ShowYou—The iPad Social Video Browser That’s Taking On TV
If you have an iPhone, an iPod Touch, or an iPad, and you’re active on Facebook and Twitter, and you like to watch videos from places like YouTube, Vimeo, and TED, and you have a Wi-Fi network at home with a fast broadband connection, and especially if you have an Apple TV, then there’s a new app out today that you will love. It’s called ShowYou. If you don’t meet this description, you won’t see the point of the rest of this article, so you can stop reading now.
I’m kidding. You should keep reading, because ShowYou is important. It’s likely to accelerate a bunch of changes that are already underway in the way we think about Internet video—and about television itself.
ShowYou is a mobile, social video browser. As the name implies, it shows you the Internet videos that your friends have been sharing lately on your social networks. At launch, the videos all come from YouTube, Vimeo, and TED, and the social networks include Facebook and Twitter. Over time, more sources and more networks will be added.
What could be so momentous about all that? After all, you can find the videos your friends are talking about online simply by following the links in their tweets or their wall posts. Well, the point is that ShowYou—which comes from Remixation, the same San Francisco company that created the video curation site VodPod—isn’t Facebook or Twitter or a Web browser. It’s a slick, simple iOS app, designed from the ground up for one activity: finding, watching, and commenting on videos. And it does that so well that I think it will quickly be classed alongside Flipboard as an app that redefines what’s possible on touchscreen devices. ShowYou puts the Apple devices’ touchscreens to elegant and original use, and in the process it dramatically raises the bar for other video-centric apps. It puts Google’s native YouTube iOS app to shame, just to name one.
I interviewed Remixation CEO Mark Hall about the new app in late March, and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks as a ShowYou beta tester. (You can follow me on ShowYou under the name waderoush.) From my experiences so far, I’ve noticed a few key qualities that make ShowYou stand out from the dozens of other new apps I see every month.
One is that it lifts Internet videos out of environments that weren’t designed to showcase them and puts them on devices that feel like they were made expressly for video. This is especially true on the iPad 2, the device I used to test ShowYou.
A second point is that ShowYou incorporates a lot of little user-interface decisions that, cumulatively, make it not just frictionless but fun to use. For example, when you click on a video in the app’s lineup, it starts playing right away; there’s no need for an extra click on the play button, the way there is with videos embedded in websites. And the iPad version of ShowYou includes a nifty navigation trick: a “grid view” holding up to a thousand video thumbnails in all. To explore this enormous grid, you use a finger to drag it horizontally, vertically, or even diagonally. The first time you see it, the grid provokes the same kind of “wow” reaction as Flipboard’s page-flipping interface. It’s bound to instantly become ShowYou’s signature UI innovation.
Thirdly, ShowYou almost single-handedly justifies all the work Apple put into AirPlay. This is the technology that allows you to stream music or video from your computer, your iPhone, your iPod Touch, or your iPad to your sound system or your television (assuming you have an Apple TV device). Until recently, the AirPlay feature only worked for Apple’s own apps, such as iTunes. But in March, the company rolled out a software upgrade that allowed third-party developers to build AirPlay support into their own apps. Which means you can sit on your couch and use ShowYou on your iOS device to find cool videos, then throw them over to your big-screen TV to actually watch them. It’s an uncannily smooth experience; it feels far more natural than browsing for videos via the Apple TV’s own YouTube channel.
For Remixation, ShowYou’s launch today is a bet-the-company moment. VodPod, a community site where members collect videos from around the Web into channels reflecting their personal tastes, is chugging along just fine—it has more than a million members and attracts 8 to 10 million unique visitors a month. But Hall says it represents Internet video’s past, not its future.
“Over the last 12 months, we became deeply aware of what was happening with mobile and tablets and connected TVs,” says Hall. In a pivotal meeting last fall the Remixation CEO sat down with co-founders Scott Persinger and Spencer Miles and outside board member Toni Schneider, the CEO of WordPress creator Automattic. The four entrepreneurs concluded that “we had to do something around the tablet and the smartphone,” Hall recounts. “There was a risk that if we just continued to work on the margins on our Web business, we would have no business in five years.”
Building a smartphone or tablet version of VodPod would have been the obvious, easy thing to do. “But Toni pushed us to think about doing it the other way around, and building something specifically for those platforms, rather than shoehorning a product that was built for the Web into a device that isn’t the Web,” Hall says. “That immediately resonated with us. We are big believers that you can’t make products be Swiss Army knives and still have them be useful or fun.”
