Rainway’s Andrew Sampson on powering xCloud, challenging Google, and reimagining desktop apps
Last month, Seattle-based startup Rainway came out with some big news: the tech behind its web-based gaming platform powers the PC and iOS versions of Microsoft’s Project xCloud.
xCloud, currently in beta, is a gaming service that allows Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers to play their games on compatible devices via Microsoft’s cloud servers. While it’s a bandwidth hog, users can play Game Pass titles like Gears 5 and Halo: The Master Chief Collection at high resolution on a phone, tablet, or web browser, with no need for a new TV or an Xbox.
Rainway started in 2018 as a high-profile Seattle startup, founded by Andrew Sampson and Evan Banyash. Its initial product, now branded as Rainway Gaming, allows users to dial into their PCs or cloud-service provider with any remote device to play their personal gaming library.
In the last couple of years, the team at Rainway has grown to 15 people with plans to scale further up in the near future. The company remains independent despite several acquisition offers.
Back in October, Microsoft began pursuing alternative methods to bring xCloud to iOS, after Apple made it logistically impossible for it to be offered via Apple’s App Store due to restrictions on cloud gaming apps. Rainway’s technology was part of how Microsoft “cut the Gordian knot,” as Sampson puts it, by making it possible to run xCloud as a web-based application.
At the same time, Rainway is also pivoting away from video games, toward a virtualized app platform that will allow subscribers to run powerful applications remotely via a standard web browser. That puts Rainway up against Google (again), with its suite of web-based apps.
When I was 14 and homeless I pulled together what little money I had to buy an Xbox 360 for my birthday.
Now today on my 26th birthday the technology I invented is powering Xbox Cloud Gaming on Web and iOS.
Read more about our work with xCloud ???? https://t.co/iUwjKqS4Ix
— Andrew Sampson (@Andrewmd5) April 19, 2021
We caught up with Sampson to find out more about Rainway’s next moves, its partnership with Microsoft, and its plans to fix the “broken” state of desktop applications. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
GeekWire: Thanks for taking the time, Andrew. Tell us about how your Rainway tech is involved with the xCloud PC client.
Sampson: As part of our partnership with Microsoft, they are utilizing our Rainway SDK to power Xbox cloud gaming on web browsers and iOS.
GeekWire: That’s a surprise. I would’ve thought they would have kept that in-house.
Sampson: When you have to get to market quickly, why reinvent the wheel? We had already perfected our streaming technology for web browsers, and we also had a way to bypass the App Store after Apple’s shenanigans.
They happened to come by us just by chance. One of their engineers was doing a demo of Azure infrastructure in Africa and wanted to show off game streaming, but they didn’t have any Xbox blade servers there, so they used Rainway to do it.
That worked its way up the food chain until I ended up having a meeting with Catherine [Gluckstein, head of product & strategy for Project xCloud] and Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox] to discuss how we might be able to work together.
GeekWire: I’m surprised that’s not better publicized. I’m in the xCloud for PC beta and I didn’t see Rainway’s name anywhere on there.
Sampson: We asked, “Hey, we’re not focusing on consumer gaming anymore. We don’t really see a need for us to take up a prominent footnote, and it’ll already be a pretty large announcement.”
Microsoft just helped us get our own press release into the hands of journalists and gave us their support of the day of the announcement, which was good for us. It creates the sort of traction that we were looking for.
We didn’t want an army of Xbox gamers coming to our website to sign up for our email list. We wanted business executives, venture capitalists, other folks that will take an interest in this new business that we’re doing. We got a lot more than we were expecting, with the right kind of people reaching out.
GeekWire: It was better for you behind the scenes than I thought.
Sampson: It ended up being pretty favorable. There’ll be some more exciting news here in the next couple of weeks, hopefully.
GeekWire: Ah, the “just you wait” interview.
Sampson: There’s going to be quite a few of those over the next few months. This was just the first of many announcements that we expect to make that are going to surprise people.
GeekWire: I was going to ask, where’s left to go, really? It seems like you’re on every platform where I’d want something like Rainway.
Sampson: Where’s left to go? The edge, to use the buzzword.
We have transitioned away from seeing the gaming vertical as our core focus, to realizing that we have a technology that allows us to change the way desktop applications are built, distributed, and tested. We are building Rainway App Services and a product called Instant Apps that allows you to take your desktop applications — video games, 3D architecture software, whatever sort of traditional desktop app can be used — and push them to our data center infrastructure and start using them immediately inside of your web browser.
This means that we can unlock a new way to do desktop computing, because someone can take a $300 Chromebook and use it to access a suite of software that traditionally requires a very beefy rig. This is going to be something that we target toward organizations of all sizes, be it schools, public sector, private sector, folks working in architecture, gaming, etc.
One of the use cases I’m most excited about that’s relevant to gaming: we were in a clubhouse with Geoff Keighley [video game journalist, host of the Game Awards] and he was talking about how we’re getting fewer games this year, because lockdowns mean games can’t be properly tested and validated.
Now, with Instant Apps, you can have a whole QA team that can get secure access to a preview build of your game for testing, all from inside a browser. You don’t even need to invest in a rig for them. We’re really looking at ways that we can augment the way that people work, build and distribute desktop software through what we’re creating.
GeekWire: I don’t know, man. The idea of doing remote game testing through a cloud server…
Sampson: Yeah. The cloud’s too far.
When we think about a cloud data server for AWS [Amazon Web Services] or Azure … Amazon’s US West 2 server is in Oregon, so if you’re in Seattle, that’s a couple of hundred miles of network you have to go through.
