Vonage founder Jeff Pulver: building a decentralized platform for secure communications with crypto and blockchain

Jeff-pulver-blockchain

Is secure, private communication a complete pipe dream? Or can we create it with blockchain and crypto?

Internet pioneer Jeff Pulver created VOIP. Literally. He also founded Vonage, now a $3B company. And he got the U.S. government to issue the Pulver Order, which ensured that voice over IP was not restricted. Now he’s planning to reinvent video, voice, and text communications online.

The goal: fixing security issues with Zoom and other platforms.

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Full transcript: Jeff Pulver on adding blockchain to internet communications

John Koetsier: Is secure, private communication a complete pipe dream?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. Jeff Pulver created VOIP, voice over IP, literally. He also founded Vonage, a $3 billion company. And he got the US government to issue the Pulver Order, which ensured that voice over IP was not restricted. Now he’s reinventing voice, video, and text communication online. The goal: fixing security issues that we’ve seen with Zoom and other platforms. Jeff, welcome!

Jeff Pulver: Thank you for having me.

John Koetsier: How are you doing? I’m starting all my interviews these days with how are you doing? Where are you? Are you sheltering in place? Are you safe?

Jeff Pulver: I’m on Long Island in a hot zone, perhaps one of the biggest hot zones in America right now, sheltering in place with my immediate family and laying low, and yet at the same time feeling inspired. I’ve actually had blockchain dreams of how we can use certain technologies to get out of this mess, which, I don’t know … we’re in the WTF, what day is it, does it really matter era.

I understand that, and the biggest shocker to some people I’ve spoken to is they think we’re going to go back to the way things were. And the idea is that we’re in the now, and the now we’re in is going to shift to another now, but it won’t be the now perhaps they understand. And I’ve already started doing things in the ‘BC era,’ that is the before and after.

John Koetsier: I thought I was the guy who invented that. AC is after coronavirus, BC is before coronavirus.

Jeff Pulver: Well it’s either BC or BCE, before the Coronavirus era or after … we’re certainly, and when I look at commercials, when I look at movies, certainly I see things created a certain way and then I feel like I look at a commercial that’s on TV now and it’s like, wait, it doesn’t belong, it doesn’t feel right to see this. And so, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how do we get out of this mess, and part of the drop to pause, and you figure out how to reinvigorate and restart the economy. One of the biggest things we need to figure out from the very beginning is interoperability.

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Jeff Pulver: If you remember the nineties with the advent of the internet going from dial-up to broadband, there was a time when many of us carried an entire bag of tricks so that when we went to one country or another country we’d be able to connect the telephone lines.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: And then one day WiFi happened and we had interoperability, and we actually could use WiFi as a way to connect. And the way I explain that to other people is that your bank card, your ATM card, for people who went to the bank … and you traveled from New York to Toronto and you needed cash, you went New York to London and you needed some pounds … you can go to a foreign bank and dip your card in and you got the currency.

And understand we’re moving to a cashless society but the interoperability that we have with ATMs is amazing. Let’s say that we get through this and we’re testing, we have in-home testing, so we have immediate access and we know ourselves whether or not we have the, you know, we can prove that we either are virus-free, haven’t had it yet, or what our status is.

John Koetsier: Well it’s interesting you mentioned that because I just posted, you know I’m working on a book Insights from the Future, right? Which is future stuff, and I just posted about a device that I said Apple’s going to invent a year from now, which you wear and get virus updates, much like your antivirus software on your laptop gets virus updates weekly or monthly or something like that, and you just put a little sample of blood or whatever might be in case there, and you get a little ding and you’re good or you’re bad.

Jeff Pulver: Absolutely, but we know that we’re good, right? But we’re going to try, I want to travel from New York to London to attend a conference.

John Koetsier: Exactly.

Jeff Pulver: So my municipality, I’ll say the county, even New York state, will figure out how to go from place to place within New York state. Knowing governor Cuomo, he’ll work it out with the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut because he always seems to. So we’ll have some interoperability state to state, but if I want to fly to California, if I want to go to Vancouver, if I want to go to London, then we have to … we’re talking about it on a galactic level, global level, we need interoperability for the test results.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: Now I understand that in some, in at least one Asian country…

John Koetsier: And verification that you are immune or you’re not carrying the disease.

Jeff Pulver: Well, and I understand people in, I don’t know, I read too many reports, I don’t know what’s true or not, but I understand there are QR codes assigned to people’s smartphones.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: And it scans either green, and they check your temperature when you enter a location and it scans green, and then you scan green, red or yellow. Green, you’re fine to go for at least stay for two hours. Red means you gotta go back, you should not be where you are. And Yellow, I read different stories, but one is yellow is if you turn yellow, it means that you’ve interacted with somebody who’s come down with the virus.

