Open communication protocol Matrix – which has grown 190% in the last 12 months, with over 75,000 deployments – continues to attract organisations looking for decentralised/on-premise deployments of communications applications. For many, like Germany’s healthcare provider, it’s a case of building the aeroplane while it’s on the runway, however – the open protocol is still maturing, albeit at a rapid clip.
Matrix’s founding team Amandine Le Pape and Matthew Hodgson (now the COO and CEO respectively of Matrix-based encrypted messenger/collaboration app Element) recently secured $30 million in Series B funding and sitting down with The Stack they were clear that the vast majority of that is going to go back into engineering and product that adds depth to the Matrix protocol itself, with a particular emphasis on improving decentralised and end-to-end encrypted voice and video capabilities running on a peer-to-peer system.
“On decentralised voice and video we’re eating it like an elephant: one bite at a time”, Matthew Hodgson said.
“The starting point is mesh video conferencing; so for small groups of people you don't even really need a conferencing server at all; you can literally just place a whole bunch of calls directly with one another and as long as you’ve got enough bandwidth it can work pretty well, particularly if you negotiate lower resolution and bit rate for those calls. It’s an approach that we had four years ago but never productised."
(For those curious about Element and after a deeper dive, we featured them as our fifth "one to watch", a monthly feature on a startup that we find particularly compelling. Read more here. In short, Element provides a “self-sovereign” chat application and collaboration tool built on Matrix – an open standard for interoperable, decentralised, real-time communication over IP -- as well as offering Matrix hosting. Their aim with creating Matrix itself was, as Matthew told us, to "create the missing real-time communication layer of the web.
"The web itself is an amazing ecosystem of all sorts of vibrant startups and developers and companies building all sorts of exciting things on top of the open web: I can set up shop in my garage and create the next Amazon or Ebay or Google or whatever, and the sky’s the limit. In the communication space, it’s a disaster, because people created things like WhatsApp, and Slack and Discord, and Skype, and they realised that frankly, IM and VoIP and video is pretty hard to get right and it’s very valuable. And rather than giving it away for free for the benefit of the world, as Tim Berners Lee did with the web, instead they create a startup, basically reinventing the wheel every time; each one doing a whole different set of contact lists, and instant messages and voice calls and file transfers, etc., and then flip it to Facebook or whoever for billions of dollars later.
"Great for them, but it’s screwed the rest of the world — we get deprived of the opportunity to have an equivalent building block for communication on the internet that we have with the web."
He added: "The closest thing if I want to communicate with you universally today is email, which is rather 1970s and lacks all of the capability that you expect from a modern chat system or modern communication system: you don’t really have encryption, unless you try to do PGP, which is a catastrophe. You don’t have read receipts, you can’t upgrade into a video call or do anything nicely useful with it, too.
"Our mission on Matrix has been to fill that gap."
(A recent Matrix demo showcases the community’s first end-to-end encrypted conference call with signalling data running across three Matrix instances, as decentralised webRTC creeps closer: “A future SFU would act as a server between the clients where you upload your video stream only once and download everyone elses from the same server, which helps as you’re only uploading one stream", notes developer Robert Long on that demo. "We have a couple more things to work on in terms of stability; working on making this a nice experience rivalling all others.")
As Hodgson adds to The Stack: "We’re building a decentralised “SFU” or selective forwarding unit, which is a mechanism similar to how Zoom and Hangouts work in terms of routing the video calls to the right people – with multiple focal points, so if one goes down the other can seamlessly take over; likewise if there’s some kind of network split you can route around the damage, rather than it being game over if a single server goes down."
Element's investors in the Series B included Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, who claimed "consumers need rescuing from surveillance capitalism, and organisations need a secure neutral way to communicate. Matrix is the most advanced platform to provide that missing communication layer” in a late July release on the funding round. Element aims to wash its face serving enterprises and government organisations and Le Pape gives a flavour of the focus: "We're evolving towards more enterprise offerings: trying to get bigger companies: people who need a specific secure channel for their cybersecurity teams, for example, or companies that want an out-of-band system so if Teams goes down they can use Element – and get all their history as they’ve bridged it to Teams. We’re targeting mobile workforces as well; that’s the kind of use cases we’re seeing some traction with. With Skype for Business going to be end-of-life pretty soon, there’s not much there on-premises to replace it when it goes."
As a Matrix-based app, Element is far from alone and -- unusually -- freely admits as much in its Series B release, pointing to "more than 150 Matrix-based apps on the radar - ranging from open source to commercial proprietary solutions" and merrily hyperlinking to the growing ecosystem of "Matrix-based startups, such as Famedly and Beeper... Consulting and services companies including Thales, Ericsson, Dataport and Sopra Steria have also set up units focused specifically on Matrix-based solutions."
VC capital may be inflowing, but community building along with product building clearly remains a major focus. Meanwhile the startup is hiring heavily, with an eye on site reliability engineers, product designers, front-end and back-end engineers, with many of the roles fully remote.