Interview: Can Prezi really kill Microsoft PowerPoint?

Interview: Can Prezi really kill Microsoft PowerPoint?

The table at Roast restaurant in London’s Borough Market is festooned with a red checked table cloth. The waiting staff are loitering with an extensive afternoon tea menu. Initially, at least, it seems an odd setting for a chat about presentation software.

I’m meeting Adam Somlai-Fischer, co-founder and principal artist, at PowerPoint challenger Prezi. Launched in 2009 it currently boasts 85 million users acquired predominantly through organic growth. It has now released a business version [YouTube video] – based on HTML5 instead of Flash – which hopes to bring in an even bigger audience.

The hook of Prezi is that it is nothing like PowerPoint. Instead of boring linear presentations it wants to facilitate “conversational presenting”. Initial viral growth came out of conferences and educational establishments (“parents saw their kids use it at school and brought it back to the workplace”) and now the company is putting its heft into building a salesforce, improving the product and diversifying its user base.

But can it ever really beat workplace staple Microsoft PowerPoint? “The challenge with PowerPoint is it comes pre-installed,” says Somlai-Fischer. Many people don’t even know if they use it, he adds, but the real difficulty for Microsoft tools is that they hold a massive market share and so they try to do something for everyone.

Prezi, on the other hand, looks to target people who really care about presenting. The company doesn’t share data on exactly who is using the product, but Somlai-Fischer tells me that the people who use it tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either people who naturally scribble, and so this solution resonates with the way they think. Or are people who really want to stand out from the competition with unusual, creative presentations.

As there are no specific user stats available, it is hard to corroborate, but Somlai-Fischer confirms that even the most dry and conservative businesses are prepared to adopt this style of presenting. “We always have challenges with grown-ups,” he adds.

The Prezi site does include blogs like “The Power of B2B Visual Storytelling” while the staff picks of presentations shows some innovative ways to present challenging information – like this more human view of freight logistics. 

Somlai-Fischer is also an interesting fellow. A former artist, he exhibited at the Venice Biennale amongst numerous other places, and although he has since quit the art world, he tells me he doesn’t miss it because his work in the R&D lab is “all about experimentation” and “not so different from what I used to do”.

One of the latest features developed in the lab is Prezi with Augmented Reality, which is available in beta, will come out “later this year” and has already been taken up by some “early adopters”. In its current state this is not quite as impressive as it sounds because it only overlays graphics onto videos of presentations (as opposed to any kind of nifty projection device for real life). However Somlai-Fischer says it will develop as the technology does.

There are clear parallels with all this and his art career. One of his favourite art pieces was a device he built [YouTube video] that could see wi-fi. The idea came about at a Biennale he attended, where the only good wi-fi was in the bathroom – and he performs a comedy pantomime of holding an iPad up to the window to get reception – to make his point.

Despite being a resolutely practical piece of software Prezi is interesting because it fits into a bigger aesthetic philosophy. Wikipedia started just as Somlai-Fischer was completing his architecture studies and he began to notice that people who build the online world had fallen into the same trap as architects in the physical world. Buildings rapidly became modernist, brutalist and purely functional.

In the same way the Prezi aesthetic is very different from the world of PowerPoint and this distinct approach seems to be especially popular in certain regions. “South America is growing like crazy,” says Somlai-Fischer, with Mexico (where Prezi has an office) leading the space. There has also been “amazing” pickup in South Korea, he says, adding that not only did a Presidential candidate use it to pitch on TV but it also featured as part of a courtroom drama in the hands of the “evil character”.

Overall though Somlai-Fischer says the biggest benefit described by the business people he speaks to is that they get simple analytics on their presentation so they can change the bits that bore. They also “love the fact that” that because it is cloud-based they can change it after it has been sent. There is a download version, he confirms, (this is hard to spot on the website) because whatever else you can change about the PowerPoint mentality people still do prefer emailing documents.


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