Klip: iPhone Video Sharing Refined to A High Art

11/11/11Follow @wroush

Put high-quality cameras into devices with broadband wireless connections. Add powerful smartphone operating systems like iOS or Android and app-store ecosystems like iTunes and the Android Market. Mix in some sloth and disinterest on the part of established photo-sharing destinations like Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Under these conditions, it was probably inevitable that entrepreneurs would create a slew of new mobile photo-sharing startups like Instagram, Picplz, and Path. Instagram, with somewhere north of 12 million users, seems to be the winner in this space so far; it’s getting smartphone owners used to the concept of snapping photos on the go, applying optional faux-vintage filters, and sharing instantly on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Posterous, or Foursquare.

Now comes the next logical step: video sharing apps and startups. All of the latest smartphones shoot high-definition video as well as photos, but so far, Instagram doesn’t let users share video clips—at least, not yet. That’s created room for even newer iPhone apps like Socialcam from Justin.TV, Vlix from Spotmixer, and Klip, from the Palo Alto, CA, startup of the same name.

All of these free apps let users record and edit short video clips and share them with friends. None have a gigantic following yet, and I don’t know which one will dominate. But if the contest were being decided on sheer elegance, the winner right now would be Klip.

I sat down recently with Alain Rossmann, the veteran computing and mobile entrepreneur behind Klip, and got a tour of the app and a glimpse of the thinking behind its design. (See the video below.) If there’s a single theme that differentiates Klip from the other video sharing apps, it’s Rossmann’s obsession with refining the user-experience details.

That’s a skill he says he began to develop at Apple, where he was on the marketing team for the original Macintosh in the early 1980s. One thing Rossmann says he learned from Steve Jobs—whose “genius was there even then, but also the difficult side”—was that “the last 10 percent of refinement gets you 90 percent of the market share.” Which explains why Klip includes seemingly obscure but aesthetically important features like face detection—to make sure that the profile photo that shows up alongside your uploaded videos is cropped properly. “When you see your friends, you want to see their face,” Rossmann insists. “To get that on a phone with retina-display resolution, you have to do face detection.”

Here’s a short video of Rossmann demonstrating Klip. Story continues after video.

Rossmann has five startups under his belt prior to Klip. Three went public, and two were acquired. That’s “more than any one man, or his wife, should have to bear,” he jokes. But he can’t seem to resist.

After Apple, Rossmann co-founded Radius with a group of other Macintosh team alums; the company made graphics cards and external displays for the Mac. Next came C-Cube Microsystems, which built the first chips for handling MPEG video compression. EO, which made a pen-based wireless communications tablet (like the iPad, but about 16 years ahead of its time) was next. Then there was Unwired Planet, which helped give birth to the Wireless Access Protocol for Web browsing on feature phones and ultimately morphed into OpenWave (NASDAQ: OPWV). And finally there was Vudu, a dying streaming-video company that Rossmann turned around and sold to Walmart in 2010.

After Vudu, Rossmann started looking for his next startup concept. “The way ideas come, it’s a very non-linear thing,” he says. “You walk around and think about things that would be fun and interesting, and some ideas look better every day, and some look worse, and some just keep coming back.”

One of the things that kept coming back, for Rossmann, was the advent of mobile video. “When I was watching TV news, the first thing people were doing, whether they were being bombed in Libya or suffering through an earthquake in Japan, was holding up their phone to record the scene. We are chronicling our whole lives, from the dumb and the useless to the historical events. So I thought, this is very big. And I kept asking, how can we organize it? How can we help users connect to things they are interested in? How can take mobility super seriously, forget what I know about PCs and the Web and make this a fluid, rewarding, engaging experience?”

Klip’s answer is a clean, streamlined app that uses some nifty software tricks to squeeze a lot of capabilities into a pared-down interface. When you open Klip, you see a big red Record button. The main idea is to get you to start shooting and sharing videos right away, which you can do that using the iPhone’s built-in camera, plus a simple editing bar that lets you select which portion of a video to upload. (There’s a 1-minute length limit on each video, but you can upload as many as you want.)

But that part is pretty much like all the other video sharing apps. It’s really the browsing and discovery tools that make Klip different. On the app’s front page you see a white field with an infinitely scrolling selection of videos uploaded by other users; there are three built-in tabs, for the latest clips, the most popular clips, and clips from the people you follow. (If you choose to follow specific hashtags, those will appear as tabs too—more on that in a moment.)

At first, you may think the Klip screen is just showing you a bunch of static thumbnails. But if you swipe your finger along the bottom of each thumbnail, you discover that they’re actually tiny windows for high-speed scrubbing—that is, controlled fast-forwarding or rewinding. (It’s the video equivalent of scrolling through a long Web page.) Shake your iPhone, and all the clips on the page start scrubbing at once. The idea behind scrubbing is to give you a way to quickly preview each clip, so that you can decide whether to watch the whole thing. “We allow you to browse videos at the speed of your finger,” says Rossmann. “It changes the rules completely.”

If you decide you do want watch a full video, it starts playing almost instantly, without the dreaded “buffering” wait. “If you’re browsing 20 videos and you have to wait 10 seconds for each one of them to start, that’s a lot to ask,” Rossmann says. “It took a lot of research, but we tried to get to instant play.” Also banished: the pausing and sputtering that plagues people watching video over a spotty wireless connection. Klip uses a technique called variable bit rate encoding, which measures the speed of your broadband connection every four seconds and decreases or increases the resolution of the video stream to match.

When you shoot and upload a video, you can also write a caption for it, and this is where Klip is innovating on the social side—by adapting the hashtag concept first invented by Twitter users. Say I upload a clip showing my dog catching Frisbees at Golden Gate Park. I can make the words “dog,” “Frisbee,” and “Golden Gate Park” into hashtags, and when you look at the page for my video, you can choose to follow any of those hashtags on an ongoing basis, to see who else has uploaded videos relating dogs, Frisbee, or the park.

It’s a lightweight, socially driven form of content discovery—in fact, it’s the only form of search you’ll find in the app. Rossmann says he consciously left out a traditional keyword-based search interface. “People are more interested in saying what they want to follow than in looking for stuff,” he says. “When you’re watching something in real time, that’s when you declare your interests. It’s very different from the classic Google behavior”—and it helps Klip to keep the app simple, without a bunch of extra dialog screens, Rossmann says.

Klip isn’t sharing data on the number of people using the app, but it’s been among the top 25 photo and video apps in the iTunes App Store ever since its release in late September. “We are really blown away by the response,” Rossmann says. “And we are really surprised by what people are doing with it.” One large subset of users is adapting Klip as a “micro-vlogging” tool, sharing very short updates or experiences with their followers. Skateboarders and snowboarders, for example, are using it to document the trick moves they’ve mastered. “A tweet about the 360 you did doesn’t matter; even a photo of it doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of thing where only an eyewitness video moves the needle.”

Klip has raised about $2 million from the venture firm Matrix Partners, which puts it behind photo-sharing leaders like Instagram ($7.5 million) or Path ($11.2 million). But Rossmann says he isn’t worried about competition, or about the prospect these startups will muscle in on Klip’s territory by adding their own video sharing features.

“I have been asked ‘Are you the Instagram of video?’ and I really can’t answer that—they’re different worlds, like Flickr and YouTube,” he says. “People are much more engaged with video. They make a much more personal commitment. You aren’t going to see a lot of beautiful sunsets on video—it’s about self-expression and communication. What I tell the team is, if we keep driving as hard as we have been and keep listening to our users, this will be huge.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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