John Koetsier: That’s correct. And so there’s management of that all on the back end as well. So it knows who you’ve been in touch with or who you may have been in touch with.

Jeff Pulver: Right, but on a hyperlocal basis within that dystopian government’s control you’re good. Thing is, if you want to go from that dystopian government to another dystopian government’s control, you may be out of luck because they have no way to intake you into their system and they have no reason to trust what the results were. So that’s what I was thinking about blockchain, about if we were to believe in immutable trust and not quantum physics, and say that we can actually have trusted systems around the world, we need interoperability at the highest level to unroll this.

Too many people are thinking just to themselves or just to their municipality. But if we want to do this right, because we have a global economy, we have to figure this out at the highest level and bring it down. It requires a lot of thinking.

John Koetsier: Well, we need that interoperability that you’re talking about. We absolutely need that. We also need some level of doing this in a way that protects personal privacy…

Jeff Pulver: Yes!

John Koetsier: So that you can know if we’re going to meet for coffee, that I’m safe and I know that you’re safe, but we can exchange that information without releasing too many details to some government or something like that.

Jeff Pulver: Again, that’s where blockchain could work. Where we have immutable trust, where we’re sharing very little information actually on the blockchain, but enough information so we know that we’re both safe to meet with each other.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver:  And that needs to be solved now. I mean too many people are … I mean I’m not a political person, but too many people are looking to start an economy, I understand that, if we start it too early they’ll just bring back spikes, which I’m seeing the death tolls every day here in New York and it’s not fun.

John Koetsier: It’s not fun at all. It’s awful. I mean, and they talk about the deaths in home that was about 25 a day in New York in normal times and is now something like a thousand a week or something like that. I don’t have the exact stat, but it’s horrific.

Jeff Pulver: 799 people were reported passing away in the last 24 hours in New York.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Jeff Pulver: And so it’s a lot and it’s very heavy, and you’re in a situation where we can’t be communal. People are not able to go to funerals and respect those who passed. It’s a really hard time.

John Koetsier: Or hold the hand of their loved one as their loved one passes away.

Jeff Pulver: And say goodbye.

John Koetsier: And say goodbye. So, this is the reality that we’re in. I wanted to respect that by starting there, but it’s not exactly why we came together to talk. You’re doing something interesting.

You cannot not do things in communications apparently, this is your world. This is your life. You’re reinventing communications across your entire lifespan as an entrepreneur. Talk about the problem that you’re trying to fix. I mean, we’ve seen Zoom and we’ve seen lots of security issues with that as that’s 10x, 20x over the past few months, and we’ve seen lots of security issues with other communications protocols. Talk about the problem you’re trying to fix.

Jeff Pulver: Well it’s really not a problem trying to fix as much as a solution but looking to bring to market. Twenty years ago, during my communication journey, so just go back in time. In 1995, I launched the first phone network on the internet called Free World Dialup. It was seven years before Skype and it proved to the world and it was just a project, there was no business plan. I did it with a couple, with support of two people, one in Indonesia, another friend in Tokyo, in Japan. And we created a network, the first one ever, never been on the internet, and it was a precursor to what was going to be in the future.

And then that project evolved, Free World Dialup evolved from being, having a telephone line component because it was basically… local calling using the internet as intermediary so that if me calling you, I could bypass long distance charges. And what it evolved into was an end-to-end IP communication network with no telephone numbers where users could configure their own device and connect. And I ended up with over a million users at that point. It took, we were, that took a while to go there, but by 2002, 2003, 2004 we were about at a million or so. And it was a large interrupt network because we were open to peering with other networks. So it wasn’t just my network, but I could interconnect with your network.

And there was a time I was trying to work with MCI, when MCI was MCI, and they wanted to charge fees to interconnect with MCI. And I actually had more users on my network than they had on theirs, running the protocol, so we worked out a peering relationship. And so 20 years later, what is needed, and so I’ve always been an advocate for creating the future of creating a test bed and to encourage other people to join that future. And so several years ago when I started thinking about blockchain, blockchain communications made a lot of sense, particularly on the backend.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: Where if people had complaints about billing and creating call detail records, and being able to understand timestamps, and there’s a lot of reasons why in the back office a blockchain works just to have immutable, just to have the trust and the ability to actually have proper billing and proper record keeping. So that’s, there’s a need, there has been for a long, long time.

