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Interview: Wire CEO talks to us about the messaging service's history, future, and potential

In the current state of social networking, the world has begun to see changes in both the way we communicate intimately, and how we share our lives. The past decade has brought massive change in the methods we use to interface with new technologies and the new services arising.

Late last year a new service titled 'Wire' was brought to the table, backed by many experienced individuals in the communications industry. The service soon gained attention, with the high potential of the project raised by the minds invested. Since the application took off in 2014, the company has managed to stay out of the spotlight, to focus on expanding the features they offer on their platform. Most recently, the service expanded onto their fourth platform, by releasing a native Windows application for their ever-growing user base.

After leaving Skype a mere three years ago, long-time telecom exec Jonathan Christensen founded Wire, which he hopes will lead a new generation of communications. The service currently is established on iOS, Android, Mac OS X and Windows, with native applications available for each platform. Wire aims to offer a clean, and elegant communications platform, which takes advantage of the world's newest devices and networks, while still offering the high levels of security. Currently the messenger is still in its early days, however working solutions are now publicly available and shaping up to be a strong rival against current market leaders. Following this recent expansion, we got the opportunity to sit down with Christensen and discuss both the history of Wire, and its upcoming plans.

You left Skype in 2012 to move onto what is now Wire. What was your initial reasoning behind starting the project?

I have this long crazy history in this space, and for some reason I can't get it out of my system. I was back at Microsoft on the MSN team for a while, and then was the first program manager for Lync, (well what they called Lync for a while, before that we called it Real-Time Communications, and now Skype for Business). I was the first program manager for that product, and we also built the audio and video stack in that team, that went into Windows Messenger, which came out with [Windows] XP.

So I’ve been doing this quite a long time, and very well connected to a lot of people within the IP communications industry and since its inception, I’ve been really obsessed with VOIP, and video and the new things we can do with this. And when Microsoft decided to acquire Skype I didn’t see myself going back to Redmond and to the big company and at the same time, I still felt like there was stuff to do in this space.

So I started talking to people, one of them was Alan Duric, my co-founder and with Janus Friis, who was the co-founder of Skype, [and] our primary investor for this project, and we all have this same exact vision. This idea that the mission wasn’t yet accomplished, and there was more that we could do. And in particular, in three areas of focus.

The devices and network have changed. I’ve just spent two days in New York City, and running speed tests all over Manhattan, I’m getting 16 Mbps down, and 16Mbps up, or 20Mbps up – so just blindingly fast, with ping times of 20ms. So a really good network, that’s just coming now, and really in the last few months.

The devices have evolved a ton since we started this mission, and Skype in 2006, the iPhone hadn’t even launched yet, so in the time in between, the devices have gotten so much more capable. The phone that I’m talking to you (ed. note: Neowin reporter Matt Brown) on has 2 million pixels on the screen, and 2 billion transistors in it, so it’s like a super computer. I felt we could do a lot more with fidelity given the network, and devices. Fidelity meaning the voice quality, fidelity meaning the real time media inserts, so we do SoundCloud and YouTube right into conversations, and also photographs. So we try not to compromise the quality of the photograph, because we envision the user seeing the photograph across these devices with beautiful screens, but also their iPad, and their desktop. And now, with the launch of Wire for Windows, if you send a nice high quality photo from your fancy iPhone or Android device, with a 13MP camera, you get that image and look at on your desktop full screen, and it’s going to be beautiful.

You’ve had a lot experience in the industry – have you brought a lot of previous contacts onboard with Wire?

Yeah absolutely. And other people. Alan [Duric] and I co-founded a company years back called Camino Networks, which was building codecs for next generation IP mobile conversations. We were a little ahead of our time, but that company was acquired by Skype, and that’s how I ended up at Skype. And there were a number of people who had already left Skype, and were kind of doing other things, and we rounded them up. And our chief scientist, Koen Vos, is the inventor of Opus, the codec used in WebRTC and in nearly every major internet voice application from Google, to Facebook, and to Skype. So he’s hard at work building the next generation of that technology for us at Wire.

Roughly how big is the Wire team currently?

About 50 people. Mostly in Berlin, the company’s headquarters are in Switzerland, and that really has a lot to do with the second piece of the puzzle, which is security. When we set out to build Wire, we said we’re going to work on the technology around security very diligently, and our goal is, we want to have the highest fidelity experience in the marketplace but with security, we want to be known as the most secure app in the marketplace. So that’s an evolving story currently that we’re working on, but we do for example: end to end encrypted calls and group calls. Wire can’t intercept your calls, or hear your calls, and nobody else can either.

So between you and your team, you’ve obviously taken inspiration from your previous projects?

