but not needing to know anything about radio technology. 

James: It's clearly very different. The feature part of Zello is much richer. For example, one of the features I really like is the audio chunks are recorded and you can go back in time and replay a translation that was recorded. I think that’s really brilliant. 

Bill: Well people love that. There’s two main sides to our business. Consumer, which we love to talk about more and one bigger point, is unlike ham radio there are no barriers. You don’t need to understand the technology, you don’t have to worry about spending money on equipment, which is good and bad. Good in that there’s a huge audience, everyday folks can use it. Bad in that we have problems with, we call them ‘bad guys’, who are trolls and have disruptive behavior, the same kind of thing you see on IRC and other communities. That's a challenge and makes that side of the business interesting and more difficult. The other side is much simpler. Instead of Nextel or two-way-radio for business, you use a subscription. Many small businesses use our free product. The advantages are it works on any carrier, on any device, and of course there's no range restrictions, one of the advantages that comes with VOIP, in a push-to-talk mode. 

Host: You wanted to ask about encryption? 

James: I’m guessing that the signaling and media streams are encrypted and I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons it’s stayed popular in regions where demonstrations are going on. 

Alex: Well, no. On the free version of Zello, we don’t encrypt media. 


Host: I will add him as a contact, I press his name and you can see here you may or may not be able to read it, it just had two contacts up here I'm going to click on that and now I'm going to show his screen. 

Michael: I just got a little alert that says that I got a contact request. [...] So there, now I’m connected. I would say “Hey Bob, how’s it going?” 


Host: You see the 'recent messages', you see ‘contacts’, you see ‘channels’. Channels are interesting. Let's have the guys, they’re back, so let's have them explain channels, Bill? 

Bill: Sure, there's two main kinds: private and public. Private channels have a password and you would invite people that you know. Public and are available to anybody and then within channels there are a couple different variants, so we had a feature called Zelect which anybody can listen but moderators need to approve people before they can speak, to cut down on disruption. The general idea is when you create a channel you own it, then you can appoint moderators who then have controls over who can be in and out, they can block people and we've been finding those style features for quite a while to improve you know the overall health of the conversations. Popular channels show up on a list called “trending” and they're either filtered or not filtered, would be those that have been approved by an editor and essentially they are family friendly. We have policy that say there are not sex channels, there’s not illegal drugs. Those policies depend on the community to flag channels. The 'All' list is certainly going to have that language but often those are pretty fun and interesting too.  


Host: Anybody else have any questions? Who's within the sound of my voice? Let us know. I'm looking at IRC. 

Andy: I have a couple of questions. 

Host: Go Andy. 

Andy: Can we start with technical ones? I'm interested in the way this actually streams. Are you mixing the media and the signal together? Are they separate channels? Are the defined types? Are they proprietary? What is it? 

Alex: Well Zello uses proprietary protocol. I’m not sure about the question about mixing? 

Host: Sorry, do we have a separate media stream and a signaling stream? Or are they all part of the same protocol? 

Alex: Oh yeah, well they separate the media and signaling. They’re both proprietary. 

Host: Okay, it’s interesting they stream and start to play live. Which is good. For a little while I thought that’s what Zello Work was. So the next question is, what is the difference between free Zello and Zello Work? 

Bill: In most cases you know we emulate two-way radio and so that call setup and latency is really important. If you look at different push to talk walkie-talkie apps, most agree Zello is the best, fast and is reliable in a wide variety of environments which is the value of a business tool and it's the same core technology used under both. The business version though, gives you centralized administration which is important if you have a team with more than 20 users. So say a flower shop with three drivers, the free version is probably fine. Go to three phones, create the channel, put a password on it, it's going to work great for you. 


Bill: [...] Avoiding a swiss army messaging app, one of the reasons it’s been popular is it’s narrowly focused with a big button, push to talk. Some other features you played with, history and lots of settings but, the core use case is you push this button to talk. Many hardware companies, hardware accessory companies, have modified their products to work with Zello push the talk button. You can get hardware buttons and leave the phone in your pocket. You don't need to unlock the screen and fumble around on the glass to push the button, talk, let go, listen.  

Host: That was going to be one of my questions. With all the hardware products that interfaces with Zello. After watching a couple of videos, I determined that I wanted a bluetooth push-to-talk button to talk with. [...] I found some rather interesting little $1.60 bluetooth buttons and immediately ordered one and they seem to work quite well.

Bill: Fantastic. It simplifies the user experience because it’s back to two-way radios. It’s a button, you start talking, you let go, you listen. 

Host: Coupled with a headset or a bluetooth headset,It’s great because you're totally hands free. 


Host: Actually, somebody mentioned this in IRC and I don't know if it's been covered yet since I was obviously out for a while but I've got an LG watch that has a microphone and a speaker. I think I can talk to you. 

Alex: Well we have considered that. Chances are, it’s going to happen.

Host: I didn’t ask when! 

Bill: We’ve adapted it to the Apple Watch. 

Host: [...] Obviously you would go with the Apple watch. 

Alex: Well, right now, you don't have access to audio on Apple watch so you use it as a remote so you can see who's calling you, you can reply on your Apple watch but it's going to use your phone or device with microphone and speaker. 

Host: If I had notifications on, if I did have them all on I guess I would see something. Would I see on my Android? 

Alex: Yeah, you would see something.

Host: So I would see a notification. Alright, who has more questions? 