Now you look on the front end. What I’m advocating really in what we’re creating, again, is a next generation end-to-end IP network. No telephone numbers needed, right? We’re creating is that middleware. We already have and when you’re creating a network of … if in 1992, I was going to tell you about the internet, you know, what are you gonna do with that? You know, because it’s like sure, you’re going to do blah, blah, blah.

And the thing is, the best inventions are those that get into other people’s hands that repurpose it and all of a sudden create things you never before even saw as based on what you were doing. And that’s the magic that you created when people stumble upon the future and they’re able to take the innovation and form it in their own way. So we’re creating the platform to empower other people to actually run with it.

And so what, the core of Debrief, it’s a communication network that will empower people to do end-to-end communications, and we have a set of APIs and people can embed that in their products. They can test with it, for demonstration purposes, since I can’t say, ‘okay, here’s some middleware’ we created an application that demonstrates some of the features of the functionality that one could do, but it’s more like this code will be available to other people to understand what we’ve done to encourage people to figure out what they can do.

In the case of Zoom and others, I mean the biggest challenge … Zoom basically had a wish, I think, which was to become the most popular app on the internet. And it’s like, be careful what you wish for, because when you wake up one day and you are the most popular app ever on the app store…

John Koetsier: Lots of scrutiny.

Jeff Pulver: You have a lot, well, not only do you have scrutiny, right? I mean, if you remember people.

John Koetsier: You’re a big target too.

Jeff Pulver:  You’re targeted. If you remember people targeting Cisco and all these routers because people were having a home invasion of their WiFi networks because people were not changing their default passwords?

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: We’re talking about product interface challenges. We’re talking about usability issues and things that are on people’s roadmap. I mean, their problem, most of the issues that Zoom has or had, is the fact that people, their customers were not reading the fine manual. You would say RTFM, I don’t want to curse here, but writing software myself we have so many customers looking for support we’d say ‘RTFM,’ and they didn’t know what RTFM stood for.

So we said, ‘Oh it’s for read the fine manual.’ But most people are too rushed to get into something and then a lot of events, particularly those that serve the public, they actually share the password. And people do the bombing and they come in … they do the interruption and yes, if people have malice, if people have malintent, people will do bad things

John Koetsier: Well, it …

Jeff Pulver: It’s also stupidity and people do stupid things.

John Koetsier: Yes, they will. I mean, I was on a Zoom conference call with Eric Seufert, mobile expert, just a week ago and we had 200 people on and it was going to be amazing. I mean, he was VP of user acquisition at Rovio, right? I mean, he’s worked at Network, he sold his company to Network. The guy knows what he’s talking about. We had all these experts on, and somebody bombed and started drawing dick pics the entire time. And we basically could not continue, could not proceed, right? I mean you just run out, so it’s not possible. So we’ve seen these issues with some of these platforms.

And by the way, you’re such a technologist, you jumped right into the problem and the technology, and I think you mentioned the name of the company once, Debrief. So I love that.

Jeff Pulver: Well if it’s on my shirt, I should say it’s on my shirt, but…

John Koetsier: There you go, excellent. So you’re trying to fix that problem and you’re building a platform for it.

Jeff Pulver: Well it’s a fix-it as much as actually to be proactive about it.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: So the idea is that, my challenge right now is to find software developers, engineers, people who are creative who’d like to join the communication network of the future and who like to play with a network, a blockchain communication network, and join us and play.

We, of course, we want people to commercialize their products, but I like to at least let them exploit the potential, what’s there. We have a tool kit. I’m looking for feedback. I’m looking for user acquisition. We have, I think last I checked 3,000 people were using what we created as a demonstration to showcase what we can do. And this is not a game that I’m trying to get to millions of people using my application. I mean, 20 years ago when I was doing Free World Dialup, I advocated, I had a whole list on my website of all these devices you could connect to our network that you can use.

And then I made this mistake, a good mistake, but I learned from it. I plowed a lot of money into building my own app. I was silly enough to call it ‘Pulver Communicator.’ I interoperated all the instant messaging networks together. I had all these functions, all these features, and it was so complicated, like the only person who was using it, I think it was me. And I was like, ahhh, I don’t want to do that again. So, but…

John Koetsier: But it probably met your need exactly.

Jeff Pulver: Yeah, perfectly! And then when I woke up, I called the developing team and like ‘add this, add that,’ like what? But I pulled back because I don’t represent everybody, but I do need to be able to demonstrate capabilities. And if you look back to having end-to-end IP, which is key, so we’re not phone-number based, right? We’re not, I’m not using the old world thinking, I’m not into the mindset of telephone numbers as identification. And the thing about having a decentralized communication network is that we don’t see the content or context of what’s being shared.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: So you have privacy because it’s a true peer-to-peer communication network. You will have onboarding. You will have a way of creating a way for people to be identified as one would in any type of network, but it’s mostly, it was built from the top down, bottom up to be as decentralized as possible. So that we don’t see the context of what’s being shared and you have privacy in those communications.

