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How TeamViewer is charting its growth beyond remote connectivity

TeamViewer CEO Oliver Steil outlines the company’s efforts to build on its remote connectivity and control capabilities to support emerging use cases such as smart factories

At Hyundai’s electric vehicle assembly plant in Singapore, TeamViewer’s augmented reality (AR) platform is being used to support workers at certain assembly stations to improve workflow, quality control and efficiency.

TeamViewer’s partnership with the Korean automotive giant comes as the company – known for its remote access and control tools traditionally used by IT support teams – is looking to extend its connectivity capabilities to industrial devices, paving the way for emerging use cases such as workflow management and smart factories.

In an interview with Computer Weekly in Singapore, TeamViewer CEO Oliver Steil and chief product and technology officer Mei Dent outlined the evolution of the company’s capabilities, how it’s charting its growth beyond remote connectivity and business opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region.

TeamViewer is known for its remote access and control tools. Can you tell us more about the company’s broader strategy to expand its capabilities in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality, mobile device management, and even security?

Steil: Many of the things that you mentioned started through close interactions with our customers and understanding what they were doing with our software. We developed TeamViewer 18 years ago to enable people who were selling software to demonstrate and showcase their offerings remotely on another computer without the need to travel. To do so effectively, you needed a very high level of control to walk through your software.

What happened over the time was that some industrial customers, particularly in Germany, our home market, figured that if they could remotely control the operating system of a desktop PC, then they could remotely control computers embedded in other devices. An early example was a manufacturer that used our software to access information about their locker boxes, such as how often they were used and if anything was broken, through an operating system on a computer. While they couldn’t do anything physical, they could see the status of their operations.

As more customers moved outside the classic office environment into more operational environments like vending machines and small machinery, we got more support requests after they hit a wall when they deployed our software. Rather than tell customers that our software was not meant for those environments, we connected them with our R&D teams to understand what they were trying to do and how we could help them.

As we learned more about those use cases, we started to see more competitors in remote connectivity and support through the use of virtual machines and VPNs [virtual private networks]. We then realised that our competitive edge was really our ability to connect all these different devices.

When we did a big analyst day in London in 2019 to explain to analysts why we are different and what we're doing, we put different devices on a table, from PCs to payment terminals and e-card readers. We also brought two robot arms to show that we could connect to the robots overnight with some configuration of our software. If you can connect to one robot arm, you can connect to industrial coffee machines and ovens, and you start to learn more about customer processes. You get engaged with footprints of assets, not just one asset, and you understand how all these assets are connected. That's how our strategy evolved.

We also saw that IoT [internet of things] as a buzzword had been around for a while. You had IoT platforms like Siemens MindSphere, and everybody was talking about those big systems which were complicated, cost millions and took a long time to deploy. Many customers got quite frustrated, as all they wanted was an easy solution to see what a machine 100km away was doing. TeamViewer is one of those solutions, and probably the most interesting one because it’s very cost-efficient and easy to deploy.

If I read you correctly, are you saying that you have a platform that addresses multiple use cases for different industries rather than building bespoke industry-specific offerings?

Steil: Yes, the fundamental concept is very simple. What’s important is that we are device agnostic, whether they are iOS, Windows, Android or Linux devices. We tell customers that while there are solutions for doing remote IT support, they don’t work for industrial and embedded devices. With our platform, it doesn’t matter what devices you have. You can start with IT support or a vending machine remote control use case, but if you have a problem connecting to a device, speak to us. We’ll probably be able to configure or evolve our software, which is then available to everybody else as well. That’s the whole idea of remote machine connectivity, control and maintenance.

What happened over the time was that some industrial customers, particularly in Germany, our home market, figured that if they could remotely control the operating system of a desktop PC, then they could remotely control computers embedded in other devices
Oliver Steil, TeamViewer

The next step was to look at use cases where we connect people. If you have a worker in a certain environment who needs some help and data, how do we connect to this worker? And so, we’ve started to build an AR addition to our product, which has seen good take-up. On the back of that, we’ve also acquired three other companies to put together a suite for frontline workers, which is now the second big pillar of what we do. The third pillar, the next big thing we are moving into, is the smart factory where assets and workers come together in one environment.

What’s interesting is that the space we play in is not crowded because most software companies shy away from industrial areas. It’s also relatively complicated with different people speaking different languages in the IT and OT [operational technology] worlds. We’ve worked with many industrial customers and understand their challenges, and we feel this is a market that’s only starting to develop.

If you look at the cars today that are equipped with GPS systems and head-up displays, those technologies are not available to technical engineers who perform complicated maintenance tasks on very costly machinery. Today, those engineers look up PDF documents and diagrams on a tablet. That information could be provided to them, hands-free, through smart glasses and AR headsets, so they can see the data, workflows and instructions.

Did you have to do a lot of heavy lifting to support the proprietary protocols of those industrial equipment?

Steil: When we work with large enterprises, yes, but much of our solution is based on internet connectivity, end-to-end encryption, standard operating systems and remote capabilities and controls which we've built over 18 years. We’ve created a connectivity layer that’s independent of many of those proprietary protocols.

