Surprise: Free Video Calling is no Guarantee for Success (or Adoption)

August 1, 2016

Guess what? Mozilla is removing Hello from Firefox.

It will still be available as an add-on, but it seems to have degraded in its importance to Mozilla, which is understandable.

Goodbye Hello
Goodbye Hello

What is/was Hello?

Hello was Mozilla’s attempt to build a video calling service. Something that is baked right into the browser, but can be used by any browser supporting WebRTC. Think FaceTime or Hangouts but without the app or even a website.

Mozilla partnered for Hello with TokBox (a Telefonica company), which provided the backend to the service – mainly NAT traversal as far as I can tell.

When Hello was announced, I had my doubts and questions about it.

What went wrong?

A few things were wrong from the onset in Firefox Hello:

  1. While it debuted on a desktop browser, its main purpose was mobile. The problem is that Firefox OS got scrapped/pivoted, leaving Hello with no real use
  2. It came at a low point in Mozilla’s history. Mozilla partnered during 2014 with 3 vendors, trying to reduce Google’s hold on it: Yahoo, Cisco and Telefonica
    • Yahoo is all but dead – it just got acquired by Verizon
    • Telefonica needed Firefox OS on mobile, and now that that hasn’t matured, my guess is that its interests lie elsewhere these days, so having Telefonica/TokBox as part of Hello probably isn’t helping too much today
    • Cisco only wanted to protect its H.264 investments, which it succeeded
    • This cost Mozilla in focus and diluted its brand from being a pure open alternative
  3. Firefox has no real network effect or user base to rely on. It doesn’t connect users to one another but rather it connects viewers to web pages. Having hundreds of millions of viewers doesn’t equate monthly active users for a personal communication tool that is baked into the same product
  4. Hello was simple, but offered nothing interesting/innovative/new/needed. People who used apps continued to use apps. Those that wanted to meet over URLs used URLs. Having the button in the browser wasn’t enough to make people leap for the opportunity to use it
  5. While available in all WebRTC supporting browsers (=Chrome & Firefox), it was really a Firefox thing. This limited the user base, and especially the ability to start or to really receive a call over a mobile device

The main issue though is that a free video calling service isn’t that much of a deal these days (if this surprises you – just ask Google).

So Mozilla started by embedding Hello right into the browser. Then making it into a system add-on. And now it is making it into just another add-on. I assume it has a lot to do with the usage they’ve seen over the past year for Hello (and its non-adoption). It makes no sense to continue investing the time and effort in it if no one is using it – and having it officially released with the browser once every few months is a waste. Better throw it out of the browser and simplify the browser releases.

The next step might be to sunset the add-on/service altogether and say goodbye to Hello.

Is this predictive to Google’s Duo app?

Google announced Duo and is about to release it. Simplifying things a bit (and dumbing it down), Duo is a FaceTime clone. I covered Allo/Duo a few months back.

On face value, there’s no reason why Google Duo won’t meet a similar fate as Mozilla Hello.

That said, there are a few notable differences:

  • Duo is a mobile only app, whereas Hello focused on desktop browsers
  • Duo will probably be released on Android and iOS, covering 100% of the mobile market from day one
  • Google has a large users base on Android and the ability to get Duo in front of users. It also has the social graph of these people – via the phone’s address book
  • While Google kept Duo simple, it did bake two features into it:
    • Speed of connectivity, taking it to the extreme by adding QUIC into the mix
    • Caller’s video sent even before you accept the call

Will this be enough for Google Duo to get the adoption? I don’t know.

Where do we go from here?

In 2016 there should be no doubt anymore:

If you plan to monetize a video calling service, you need a serious business plan.

Most services I see launched have no business plan. They attempt to grow to millions of users. There’s a lot of dumb luck involved in it.

I’ve had my doubts about the viability of Wire as a company due to the same reasons. The only progress made by Wire is open sourcing their app – this doesn’t strike me like a business plan or a signal of strength and healthy growth.

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