The numbers never stopped going up. Despite the unconventionality of the approach, starting VNC as an open-source venture successfully created a market for the commercial-grade versions which then followed. By the time RealVNC was founded, in 2002, there were already 100 million people using the product, many of whom were, as a result, interested in the company-wide support Harter's firm was now offering.
The business model has diversified since, but direct sales remain a major part of it. A typical customer nowadays might be a relatively small IT team of about a dozen people managing a thousand computers on behalf of a firm. At the same time, the software is licensed out to the likes of the semiconductor chip manufacturing giant
VNC's open-source origins clearly help to explain its success. By releasing the software in this way, Harter and his colleagues were able to make millions of people from different walks of life aware of the product, and from that sprang a multitude of uses far beyond the original concept of a portable desktop within a single office. Harter also believes, however, that the global spread of the software was a result of the fact that it is 'beguilingly simple - so simple that it's almost profound.'
VNC works by replicating screens at the level of individual pixels, compressing these, and enabling them to be decoded by a second machine. By making the formula no more complex than that, the company's product has become universal across a whole range of platforms, including those which did not even exist when it was first released in 1998. It is for this reason, for example, that it was possible to use VNC in a prototype 'broadband phone' back at the turn of the 21st century, or in tablet computers once they appeared.
'We've always said that we don't care what kind of computer is at either end, we have to make it work,' Harter adds. 'In the end, that made VNC so universally adaptable that it anticipated devices that didn't exist yet, and ones that are yet to come.' As a result, while RealVNC is in many ways a company exploiting the same product over and over again, opportunities for new applications are constantly appearing on the horizon.
Harter is particularly interested in the prospect of a so-called 'Internet Of Things' - the likelihood that, in the future, products and consumer appliances as diverse as washing machines, lighting, electric fans, cars, and television sets will be able to talk to each other in the same way that computers and smartphones can link up now.
This is new and fertile territory for his product. If, for example, you have ever arrived at work only to find yourself worrying about whether you locked the door, or switched on the dishwasher, it might be possible in the future to check and - if necessary - resolve the problem via a VNC-enabled desktop computer, laptop or phone. Similarly, manufacturers may soon be able to check and fix broken household appliances remotely, potentially putting an end to infuriating afternoons, sitting at home, waiting for a technician to arrive at an unspecified time somewhere between the hours of 12 and 6.
Just like the 1999 broadband phone, not all of the prototypes Harter's staff are currently working on will necessarily see the light of day. What matters to Harter, however, is that the founding principles underpinning the original software have ensured that the company has time to explore such avenues fully. 'There is an element of serendipity in what we have achieved, an element of bloody-mindedness, and an element of being just plain right,' he concludes. 'If you grow organically, though, as we have, then you can afford to allow yourself a bit of long-termism, and develop a broader agenda. The result is that we are never simply about carrying on with things as they are. We've got plans.'
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