John Koetsier: Yeah. You said context, but I think you mean content, correct?

Jeff Pulver: Well both, right? Because if you had content, I could look and see what you’re talking about and then all of a sudden show advertisements based on what you’re talking about.

John Koetsier: Yep.

Jeff Pulver: I find the whole thing creepy that you and I could be talking about hats with the podcast … and if I talk about hats, in about an hour from now, if I look at my smartphone I start seeing commercials for hats because somehow someone is listening and hat commercials start showing up.

And it’s too coincidental for it not to be that someone is listening and all of a sudden showing me Panama hats. And so it is just interesting to me. So I’m looking to the future and looking at what one needs in order to have a vital, viable communication network. And so we’re looking to be, if you will, the next generation AT&T, the next generation communication network.

John Koetsier: Yeah, backbone.

Jeff Pulver: And we’re focusing just on IP communications. I’m not saying whether you’re mobile, you know it’s really a mindset. And at the early stage that we’re at, we’ve created the platform, we need to find developers so we can get feedback to what we’ve created to understand, gee, this is nice, but what about adding this feature? Oh, well have you thought about that?

And yes, we can support open, there are protocols we can support on technical level, but right now from a person who’s hearing about what we’re doing perspective, we have the potential to onboard a lot of people and to create infrastructure that other people will benefit from as we learn and as we develop. I’m not saying we figured everything out. I don’t think we ever figure everything out, but if you look at communication networks of yesterday and where things will evolve into tomorrow, having the ability to have a secure end-to-end communication without somebody in between the end points is something which I think is interesting and needed, and will be more used.

John Koetsier: So, you’ve answered big chunks of that with where you’ve just talked right now, but I’ll be super honest with you. As a journalist, when I’m pitched and somebody says they’ve got some new blockchain solution for X or something like that, what I often find is that people see the world … if they’re a crypto person, they see everything as a crypto problem and they have a crypto solution for everything. If they’re a blockchain person, they see everything as a blockchain problem and they have a blockchain solution for that.

Jeff Pulver: I don’t consider myself a blockchain or crypto person. I live inside this matrix, which we have both. And in my case, the reason my original interest in blockchain communications was on the back office trying to solve billing challenges and reconciliations. That was the first entry of this, and I have a whole bunch of ideas on that.

And then when I looked at how we start a conversation and the steps that one takes, verification of end point, understanding who you’re talking with, who you’re communicating with, and understanding that is the person you want to be having the conversational transaction, whether we’re sharing thoughts, ideas, or something else.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: That’s important, and you also, people want to sometimes be anonymous and autonomous, and we have other needs. So how do you onboard people? Maintain their privacy and their integrity of their data. So, you know in our case by not storing what you’re sharing, we’re able to, you know, the only people who have stuff that was shared is the devices. We don’t, we as a network don’t have it. So we’re not going to be able to share that with anyone else because we don’t see it.

John Koetsier: The beauty, one of the beauties of that, I mean, is that companies are spending a lot of time, social networks are spending a lot of time right now responding to requests for information, right, by three-letter agencies.

Jeff Pulver: Yes.

John Koetsier: And if you don’t have it, you can’t provide it. There are other challenges that come with that, but what I want to ask you about is you’re building a platform and apps will run on that platform. In fact you’ve said that Zoom itself could run on that platform.

Jeff Pulver: It could, if Zoom wanted to set up in their test bed … to take our code and use our code to start up a session, they could.

John Koetsier: Talk a little bit about how that process would work.

Jeff Pulver: Well, we’ll keep it simple because I can get very technical.

John Koetsier: Yes you can.

Jeff Pulver: I don’t want to lose too many people here. But if anyone learned how to write code, eventually they write a program that says ‘hello world’ and you compile it, or you see it.

John Koetsier: I have written a number of those programs, very sophisticated ‘hello world’ programs.

Jeff Pulver: Yeah. So we’ve created a nice demonstration of what one could do today based on the specifics of our network. If somebody on the Zoom team or somebody on some other team would like to play and get hold of the toolkit … they can go onto GitHub, they can download the APIs and they could play.

