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Interview with John Tanner, ClearSync

John Tanner is President and Founder of Monrovia-based Tanner Research, a company best known for its electronic design automation tools. John is well respected in the technology community here, and successfully bootstrapped Tanner Research from founding to becoming a fast growing, profitable, and successful firm. Recently, the company rolled out a new, consumer focused product, ClearSync (www.clearsync.com) in the calendar space, which competes against Google Calendar and other calendaring products. Interested to hear how his firm ended up shipping a consumer product, and why, we spoke to John, who gave us the fascinating story of how he liked the product so much as a user, he bought the entire product line from Palm, and revived it.

Ben Kuo: To start off, why don't you tell us a bit about what ClearSync does?

John Tanner: The ClearSync service provides the ability to have multiple calendars and contact lists. You can maintain separate calendars, and each one you can share with a different group of people. That's important if some of your groups are not coworkers. We're not trying to displace Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft Outlook, which most companies have on every desk. Those allow you to email appointments back and forth within a company, and are very useful. However, if you a have a soccer team that your kid is on, and they have fifteen games and locations and times, and you want to share that with a group of ten to fifteen people, you can use ClearSync to set up a sharing group made up of parents of a soccer team. Or, you might use it to coordinate half a dozen calendars from your kid's school, or a bowling league, or a merger you're trying to do with another company, or anything where you have multiple companies or teams trying to share a calendar. In this case, it doesn't go through email, you just put them on your shared calendar, and as people sync it appears on a corresponding calendar somewhere else.

This might be our desktop application, which has a flexible display capability--each of the calendars you are associate with you can see side-by-side, intermixed, in daily, weekly, or yearly views. Or, you might synchronize your calendar with a PDA like a Palm handheld, or with something running the Palm OS like the Treo. We have our own software that runs on that device, which also allows you to view your calendar and synchronize your contact lists. The calendar software you get from Palm has a really neat ability to put your Palm in a cradle, and sync it with your calendar application on the PC--so you can make changes in either location, and next time you sync both places show your appointments. If you make changes in either location, it synchronizes between the two. We've expanded on that to support multiple calendars, and did our own application on the Palm and on the PC. So, on the Palm, you can now have several calendars shown at a time, or merged together, and see all your appointments and conflicts for the deay.

Ben Kuo: It sounds like a part of this is also an online service?

John Tanner: The way the sharing occurs is that when you hit the sync button or put your Palm in a cradle - and if you're not using a cradle, using the desktop application--what happens is that the PC software connects to a server over the Internet and appointments are synchronized and shared there. The next time someone in that sharing group pushes the sync button, they'll connect over the Internet and synchronize, whether or not your PC or Palm handheld is on or not. The service includes the PC software, Palm software, and the ability to share a calendar, all combined into a subscription service. The base package is $19.95 per person per year, and if multiple people purchase a subscription at the same time, the second and third are 50% off. For example, for a couple, or partners in a business, it would cost $30 a year for the base Silver level of service. We also have a higher level of service, Gold, which costs $59.95 for one person per year, and a similar 50% discount on other subscription. That higher level of service gives you everything the base Silver service gives you, plus wireless syncing of calendars and contacts. If you have a Treo/Palm device or other device that has Internet access, you don't need to put it in a cradle to sync, instead, it goes through a data network--usually your cell network. The gold package also includes telephone support.

Ben Kuo: Tell me the background on the software and how you acquired it?

John Tanner: The service started as WeSync, and was started in the dot com era in the Portland area. It was developed with the idea of providing a basic service for sharing calendars and contact lists for free. It was developed in dot com fashion, which was to attract eyeballs and let someone else figure out how to make money on it. The service was introduced in the late 90's, early 2000, and through word of mouth and advertising within the Palm community got several thousand users. The company got the attention of Palm, and proposed that Palm purchase them, which did happen, for between $40 million and $45 million. What I've heard several times is it was around $43 million for WeSync. Shortly after that, Palm split into Palm the hardware company, and Palm the OS software company, PalmSource. This was in response to other hardware vendors licensing the Palm OS, but not wanting to license from a competing hardware company. What then happened was that the WeSync service went with the OS company. You might argue that the software should go with the software company, but PalmSource decided that as an OS company its role was only to license the operating system to hardware vendors. They decided that they were not in business of providing services, so they announced they would shut down WeSync--after paying all that money. There were lots of small businesses and families dependent on the application, including me, and some--with a lot more clout than I--said you can't shut that down. Palm's response was "we'll keep it running with a server, but we're not going to support it." They laid off most of the staff, or folded them into other parts of Palm. At that point, when I learned about that, I started negotiating with PalmSource. My initial offer was they could just give it to me, and I'd revive it. They said "no, no, no, it's worth lots of money." Over a year and a half they exhausted all other possibilities of selling the product, where I could finally purchase it. That happened in 2004, and then we began completely overhauling the package. We needed to put in the ability to handle payments, and overhauled the servers and software, and reworked the desktop application to be much more efficient on screen space. We redid the handheld application to include a merged day view, so that you could see calendars mixed together. Then, we reintroduced the product to our existing customers--there were several thousands of them hanging on through that no support time, and in June of this year we started rolling out the new package to them. Just in the lat week, we went on a big marketing push to introduce it back to the world. Part of the agreement we had with PalmSource was we had to rename the product, and we changed the name to ClearSync. We have the same customers, we just switched them over.