We’re building data centers inside of cities so they are really right next to you, so that you have the lowest possible network roundtrip when you connect to that virtualized application. Then you can get latency as low as 16 to 20 milliseconds. At that point, it’s a frame of delay. You don’t even notice.
GeekWire: You can’t not pick big fights, can you.
Sampson: Why do a startup if it was going to be easy?
GeekWire: I guess so. You showed up to the party on cloud gaming right in time to be obliquely competing with Google, and now everything you’re saying here is, “Remember all that Google Apps stuff that everybody likes to use? Well…”
Sampson: We just think desktop applications are broken.
A couple of months ago, every application on my Mac stopped working because there was a certificate issue on Apple’s side. I had meetings. I needed to get into Zoom. Chrome wouldn’t open, Excel wouldn’t open. All of it was incredibly frustrating.
I have had times where the software I click on has to update at the worst possible moment, with no prompt. This open “Wild West” ecosystem of desktop apps means there is no consistent experience. Say what you want about Apple on the App Store, but you get a consistent experience because they enforce one, right? Desktop apps are not at all the same.
At a certain point, we want desktop applications that become synonymous with Instant Apps. We’re going to start creating APIs that are going to help standardize the way that things are done, like software updates, like code signing for your applications, and the actual distribution as well. Because we want desktop apps to be better, end to end.
So yeah, we’ll start with some of this app virtualization, app streaming. At the end of the day when you go to update Slack on your computer, or whatever desktop app you have, it’ll use our technology behind the scenes to do that. So that we can ensure that you’re having a pleasant experience as a consumer.
GeekWire: It’s funny you should say that. I’m talking to you through my laptop, which wants to update very badly, but I need to talk to you.
Sampson: The problems just keep coming. We don’t want people to have to invest every year in $2,000 laptops just to get marginally better performance, because all the desktop applications they have downloaded have slowed them down to a point where it’s actually impacting their productivity. Just move it into the browser. Make it a link you can access. Progressive web apps are a thing; you can even install the little app link onto your desktop.
You’re using our service to virtualize Photoshop. You can install Photoshop to your desktop and it opens a progressive web app when you actually click it.
We’re even making that better. Anyone can throw a desktop app on a virtual machine. Streaming it’s the hard part. …We can make desktop applications feel like they were actually native. That’s just gonna make the entire user experience better. It’s about the thousand little things that we do right, to make it a really holistic experience.
GeekWire: And you’re still focusing on Rainway as a go-between, where you’re dialing into your system to make things more convenient for you, whatever you happen to be doing at the time?
Sampson: Yeah. It’s no longer about, “Hi, we’re going to be middleware. It’s your own hardware.” We are now going to be the full thing that you use to get your solution. …We want a web browser to be able to give you access to all the software you need and a traditional desktop-like experience without needing to invest in the actual hardware to do it.
The ideal sort of case I think about is someone working on the next Avengers movie. All they have for their rig is a tiny Chromebook hooked up to two 4K displays, and their actual software is all running at an edge location that we’re powering, on top-of-the-line hardware, so that they can pick up and do their work from wherever they want to at that point.
GeekWire: How are you going to address the issue, particularly in America, of having the internet infrastructure that would be required for something like that? That’s something I’ve noticed with the xCloud beta in particular, is that it feels like it’s made for someplace with much higher-speed residential Internet.
Sampson: For xCloud, Microsoft is still using a lot of their own stuff on the back end, so our software layer is handling all of that transport.
For Rainway App Services, we control a lot more of the pipeline. We’re able to compress data a lot more efficiently, and because we’re doing it at edge locations, we have to transport data over less distance.
Intel did benchmarks of our technology vs. a lot of other technologies, and Rainway was number one in every category: lowest possible latency, lowest bandwidth use, lowest resource usage. We spent the last four, now going on five, years creating a video compression technology that’s just unmatched.
Video compression is really only 30% of that puzzle too, because our network stack, our message formats, the way that we slice and dice packets — everything is built to be really efficient. We’ve reimagined the way that we can do real-time computing, whereas a lot of folks are either repurposing or shuffling around pieces of tech they already have.
There are too many companies that are worried about getting to market quickly and not doing it right. We came in at the exact moment where all we had to do was worry about doing it right, and now we’re already in the market. Our competitive advantage right now is the fact that our technology really is that good.
GeekWire: Are you still monetizing this the way that you did with Rainway Gaming?
Sampson: Rainway App Services is a paid developer platform. It’s $30 a month per user from your organization, and then it’s pay for what you use. If you want to virtualize 3,000 minutes of applications, you just pay for that upfront, and then you can go to town.
GeekWire: Where does the name “Rainway” come from, anyway?
Sampson: …when you find out, could you let me know? [laughter]
Before Rainway, we had a company called Ulterius, which was sort of like a Latin word. The company I founded before that, Aurous, was also a Latin word. When we decided to pivot from Ulterius, I looked at my co-founder Evan and said, “Hey, you pick this one. I’m really not good at picking names for companies.”
He goes away, and a couple of hours later, he comes back and says, “Here’s the name. Rainway? It’s like the Swahili word for ‘stream’ with two letters changed.”
I said, “That’s beautiful.” I registered that, the company, the domain. I do all the legwork. Then I say, “Hey, by the way, can you send me the link to the definition? I just want to check it.”
He says, “Oh, I have absolutely no idea where I got that from.”
So it ended up being a name that just so happened to be fitting with the fact that we would move to Seattle a couple of months after that.