And they’ll let us know whether they can play or not. I mean, my assumption is that we’re open enough for them to wrap what we have inside what they’re using and get value from what we’ve created, but they need to tell us. I have not seen their source code. I don’t know what they’ve done. I don’t know what architectures they have. I, you know, it’s an assumptive guess that we could be a value to everyone, at some level we could be. If Zoom’s interested in what we’re doing, we can certainly have a business conversation with them.

John Koetsier: That’s good.

Jeff Pulver: But the idea though is the architecture, they were created with telephone numbers in mind. Even if you don’t use telephone numbers to come into a video Zoom, a lot of people are identified based on their cell telephone numbers, so that my belief is, at least at the beginning, they were central office focused. They were centralized focused. They had an architecture that centralized, not decentralized, and that’s a mindset.

We used to call that ‘the bell-heads versus the net-heads.’

Look, the most popular decentralized application on the internet today is DNS. The fact that domain name services can be all over the world and when one goes down, the other ones all the others stay up, it’s just magical. So having decentralized communications in uncertain times is something which we all need, I believe. And I think that we all want to have a backup way to communicate. You know … yes I know in the COVID-19 days it doesn’t sound good, but voice is a killer app.

No it’s not gonna kill you, but in times of uncertainty, in times of need, in times of greatness, we want to share and talk and communicate with somebody, with a loved one, and the emotion that’s built into that voice is priceless.

John Koetsier: Let’s talk a little bit about scalability. We’ve seen huge challenges of scalability across the globe in the last month or so, right? Zoom itself, which we’ve been talking about on and off, went 20x more. I mean amazing growth. Microsoft Teams, huge growth, right?

Pretty much every cloud-based application communication app is growing right now. So blockchain is not super well known for scalability, there’s been a lot of advances in the past year on that. Talk to us a little bit about scalability and the platform that you’re building.

Jeff Pulver: Well, I’m not writing any of the code, so I’m dealing with the developers that are creating this. Right now I’ve not seen any challenges about being able to handle the transactions that we have based on the users that we have. Can we, and we’re not, you know, this is its own dedicated blockchain and we’re not dealing with any public blockchains, this is just within our network.

And we’re using the fuel, the technology that blockchain represents, the actual essence of it to do what we believe it’s designed for. I mean, at a high level blockchain is a database.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: And so we’re using it very simply, without the overhead that other public blockchains have. If what we have isn’t good enough because we have too many users, I imagine they will rearchitect it in a way that’s more scalable. It may be by geography, maybe by user types, I don’t know. But it is not something which … I am not saying that we’re flying airplanes at a, you know with a billion transactions per second. We have a speed of light issue there.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: This is not about a high speed network. This is about creating a communication network so that it’s optimized for the environment that it’s operating in and focused specifically on it, which happens to be slow.

We don’t need speed. I mean, of course we want speed, but we have Moore’s Law in our favor in the sense that the compute time continues still to get faster, it still evolves. And I’m not, that has not to date, speed has not been an issue with our ability to build and create and to talk to people interested in working with us. It’s not on the table as one of the, no one has identified that as a challenge, other than I would bring it up and say, ‘gee, are we fast enough?’ And I realize, wait, we don’t have too many computes to do here, so we’re good enough for now.

And when we grow, we’ll deal with it. I had similar stuff with FWD, we ended up having to do load balancing. We ended up having to have to decentralize, but centralize how we were handling it. And we, more than once we rebuilt everything from the ground up. It’s just crazy, but you know when you’re flying like that, when if you’re Zooming, right, and all of a sudden you wake up and you become the most popular app on creation because you happen to have the platform of the day that’s interoperable, works across multiple operating systems, multiple devices, and people go to it for video.

First of all, most of those people are probably not paying for that service. And Zoom probably is not able to capture revenue from most of those people because they’re there for under 40 minutes, they’re in and they’re out, and they’re not being, but at the same time they’re making the life on this planet better, so…

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Jeff Pulver: I appreciate the humantarian, human…

John Koetsier: Humanitarian.

Jeff Pulver: … ability of Zoom to add value and I appreciate that. And in terms of the security stuff. I mean, most of the security break-ins we’ve seen in the past was based on people’s unintentional consequences of not changing default passwords. I mean, if you talk to anyone who does security, that’s like the top stuff, is don’t leave the sample passwords in there. Don’t do that. And in the case of Zoom, it was really the onboarding process. I’m sure someone in the product team wanted to make onboarding as fast as possible.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: So they simplified it.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: But they didn’t expect, trust me, if they were planning on being the most popular app on the planet, if they had a chance to have a do-over there are other people who would have advocated, ‘I would have loved to do it this way.’