Michael: Zello works a hundred times better than Google Hangouts. I would like to make a minor point here and what Zello proves, I think, in a lovely way is that voice is still massively valuable and there's a lot of emphasis these days with web RTC and video and and all of these things that are, at the end of the day, they're nice to have but they're not got to haves, Where even push-to-talk voice, when it absolutely has to be there, is a good solution and kudos to them for pulling it off. I do have a question to ask. Do y’all have any relationship with Sprint? Is there any sort of natural synergy there because they onboarded all that Nextel stuff and that was their raison d’être in their earliest days. I was actually on a Canadian version called the Mic Network which had push to talk with phones that were the size of, I'm not kidding, a brick, like a clay brick and and Motorola phones and Iden they were called back then, the stuff was awesome back then and delivery companies were using them all over the place because cellular minutes were so expensive. In all of that shake out, was there any business to be had? 

Bill: There's been a little bit where we fill holes in their product line. So they'll reference Zello occasionally, the Sprint sales people. Of course they bought Nextel and replaced iDEN and the Nextel Network and their product now is called Sprint Direct Connect and many of their customers are unhappy with it. Zello is a much closer replacement to Nextel than Sprint Direct Connect so, a number of those customers have come directly and they'll drop Sprint Direct Connect and switch to Zello. There hasn’t been a relationship stronger than that between Zello and Sprint. 

Michael: I was telling in the run-up to this I was engaged with a bunch of TV stations a few years ago and one of the things they were trying to do was trying to move to Verizon's push-to-connect products when it was in its earliest days. Except they characterize it as not push to talk, it was pushed to wait a bit to maybe talk, and I suppose they got it worked out in the end but it was frustrating to the people in the early days of that product.

Bill: Voice is great, I'm a radio fan, always have been. I mean it communicates better than anything. If the video had gone down this call could go just fine without the video. If we lost the audio it would be all over, so it really is a fundamental way we communicate but it really needs to be live to work well.You know the voice message style doesn't work so well, you don't have air traffic control running over voicemails. Dispatch companies can’t run their operations off of sending messages. Back to that point of how do you make it like a two-way radio, instant? It’s not easy to do and there's been a lot of false starts and not many contenders that have, you know, technology that is suitable. 

Michael: And your advantage is focus, so kudos.


Jim Courtney: It's Jim Courtney. I’m sort of interested in this Zello thing. I had a hard time trying to find contacts. I tried to contact Andy, this was a week ago, I only got in touch with Michael because I just saw you put his, whatever it is, ID up and I don't have contact with you as well. What’s more interesting is that 10 years ago I had a client who was basically running a dispatch operation and a friend in an operation involving fixing pavement, putting oil in the pavement, and making it all smooth again and that stuff. Anyway he’s totally non-technically and he was totally blown away by what he could do with a real-time thing like Zello, I appreciate the remarks about being real-time and the fact that it's the only way a dispatch operation could work and so on. It's a totally different thing than like Skype or wire or any of these other communication services. So, glad to see there's something up there and running in this way. 


Host: We’ve got a question from IRC that I think is a pretty good one: "Where do you guys see the product going in light of the new LTE voice over, LTE standard of the volte standard being driven somewhat by the First Net project?" and somebody else added “it could only make Zello and its elk operate more smoothly” 

Alex: Well now that you mention it, we know about it. 


Host: There's also a pro version. Why don't you expound on what that's for, haven’t really looked into it. Don't know anything about the cost or who it's for, going to guess it's for professionals who use the service. Tell us about the differences.

Bill: Well today, there are really just two kinds of networks in the same app that work over either. There's the consumer network where you are adding each other's contacts.  If you had Zello for Work you’d add them from a console and you know, you'd be the first Andy instead of millions of Andy's. We had a product for iOS called Zello Pro that was discontinued. It allowed you to have [custom] visual feeds and it was just an experiment to see, you know, how many people would prefer a paid app and the app store dynamics have changed [from] the old days where there were separate markets for paid and free and today's, you know, when you buy up from from the iTunes app store, there’s a list of apps [...] so it was an experiment that we killed. 


Host: What are some features we have not mentioned? I wasn't apart of about 5 minutes or so, so I don't know, did we go through the various features? For example you can send pictures, personally I wasn't that thrilled, I don't care one way or the other. There's 500 apps that do that, but you can share images and for some of these cases I presume this is of interest to people. Like if people are rioting and you want to send pictures. I don't know if I can imagine, but what else is there? There's the flash message, in other words, an alert message or if you're trying to get a hold of somebody, are there any we have not mentioned at all though?  

Bill: There's a major new business feature that’s available now, we haven’t done any promotion around it. For call recording, centralized call recording. Big companies are interested in that for  regulatory or compliance reasons. And so it’s obviously going to record all of the audio communications. And for the images, business use images for you know, you're dropping off a load and want to capture a picture. It's been, with both business and consumer, one of those items not within our primary focus.The reason to experiment with it on the consumer side is, it’s something to talk about, you know, kind of makes conversations more fun.


Michael: Do you have a broadcast capability? 

Bill: We do and so one of the consumer channel types is broadcast only but businesses would set up a channel, there's a default called ‘everyone’ and you know could use it one way or both ways. 


Host: We are talking about Zello, I think you can go look at Zello, for more information on it. We think it’s a terrific app and that’s why we invited you gentlemen to join us.