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An Interview with Jonathan Boutelle

In this interview, Jonathan discusses SlideShare and PowerPoint.


Jonathan Boutelle Jonathan Boutelle is the CTO of SlideShare, and is a principal at Uzanto Consulting. A software engineer by training, his interests lie at theintersection of technology, business, and user experience. He has worked as a software engineer for such companies as Commerce One and Advanced Visual Systems, and has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies to help them make their technology easier to use. He is particularly focused on technology that brings the web experience closer to the capabilities of the desktop.

Geetesh: Tell us more about yourself and your team. Also, tell us about how SlideShare evolved, and where do see it headed in the near future.

SlideShare Jonathan: So I'm a software developer turned entrepreneur. I founded my company Uzanto 3 years ago with two partners: Rashmi Sinha, who is a cognitive scientist turned designer, and Amit Ranjan, who is a consumer marketing guy turned entrepreneur. SlideShare is our second product: our first was a web-based market research platform called MindCanvas. We have a crack team of developers and designers working for us, and we have offices in both Mountain View, CA and New Delhi, India.

The idea for Slideshare came about when I was helping organize an informal tech conference. Speakers were giving me their PowerPoint slides, and I was expected to somehow upload them to the web for sharing. For informal conferences, this is really important: the knowledge has to be shared with the broader community over the internet in order to have impact. I realized that there was no good way to share PowerPoint on the web!

When we launched the site, we were really still thinking about it as a way to share slideshows from conferences. But our users had other ideas. From the first day we were getting business plans, photo albums, sermons, and even book reports! PowerPoint is a very flexible medium, and it turns out it is used by all kinds of people to do all kinds of things. It's a medium that allows you to tell a story with words and pictures, and it's extremely easy to use. I think of it as the people's multimedia authoring tool. So it's not just for businesses. At this point SlideShare is a real mix. We have professional speakers and consultants who upload talks and presentations that they want to share. Then there is the e-learning crowd which has lectures and lessons on everything from math and history to web 2.0 and podcasting. And of course there are individuals with the funny PowerPoints that used to get emailed around and now get uploaded to SlideShare. And photo essays, sermons ... all kinds of stuff really!

Geetesh: SlideShare is often called the YouTube of presentations. Do you think presentations will get as mainstream as video? And what about your business model -- will SlideShare always be free.

Jonathan: Presentations are a fundamentally a different type of medium than video. So it is an apples to oranges comparison. In some sense, though, presentations are already more mainstream than video. How many people create PowerPoints, compared to creating videos? I would bet, globally, that more people create PowerPoint. It's just not a mainstream web format yet, because nobody has ever made an easy way to share it.

Video is mainstream because everyone enjoys being entertained. Presentations will be popular on the web for the same reason that regular text is: because people need to share knowledge and ideas, because people need to communicate. If you look at tags like education or web 2.0 on SlideShare, you'll see dozens and dozens of presentations: it's becoming a real knowledge repository. We think that eventually looking on SlideShare will be natural place to go to get information about any topic, much the way Wikipedia is today.

Now whether it's as big a business as video is another question. Time will tell. We do know that it is big enough to bring together a large and active community of users, and that it has global appeal.

As to the business model: the current site functionality will always be free. As we add new features, we may charge for some of those features. But we think that the site itself, as a free destination site, is a very compelling business -- there are several ways to make money, including targeted advertising. Wait and watch for more details!

Geetesh: Now about the file formats, and these are essentially two questions. What made you choose Flash as a presentation delivery format. Also, do you plan to support the new PPTX file format of the upcoming PowerPoint 2007 --tell us more about this.

Jonathan: I chose Flash because it's the only viable way to display vector graphics on the web. So we used Flash mostly for image quality reasons. You can project a SlideShare slide onto a 30-foot screen and it will still look good! That's the power of vector graphics.

We will absolutely support PPTX! It will take a little bit of time, but it's cool that Microsoft is using an XML-based format -- this is much easier for third parties like us to parse and interpret.

Geetesh: Your PowerPoint support currently looks at the slide itself as a unit rather than separate slide elements like video, sound, animations, transitions, etc. Do you plan to make the PowerPoint conversion to Flash more faithful in the future?

Jonathan: We are listening very actively to our users on this one. Several types of requests come up again and again, but we also hear that that our users really like that SlideShare makes presentations a truly web-friendly experience. So, we are keeping that in mind as we decide what to add to make the conversion more faithful.

Geetesh: Can you share some trivia about SlideShare, or something funny that you would like to share with Indezine readers.

Jonathan: One of our most loyal users has started redesigning the front pages of other people's presentations! He feels like the first page of a presentation has a big effect on whether people open it (which is very true, incidentally: the title and the first slide make or break a slideshare presentation). So if he finds a presentation he likes, he designs an alternative first slide for it, and uploads it as a separate presentation. So already we are seeing a phenomenon very similar to that supported by the "video comments" feature on sites like YouTube.

The most inspiring thing to me about SlideShare is the number of teachers that are using SlideShare to share lessons and lecture slides. I love the idea that we're helping teachers do the important work of educating the next generation!

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