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: They just didn’t have that chance, and so now they’re being reactive rather than proactive. I have complete confidence that Zoom and many other people in that world will do well, but you know what happened to Skype, right? It doesn’t have to be only team. What about Google with Hangouts? It’s now, you know … this technology is not rare, right? But it’s the context and how we approach it and how we think collectively that adds value to this. Why is it that you have better audio on this production than the people doing the live broadcast news in New York City?

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: When people are working in their home offices their audio is not so good.

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny, a little context here. I just shared on Twitter, I was actually watching one of the sports news stations. I live in Vancouver, Canada and so I was watching TSN, and all the sportscasters are in their own home offices or living rooms or whatever, and they have horrible audio. And this is broadcast TV. Millions of dollars spent, they could get the best technology. I’ve got a USB mic right here, the Rode Podcaster plugged into my laptop.

Jeff Pulver: And it works, sounds great.

John Koetsier: And I’m going out with Streamyard and the audio is actually really, really good and we don’t see that in others. We have a question from the audience here. I’m just going to put it up on the screen from Jeremy Randall, watching on YouTube. He says, ‘Hey Jeff, where do you see decentralized communication apps in five years?’  Five years is a long time and a lot can change, but do you have some thoughts on that?

Jeff Pulver: Well, I think that we probably won’t be calling it ‘decentralized communication apps’ that within five years.

John Koetsier: Apps?

Jeff Pulver:  No, it’s going to change. I mean, we’re still in a Web 1.x mindset in terms of how we’re doing things. I think that we have paradigm changes and when I was running, doing a lot of work in the era of AI and conversational voice interfaces, I believe that apps went away and I believe that webpages went away. I believe that we’re, you know, how much time is wasted trying to do using search. Like we as humans, we’re very inefficient when we go on a website. I mean, it’s the same comment I make to people, it’s like ‘don’t tell me about E-commerce,’ drop the ‘E’ you’re in the commerce business, it’s been 20 years since that happened.

So in terms of what happens with communication apps five years from now, I would like to believe that we have an ability to be understood, whether it’s us or it’s our conversational agent that’s representing us, that we have a bot, if you will, that is who we are that has our voice, that understands our phonemes. And it will evolve as we get the better ability to have high compute power, we can define and create anything we want to. It’s just a matter of who we are, what the application needs are, and what the design requirements are. But I’ve great faith in our ability to continue to innovate.

But at the end of the day, being able to see somebody being able to pick up and talk to somebody, that is still priceless. I think five years from now, voice will remain the “killer app,” but the number one way of communicating, and it’s no surprise to me that in the days of COVID-19 that the telephone has once again become a popular way for people to communicate.

John Koetsier: You know, one thing I’ll add to that, and I think video is a big piece that we can add to that, and I know you’ve done that and believe that as well. I was talking, I was being interviewed by somebody the other day. I had to answer the questions in that case, not just ask them, so I had the harder job which you have today, but we were talking about what’s changed, what technology has changed with coronavirus, with COVID-19. And I said, you know, I had owned a Facebook Portal and I sold it after three months. I do that with a lot of technology. I buy stuff, use it, sell it at a big loss, my wife gets mad at me. But what I wish I had right now and what I liked about the Facebook Portal was sort of ambient presence.

Jeff Pulver: Yes.

John Koetsier: Where I could kind of call my mom, and it wasn’t like calling her, it wasn’t an event, it wasn’t a hold-a-device-in-my-hand type of scenario.

Jeff Pulver: The device is there, you’re connecting to the living room.

John Koetsier: It was just there and so we could just do that. And I want something like that. I want a big screen on the wall in my dining room that I don’t watch TV on, but I just call my mom and say, ‘Hey, we’re having dinner. You want to have dinner with us?’ And we have dinner like we’re in the same place almost, but you know you just have a conversation.

Jeff Pulver: Well the good news…

John Koetsier: That’s something that I like.

Jeff Pulver: … is companies like Cisco created that tech over 20 years ago.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: I’ve seen demonstrations of that. You’ve also seen the 3D holograms. I don’t know whether it’s five years from now or not, but we will be able to project ourselves almost as good as the folks at international, at the, at George Lucas’s, uh …

John Koetsier: Industrial Light & Magic?

Jeff Pulver: Yes, those folks are able to do it on the big screen, we’ll be able to have actually real tech that does it. In that particular case, you know, shout out to George Lucas for showing the way of how things will evolve. But I do believe that if you look at all the clients of Industrial Light & Magic, both on the Marvel side and on the DC comics side.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver: A lot of the SciFi that we’ve seen has provided a showcase for where 3D, interactive 3D holographic images will go, and if you saw 60 Minutes recently last week with the work that’s being done to capture, I believe it was people who were in the Holocaust, and being able to create an interactive model where you can actually talk to somebody.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Jeff Pulver: I think they captured 2000 questions. And it was very surreal because they had both an interview with someone who’s recently passed away and people who are still alive interviewing themselves. And I was like, wow, and the emotion and seeing, and the actual projection, it’s there.