Technically, we are capable of providing the full connectivity. It’s more about how you segment data – for example, we have a manufacturer of medical machines that needs to connect to their machines to do diagnostic remote maintenance. Those machines contain different types of log data for operations, and from time to time there might be patient data in them as well. You need to segregate those data environments and set data and security policies to make sure that patient data is not going to the manufacturer.

That’s an important point you’re making, particularly with the convergence of IT and OT systems that could increase the risk of data breaches. Can you elaborate on some of the guardrails that have been put in place?

Dent: There are many different factors at play when you put in a security programme, including processes that we work on with customers in terms of certifications and validations. We also have a programme to train people on cyber security best practices, including zero trust, as part of our product development cycle. We are also proud that we’re in the top echelons of industry security programmes such as BitSight security ratings.

Steil: We are a big proponent of cloud. I think many companies have learned the lesson that having everything on-premise under their control is not necessarily safer. It’s getting harder to maintain your security posture and while there will always be big companies that are able to do so, many are not. I think you’ll get to a point where it will be better to rely on a cloud provider that deals with security every day versus you trying to fix things because there’s always an entry into your on-premise environment.

We are cloud-native, but we also have different ways of delivering our products. For example, the original TeamViewer connectivity product, which is also available for free for personal use, is fundamentally a very open environment. If you know the device ID and credentials, you can establish a connection to a device to help another person, control the device or exchange information.

But if you are an enterprise, that proposition is potentially scary because it means any person who knows your login data could connect to you. That’s why years ago, we built a completely new product with the same functionality for enterprises. It has manageability capabilities that lets you set policies on who is allowed to connect to a device and from where. That’s how you can shield your organisation against connections from the outside, but if that’s not good enough and you’re concerned that someone might compromise those rules and procedures, we can have a conditional access router dedicated to you and even have the hardware sit within your network.

Could you talk about the data related work you’re doing? I’m sure you have data about what customers do with your software – how are you analysing the data and making it useful to customers?

Steil: Sometimes we don't know any of the data. For example, when we do machine connectivity and control, the classic TeamViewer way is to have zero knowledge of the connectivity. We would not know what data is flowing from a medical device to its manufacturer, which doesn't put us in a position to create any risk on data integrity. We also don’t analyse the data in this specific case – that’s being done by the manufacturer, the end-customer, which could be a hospital, or a third party provider that provides optimisation services. Another part of our work is to help customers define inspection and manufacturing workflows where we capture all the data, and we have agreements with customers to use that data so we can help to optimise procedures.

There are many different factors at play when you put in a security programme, including processes that we work on with customers in terms of certifications and validations. We also have a programme to train people on cyber security best practices, including zero trust, as part of our product development cycle
Mei Dent, TeamViewer

Dent: Historically, we haven’t been working with a lot of data because it’s almost part of our security pitch to not know what’s going through the pipe. We just connect the pipe and that’s still important for many of our customers. That said, there are companies that are interested in automating some people-to-people connectivity, such as connecting users to an AI agent to provide some initial assistance before bringing in a human agent. For those use cases, we are looking at ways to provide more insights into the session-related data.

Another area we’re looking at is live translations between remote workers who speak different languages, and real-time live captions so you don’t have to depend on voice controls in a noisy environment. For frontline workers, we’re looking at ways to leverage AI to ensure certain procedures are done in a certain order and give people the data they need.

Among the pillars you talked about earlier – remote access and control, supporting frontline workers and the smart factory – what are your priorities, and do you see customers picking up more pieces in your portfolio over time?

Steil: We’ve come from the world of IT support and management and Mei and her team are building a nice suite around the original IT support product. There are cross-sell opportunities, where we tell smaller customers that while they have TeamViewer, there are other modules they can use. From a growth perspective, that’s still the biggest part because we have a big base of 625,000 paying customers globally.

We’re also seeing significant growth from enterprises with newer use cases around OT-IT convergence. In worker connectivity, one of our biggest projects involves a pharmaceutical wholesaler in Mexico that implemented frontline picking with smart glasses, which is about automation, reducing errors and increasing speed. Another example is spatial, or 3D-based training, where we had a big win with Siemens in the aerospace sector.

One of our most innovative projects is at the Hyundai facility in Singapore where we support workers at certain assembly stations to improve workflow, quality control, efficiency and onboarding of workers. This is where our enterprise growth is coming from because companies are starting to invest more in optimising and digitalising production. The whole idea of industry now finally becoming more digital is getting there.

Which key Asia-Pacific markets are you most focused on?

Steil: One of our biggest markets is Australia where we opened an office about 10 years ago. The concept of remote in a vast country like Australia resonates very well and bridging distances is one of our key propositions. We’ve also opened an office in Seoul over a year ago. South Korea is in a way the perfect place for us as it’s driven and hungry for growth through innovation in industry.

In ASEAN, Singapore is moving, along with Indonesia and Malaysia. We have a customer in Indonesia doing remote vehicle operations in mining, which is the perfect use case for us. I think the willingness to embrace new technology here in the region is very significant and it doesn't matter which country as we have use cases everywhere.

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