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August 1, 2013

Remote access firm wins MacRobert award for engineering innovation

RealVNC CEO ‘excited’ as software used to access apps in cars and gives advice to startups.

By Joe Curtis

A UK firm whose revolutionary remote control technology enables drivers to access smartphone apps via their dashboard has been recognised with a prestigious engineering award.

RealVNC, based in Cambridge, was presented with the MacRobert Award for engineering innovation by the Princess Royal last month for its virtual network computing (VNC) software.

The technology works between devices running any type of OS, as long as they have a screen.

Initially it transformed IT support, by allowing staff to fix someone’s faulty computer 40 miles away without leaving their desk.

But as technology advances it is becoming ever more useful and adaptable, despite its pioneer and RealVNC CEO Andy Harter telling CBR the software is virtually the same since its conception two decades ago.

He says: "The vision of it being from anything to anything was absolutely the aim right from the beginning. We got the protocols nearly right at the start. In some ways it hasn’t changed.

"Because it just needs a screen on one end and a screen on the other the technology is compatible with not just computers, but phones and tablets and lots of other things. It’s stood the test of time."

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RealVNC’s software is pixel-based, and works by only sending the parts of a screen which are changing.

As Dr Harter explains, the benefits are twofold: one is that because it relies on pixels it is compatible with anything which has a screen, while the second is because it is not sending masses of data (pixels on stationary parts of the display) it allows the user to remotely operate in real time.

The CEO said: "Sending the whole screen is a lot of data, so we find clever ways of encoding the pixels we need and sending them."

These two factors have ensured it is the most copied piece of software in the world, with roughly a billion iterations in use across the globe.

"That’s pretty amazing," says Dr Harter. "There’s hundreds of millions and billions of devices in the world. That gets us excited, to connect those together."

And as more devices hit the market it increases the possibilities of VNC. Siemens and GE are two of the MRI scanner manufacturers which use the software to remotely fix the machines, saving wasted hours of closing it while a technician is called to come and inspect it, leading to less wasted money for hospital trusts.

Dr Harter’s company also has deals with car manufacturers which want the software deployed to allow drivers to access music and apps on their smartphone from their dashboard.

"It’s a much cheaper way of having apps installed," he explains. "Car makers can try and put applications into the car but they’re fighting a losing battle.

"How do you keep them up to date and how does my music get there?"

Other recent developments include working with Google to enable remote working on its Chrome browser, while there are plans to allow people to do computer work on their smart TV.

All this from a company which started by selling its own merchandise to fund itself in its early years back in 2002.

Dr Harter freely admits the firm had an unusual path to the top, but is bursting with advice for software startups out there based on his experiences.

RealVNC initially released a version of its software for free to people, and they were paid back when, to raise funds for a commercial version of the technology, they produced merchandise plastered with the company’s logo.

"We sold tee shirts with ‘I love VNC’ on and we made hundreds of thousands of pounds," laughs Dr Harter. "It sounds crazy but that’s what we did.

"We had the advantage that we had a very loyal fan base, tens of millions of users of the free software, and it was possible to tap into that. Some gave us money because they liked our software. It was crowd funding but long before anyone called it crowd funding."

But the company has remained profitable ever since. So would he advise other new startups to go a similar route?

"Many people don’t have a large community to tap into," he says. "My advice is to do what you can to build value in our company before you sell out too cheaply to someone. There’s awards and grants around.

"We didn’t have an investor so no-one was nagging us for a return but it means we had to find other ways. If it’s a software company you can put your own time in to develop it and that doesn’t cost anything."

He believes it is vital to be surrounded by other high tech firms which can provide the necessary business links to grow, but also to be near a university with computer science graduates.

"We recruit as many with a computer science degree as any other company," he adds. "When you want to go from 10 to 20 staff and 20 to 50 where are those engineers going to come from?"

RealVNC, with less than 200 employees, may need to increase itself if it is to fulfill the prediction of one of the MacRobert Award judging panel, engineer Ian Shott.

He believes Dr Harter and his colleagues could turn RealVNC into a billion dollar business in the next five years.

"We’re enormously proud to have won," says the CEO. "It’s the most prestigious award for engineering innovation in the country and it often goes to big household names like Landrover and Microsoft, so for little old us to be in amongst that is fabulous."

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