So we’re in the infancy of that future now and that’s all part of this communication experience. I mean, for me, and you alluded to this at the beginning of the show, I’ve been in the communications industry ever since I discovered amateur radio. For me, ham radio was my cure for loneliness. I grew up in Queens, in New York, but I did not have too many friends, or the friends I had I didn’t really connect so much with, and thanks to one of my uncles, I was able to discover amateur radio because he had one. And that’s been my life quest. It took me a couple of years to learn that, when you’re nine years old and having to teach yourself college level physics, it takes a little time.

But I got over the hump and I got the license, and I’m back in the hobby.

Oddly enough, about six months ago, I jumped back into amateur radio and I’m now playing with technologies that literally are being used for interstellar space communication, and that’s where my passions are too. I’ve looked a lot into that future and it all deals with different elements of communication, and it’s how we communicate, how we can act, how we’re able to converse with others that will define who we are.

John Koetsier: I love that. I absolutely love that. I mean, one of the questions that I had for you is that you’ve accomplished a ton. You built a lot of companies. You’ve invested in more than 400 startups. You were an early investor in Twitter. A lot of people who have accomplished or could accomplish something along the lines of what you’ve done would be on a beach somewhere, maybe in the Bahamas, maybe in Jamaica, somewhere, and relaxing with their feet up and calling for the Mai Tais, right? That’s not you. Talk about why.

Jeff Pulver: Well I would say that if there was a location in the world that did not have light pollution and it was when it was a new moon, and not a full moon, you’d see me out if it’s not cloudy under the stars, looking up into the galactic center of the Milky Way. I have a great appreciation for the galaxy and for the galaxies around us, and I spend a lot of time doing astrophotography. I discovered that was one of my passions about six years ago and I don’t let go of that.

John Koetsier: And by the way, if you don’t follow Jeff on Twitter yet, you need to add Jeff Pulver. He shares some of those images there as well as on Facebook and they’re amazing.

Jeff Pulver: Thank you. And I will answer that I get bored easily. So that is why … I get bored, but I also with my hobbies, they’re obsessions, it’s like I don’t know how to do something in moderation. I go all in, even if I just want to go a little bit in, if I’m really into something, I go all in. I am the person in my freshman year in college, I made Dean’s List by having four A’s and a D. It just is who I am. And so…

John Koetsier: You sound like my son who’s a third year engineering student at UBC. I mean, he’s got straight A’s, or extremely good grades, except for English: C-.

Jeff Pulver: Yeah, but it works out okay, it turns out okay. So where do we go with this? And so my mind is different than other people’s minds. I like to be, I like to have an opportunity to explore, and to create, and to innovate, and to challenge. And if it’s meant to be on a beach, so be it, but even when I was healing from bad accidents I couldn’t relax. It is a challenge. I have a hard time letting go, but if I let go I’ll let go completely and just go on a digital, uh…

John Koetsier: Debrief?

Jeff Pulver: Yeah, yeah, yeah and I’ll just let go … so for me, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to challenge the status quo, to look at the future and to be part of it, and help to at least suggest where things may go. I learn from what works and sometimes we’re too early. A lot of the startups I invested in were either too early or just didn’t happen, and others happened greatly. And I have no regrets for being an early-stage investor. I believe in people. I believe in the evolution of tech, and I know that we will get through the world that we’re in. There is a tomorrow. It’s different than yesterday, and I’ve learned to be in the now. I think the hardest part people have who haven’t figured this out yet, is to be in the state of now. Let go of the attachment to the way things were, and to accept themselves in the world they’re in.

John Koetsier: Yup.

Jeff Pulver: And breathe.

John Koetsier: Yeah, exactly.

Jeff Pulver: And then we’re able to go forward together as one and if there was ever a time for the world to unite, it’s now, now’s the time.

John Koetsier: Isn’t it.

Jeff Pulver: Yeah, it’s like we need the Avengers. We need to work together as one to get through this, and we will, and magic will continue to happen along the way.

John Koetsier: Let’s then take that as inspiration for where we end. A lot of people are asking, ‘What’s the first thing that you’re going to do after coronavirus?’ and that’s a really tough one because frankly there’s probably not going to be a clean ‘after coronavirus.’ I mean, unless we get a vaccine magically in the next little while and magically it gets distributed to everyone on the planet very, very quickly. But let’s say that we’re back at some new normal in six months, maybe four months if we’re really lucky. Maybe twelve months or longer, I don’t know. But a new normal when you can travel and other things like that. What are you looking forward to doing?