Ben Kuo: So why did you suddenly decide to tackle the commercial software market?

John Tanner: Our main business is making software for the design of integrated circuits, which is a neat and exciting business, but the impact we have on ordinary people is indirect. We sell our software to chip designers, who design chips, which are incorporated into products that people might buy. For example, one of our customers is a leading Bluetooth manufacturer, Cambridge Silicon Radio. They ship eighty percent of all Bluetooth devices, which were designed with our software. That's neat, but rather indirect. Also, JPL engineers have used our software to design the imager chip that took all the pictures in the Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, which is neat but is also rather indirect. Here we had an opportunity to impact people more directly, including corporate executives, soccer parents, and basically anyone in between. But, the main reason to do this was because I was a user of the product, and just couldn't let it die.

It's such a fantastic thing to manage your calendars in this way. If you're on the soccer field, and a coach says a practice date has changed, you can pull out your Palm and enter it, and next time everyone has that information. Likewise, it also works for contact information or phone numbers. If I'm at an internal meeting away from my desk, it can give me a phone number or allow me to schedule a meeting. I can do that, enter it on my Palm, and sync to whoever else I need to share that information with. It's just such a powerful thing that I couldn't see the product die. Since our company already had the expertise developing very sophisticated software, from a technical standpoint it was not a challenge for us. It has also allowed us to expand and have a more favorable impact in a more direct way on lots of people.

Ben Kuo: How does your product compare with products like Google Calendar?

John Tanner: It's an interesting time in the historical sweep of electronic calendars. Google has brought out their offering, and Yahoo has had public, web-browser based calendars for some time. Each of these claims in some way to be able to interface data to handhelds. But, we have a couple of advantages over these guys from a usability standpoint. One is over web-based browser services, Yahoo and Google are two examples. There's also other less well known ones. They have the benefit that setup is easy, and you don't have to install any software. You can just browse a web site and begin. But the downside is, if for any reason you don't have access to the Internet, you don't have access to your calendar. That makes it almost unsuitable for business use, if you want to use your laptop computer while on an airplane, or if you need to get your contacts on a train or car or wherever. You're out of luck without Internet access. With most companies, Internet access is getting much more stable than ten years ago, but you still can't access your info if you have a glitch at your ISP for a few minutes, which is not acceptable. One thing we have done is introduced a web browser version of the calendar and contact tool It has initially rolled out with view-only, but we're hard at work with a version that you can also perform edits and creation of events and contacts, which will be out shortly. We'll have the same functionality as Google, which is an advantage for a light user who doesn't hit their calendar very often and doesn't want to get involved in software installation. For users who have a full installation, if the Internet goes down, they can still view, edit, and when access comes up can synchronize all changes. They essentially get the benefits of Google without the downsides. The other software that we like to compare ourselves to is Outlook. That has benefit that you can email calendar appointments around, and in a corporate environment, that makes a lot of sense--in fact, I still use Outlook myself. But ClearSync can also synchronize your calendar to Outlook or through your palm, as one of many ClearSync calendars. That means you can intermix usage of Outlook and ClearSync, which makes lots of sense from a corporate standpoint. There are a lot of IT managers who don't want corporate calendars to be available from outside a company. You can sync with your palm and desktop machine, and not have to share that with others outside of a company. On the same desktop with your work calendar, you can see your family calendar, the calendar of your soccer team, or whatever.

Ben Kuo: Thanks for telling us about the software and the story behind it!


 

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