Tony-Zhao-Agora.io

How I Built Agora.io

Tony Zhao
CEO & Founder, Agora.io
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For those who may not be familiar, I started out as a founding engineer at WebEx (now Cisco WebEx) in 1997. I was part of a small founding team where I started working on real-time audio sessions.

In the early days, I was a one-man team trying to build those sessions. As soon as I released the first version of that function, I started receiving so many complaints: their session was cut off, the quality was bad, and so on.

At one point, I even began to feel slight regret taking up this role.

But remember, this was in the late 90’s to 2000’s, when people were still using dial-up Internet, so a portion of this stemmed from network-related issues. I believe some of these complaints were beyond my control to solve, but I gradually had my first key realization; as an engineer, I needed to think out of the box and solve the larger problem. Working at WebEx was an essential step for me to recognize the bigger issue at hand, that we needed a software-defined network to deal with network uncertainty and deliver high-quality, real-time audio-video technology.

Of course, I must caveat that those frustrations were just one aspect of my time at WebEx. Looking back, I learned many valuable lessons from growing within a tiny team of 10 people to a pioneering force in the web conference industry.

In 2008, I joined YY - one of China’s first livestreaming startups - as its Chief Technical Officer. If you’re not familiar with YY, it’s a rich media social platform that’s hugely popular in China. On YY, we saw millions of users using its real-time audio-video capabilities to do amazing things online - like teaching people how to play the violin, or how to learn a rare and near-extinct language. It was truly inspirational, and that was when I made the second key realization: Technology doesn’t just have to serve businesses or corporate folk sitting in a conference room. In fact, there’s so much value that it can bring to people’s lives outside of office settings.

It can actually help people live online. They can play games together, organize a party, sing karaoke, make friends with people from all kinds of backgrounds. This was part of my inspiration in carving my own path.

The right time came when smartphone penetration started to skyrocket in China. I saw the opportunity to combine real-time audio technology together with the smartphone, and also because the smartphone is such a complete and ready device for this technology. With the smartphone, there’s already a high-quality camera and microphone with programming capabilities. This was unlike PCs during that time. If you recall, not all PCs came with a camera or a high-quality microphone to successfully deliver real-time audio video.

Here’s how I thought about it. If someone could provide an easy integrated API to support that capability, application builders everywhere would have less barriers in using real-time audio video in their apps. This would open up a world of possibilities and use cases. And as a developer, the thought of building something that could serve other developers from our API, naturally made me very excited.

So, what is Agora? Agora builds state-of-the-art, real-time audio and video capabilities and delivers them as SDK and API for app developers. In short, Agora enables app developers to create a world where everyone can easily connect and interact with others in real time to conduct social and business activities as if they were in the same place without feeling any technical, physical or financial difficulties.

From day one, we have been a developer-friendly company. In fact, at the start, we didn’t even have a business model and we had zero revenue. We opened our API services to all developers for 10,000 minutes every month for free. Basically, we wanted to create a playground for developers to test and create new use cases and services.

Going briefly into the technical side of things, the main problem we were solving is a quality issue. The issue that comes with public internet is its instability, where the internet itself is the “best-effort network”. A best-effort network refers to a network service that attempts to deliver data packets to their destinations. But there’s no guarantee to transmit the packet on time to the receiver. In simple terms, this can result in loss of data or corrupted data.

To solve this, we created a software-defined real-time network. This ensures a certain quality of service, close to what you would get with a dedicated network. We also developed deep technology innovation around signal processing algorithms, so that in challenging environments like low-bandwidth networks and lower-powered devices, we can still make it work.

Over the years - especially the last few years - we have seen a surge of use cases growing on our platform. Social, education, gaming, podcasts, enterprise, healthcare, IoT and other industries have started to adopt this technology.

In particular, the recent COVID-19 crisis also created a compelling use case for online healthcare. One of our customers leveraged our technology to develop an e-consultation service with doctors. So if you’ve got a cold or fever, but you don’t want to head outside to the clinic, they can get a consultation through the application. They get some advice - whether to go to the hospital, or just to get some rest - and ultimately peace of mind.

Looking ahead, we remain highly attuned to the demands coming to our platform. Our first priority is absolutely where the developers’ interests lie. If we see many developers swarming to build certain social use cases, we will focus on enabling those use cases. Sometimes we even co-invent with the developers. It may not always be about use cases. It could be something more fundamental, like ensuring quality of user experience. To that end, we have developed tools like Agora Analytics to make this quality of experience more transparent to developers so they can better leverage the technology and services.

I also see an opportunity where the rise of real-time interactions will lead the next evolution of the Internet. Meaning, by adding more real-time interactions, the user experience will be less functional and transform into something more natural or engaging. This could have the effect of disrupting existing verticals.

The next five to ten years will be extremely interesting, especially in how we communicate and engage with one another. With 5G just around the corner, and the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence, we will start seeing less probable use cases becoming more common. For instance, democratizing online education - where students in less developed areas will have access to high quality teachers. Video consultations with doctors could become more mainstream, thus reducing the burden on hospitals. There are many ways life can be improved and made more efficient, and I’m glad that Agora is helping to make that happen.

This article was based off a podcast with Tony. Hit the link below to listen to that episode.

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