Jeff Pulver: To never forgetting how grateful we all should be to the people who took care of us now. To everyone on the front lines. That the people who are just doing their job and saving lives should not be forgotten. The people who’ve died doing their jobs and everyone who’s doing everything possible to make all those ecosystems run.

The doctors and nurses, the emergency workers, the policemen, the firemen, as well as people going to doing their jobs at work, at running the grocery stores, providing gas, providing infrastructure. Everybody needs not to be forgotten, because it’s because of them we’re going to be able to get out of this and go forward.

That is what I hope we do not forget, because frankly, when I’ve overcome sicknesses, my mind is such that I forget about the pain. I forget about the agony. I forget about what I went through being in a hospital dealing with all this stuff, and I look forward and I let go, and I’m able to do that. And when we don’t feel well for some reason, I think we’re able to let go of how we felt and we’re in that we’re feeling good now. I don’t ever want to forget the people who are putting themselves on the front line.

I used to work at the World Trade Center. I’m very grateful that I wasn’t, that I didn’t die in 9/11 because I had the kind of job that if I wasn’t fired from it, I would have, very well could have perished. I do not ever want to forget everyone who’s putting themselves out to help the rest of us, that needs not to be forgotten.

So that’s number one.

John Koetsier: That needs to be underlined, that really needs to be underlined. And I’m just going to add to that for a second.  There was a UK member of parliament recently who said, ‘In this day isn’t the guy who picks up the garbage, doesn’t he have, or she have more social utility than the investment banker?’

And you know, whether that’s investment banker, whether that, whatever that is, white collar job, the people who are putting groceries on the shelves, the people who are selling that, I mean, those people are putting their lives on the line as well. And they are coming down with COVID-19 at greater levels, higher proportions than the rest of society. And those people who are delivering, UPS, FedEx, all those other people. It really is amazing, so kudos to that. Agree, and sorry, back to you.

Jeff Pulver: And I would just add that what one local business I think will go hyperlocal is the return of the milkman. I believe that people, that we’re going to actually appreciate having our local perishables delivered to us, not so much through these mainstream big VC invested companies, but local people delivering groceries to their neighbors, I think is something which is retro but will come back. So whether we’re delivering eggs and milk and other dairy products, or what we need the bare essentials, I think, don’t be surprised to see certain neighborhoods pop up with the “milkman.” Whatever it will be called in 2020, but it’s, I think that we will see a need to better connect with our communities and serve each other. And I am just watching this go by. I also am grateful to all the musicians and artists that are coming online right now.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Jeff Pulver:  Including spontaneous concerts, people that are sharing their passions with us so we feel better. I don’t know what Bruce Springsteen is doing to feel better, but I’m grateful that he went on Sirius and he shared a live concert. You’re seeing Broadway, you’re seeing all these TV actors. You see all these wonderful spontaneous concerts happening, and they’re sharing, and it’s like a … and one thing about the arts it’s that, you know if you wrote a song 35 years ago and you’ve been famous for that song for 35 years, you’ve been singing it for all these years, it’s not like, nobody wants to hear your new stuff, they just want to hear what you did 35 years ago! Can you imagine that? That you wrote a story 35 years ago and all you could do every time we do an interview is read that story?

John Koetsier: Yes, yes.

Jeff Pulver: Ahhh!

John Koetsier: Oh man. Wonderful, wonderful. Well … go ahead.

Jeff Pulver: No, I thank you for the chance to communicate. I am grateful for the opportunity to connect and to be part of your, to be a guest here and to connect with your audience. And really, these are interesting times and I know we will get through this, and we just have to allow ourselves to breathe and to be present, and to let go of the attachment to yesterday and that worry. I mean, we will get through this, we will get through this. And no, we’re not living in a SciFi movie, this is real life, this is happening now. And I am positive we will break through this and I’m not worried about yesterday. We just deal with the now.

John Koetsier: Well, I want to thank Jeff for being with us on this show and on this podcast. When you have Jeff on, then you don’t just get the technical know-how and the insight and what’s new and what’s exciting, you also get a lot of the heart and the soul of somebody who feels and thinks deeply. If you’ve been with us, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the ride. It’s wonderful. Whatever platform you’re on, please like, subscribe, share, whatever you like. If you’re on the podcast listening later on, please rate it, review it, especially if you like it. That’d be a massive help. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

 

 


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