Yes, and a lot of learnings. One of the major learnings was a lot of applications start in one particular place, like on mobile or on desktop, then try to shoehorn the experience into the equation. Whereas with Wire we said look, we’re going to build for at least three screens: the mobile, tablet, and the desktop, and we’re going to create an experience that works and syncs and is sensible for all those environments, and purpose built for all those environments at the outset. And it’s a big mission - it’s a lot of work, but the downside of doing it the other way is that you end up with this very disjointed system. I won’t point too many fingers but most of the applications in this space give that – they started in either mobile, or on desktop and haven’t been effective at getting across the other platforms.

In this age, where there are many established messaging and communication applications, what makes Wire unique, and more so, a necessity?

We’re finding our way, and we think that our audience is an audience that cares more about the fidelity and the design and an audience that cares about the security. Having been quartered in Europe, with all the data in Europe, no issues with Safe Harbour, or CISA, or any of the other things that are going on right now in the US in terms of security. Really the two core things about design fidelity and security are working for us.

Has the reception for Wire been what you expected or even, better?

It always could be better. It’s a very crowded space and we haven’t been aggressive at all about marketing and we haven’t been very direct about the messages, and the story and the audience. And we’re starting to change that, and we’re starting to refine the message, and target the audience better, and be a little more aggressive about PR, like with this release. Some months ago we would have probably just released it, but in this case we did some more outreach. And we’re encouraged by what we see. […]

Right now you’re working on getting features into the service, and now that you’re expanding to more platforms, you can do the same with your audience?

Since our announcement we’ve really been trying to cover our gaps in the product, and there’s still a number of other ones that need to be addressed. The number one feature request that we hear from users is ‘When are you going to have video?’, and now video is on the roadmap for sure. And there are other little ones, like people want to be able to 'like' things, and do app mentions and stuff like that, that other services have, and they’re maybe no make or break things, but we need them to round the product out with. Since launch, we have also been working on just some of the basic tenants of the UI, and how it works and making it more obvious got users.

So where do you see opportunities for Wire in the future?

When we set out to do this, we started brainstorming all of the things that this could be, and we put together these magnetic cards and we put them on a magnetic wall in our products room. And they’re literally hundreds and hundreds of things and problems to solve in this space, and years’ worth of work ahead of us to accomplish all those things. But one of the big ones - one of the big areas of interest to us is finding the line between communications utility, which is largely what the other apps out there today are, that enjoy big user bases – they’re kind of the first generation free texting, or free calling and they’re very utility based. And finding the right break point between that and a more social experience. The other thing that happened when the free generation came along, when Skype, WhatsApp and Viber and those guys came into the market, is there was an introduction of another notion, which is broadcasts. So Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and apps like that. And somewhere, there’s a balance in-between where we can create a highly social app, that also fills your need for one-to-one intimate communications with the people that your care about. And so we have some very unique ideas how that fits together, and that’s an area of exploration for us.

Why did you not solely focus on Windows 10, and choose to support Windows 7 and Windows 8?

It’s just market share. We looked at the numbers, and different people say different things, but they’re all sub-10% for Windows 10 so far. Also, we are largely re-using UI that came from our web application, and when we released the web application, Windows users were clamoring for a native app. It’s interesting because you have two different kinds of users: people who put up with tabbed windows in the browser, and people who don’t. And the people who want a dedicated app wont use it that way, so it also gave us some other opportunities to do stuff like native menus, and shortcuts, and over time build in local storage, and more security features that kind of require a local binary presence on the desktop. And the last thing was, that not knowing what browser the user is using to access our backend is problematic. They’re constantly changing little bits about the browsers, and especially in WebRTC, things just break and so having the binary, and having us control the browser engine that’s in the binary gave us a little bit less of a two-way headache.

We recently covered the release of your Windows application, and one thing noticeable in the comments was many individuals asking whether you’re looking into a Windows universal application, or supporting the new Windows ecosystem, including Windows 10 Mobile or even the Xbox One.

We haven’t done anything about Xbox to be totally honest. […] I ran the team at Skype, that put Skype on TVs and it was a lot of work, and it ended up like the sound of one hand clapping. People just didn’t use it. People didn’t use the apps on their TVs, the only app that gets used on TVs (not the only, I’m exaggerating) but the primary app that gets used on TVs is Netflix – something to do with watching TV. So that’s still resistant in my memory.

But on the Windows Mobile and the universal app, that’s definitely something that we’re looking at.

Are there any additional platforms you're looking into?

Because we have the browser version, we cover off Linux pretty well, there’s WebRTC implementation in Firefox and Chrome for Linux, so we have a very small group of users who are loud and very determined using that, but in terms of other platforms, most of the other platforms are shrinking, while Android, iOS, and Windows Phone sits and starts, we’ll see what the Windows 10 thing does, and the universal app approach, as that may really breathe some new life into that platform.

We would like to thank Jonathan for his time, and wish him luck with the future of Wire.

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