One other data point figured into the group’s decision. Companies like Boxee and Google had been getting attention for their set-top box technology, which brings Internet video to big-screen TVs. But then, last September, Apple came out with the new version of its own set-top box, Apple TV, and said it intended to open up the device for wireless video sharing. “We came to the conclusion that if AirPlay worked the way Apple said it was going to work, it was going to be way better than Google TV or Boxee,” says Hall. “So if we could do a god job [building a new video sharing app] on the iPad and iPod Touch and iPhone, that would be our path.”
The new product would still be about Internet video, of course—that was the market Remixation knew from VodPod, and the company already had lots of experience with the back-end systems needed to identify videos mentioned on Twitter and Facebook and import them from the Web. But the software would be fundamentally new in that it would be all about consuming and commenting on video, not curating it. (That said, ShowYou may turn out to be a better tool for following VodPod curators than VodPod itself.)
Persinger, who’s Remixation’s chief technology officer and resident programming genius, says building ShowYou required throwing out everything he knew about the Ruby programming language underlying VodPod. In its place he had to learn Objective C, the language in which Apple’s PC and mobile operating systems are written. That was “like going back in a time machine about 15 or 20 years,” he says. “The whole Apple platform is basically NeXTSTEP from NeXT [the enterprise computing company Steve Jobs built during his years of exile from Apple, 1985-1996], and they’ve done a ton of work on it, but it’s fundamentally still 20-year-old technology.”
Yet there’s an important reason to write in Objective C, Persinger says. “I think Apple’s view is that the devices are constrained, there is not a lot of memory or storage space, and they are not that fast. So they would rather have you build a great app that works within those constraints than give you some super-easy programming environment in which you can create any crummy app,” he says. The downside? “It was a painful learning curve. I was banging my head against the wall for six weeks. Their whole thing is to make it easy for the end user and put the onus on the developer.”
The hardest part of building ShowYou wasn’t the Airplay integration, Persinger says, or even the cloud-based commenting and sharing system, which relies on a variation of Google’s MapReduce distributed computing algorithm to provide every user with a personalized video list reflecting the real-time activities of the people they follow. No, the hardest part was the 2D scrolling grid for the iPad version. “You’re looking at probably the fourth or fifth version we built,” Persinger told me in March. “We kept rebuilding it because it’s this huge canvas, and the question is when should you download the next set of thumbnails without interrupting the UI as you’re panning around. It was a lot of work.”
But the work paid off—the panning is smooth and seamless. While the placement of individual videos may seem random, they’re actually organized by popularity and time, with the most popular and most recent videos your friends have shared appearing in the upper left corner. As you pan down or to the right you’ll see older videos, and discover videos from people you aren’t following.
There’s also an alternative view in ShowYou, the “feed,” that shows just the videos you’ve shared or commented on, in a long scrolling list. This is, in effect, ShowYou’s social meeting place, dedicated to conversation rather than discovery.
Hall says Remixation, which has raised an undisclosed amount of venture funding from San Francisco-based True Ventures and several individual investors, could eventually make money on ShowYou by selling brands cost-per-view ads or other types of ads within the platform, or by creating a subscription-based premium version of the app, or both.
ShowYou isn’t perfect, in part because it isn’t finished, and because the world of online video is still evolving. Right now, ShowYou can only see videos shared by your friends from Twitter, Facebook, and VodPod; there are plans in a near-future update to add Tumblr to the list. The list of video sources is limited too, mainly because iOS devices can only play video that’s been transcoded into the H.264 format—which, at the moment, largely narrows things down to YouTube and Vimeo. “We’ll add other publishers, but you still have a lot of legacy Flash video out there,” says Hall.
A whole universe of commercial content—from sports clips to network shows to Netflix videos—will probably never show up in ShowYou. “There is never going to be a product from anyone that has all [Internet] video in it, not the way the rights work, not in our lifetime,” Hall says. “We’ll be best from the middle of the long tail out to the end, and we’ll probably stay away from trying to aggregate branded content, at least in the short term. You don’t want to start holding negotiations with Disney or NBC—I’ll let the younger entrepreneurs tilt at those windmills.”
But ShowYou may not need Disney or NBC content to start competing with the traditional prime-time lineup. “We know that people are watching more video online from more sources, and we know that these devices are heavily used in the home between 8:00 pm and 11:00 pm,” Hall notes. Moreover, the AirPlay integration ties the devices running ShowYou straight to consumers’ big screen TVs. “And some of this [YouTube and Vimeo content] is more interesting and better, frankly, than a lot of what I find on TV. So I like to think this has as chance of replacing a lot of what’s on TV.”
It’s an ambitious vision—but that’s how revolutions get started.
Here’s a video about ShowYou provided by Remixation.
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ShowYou Will Change How You View Videos on Your iPad (ReadWriteWeb)
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Showyou: An iPad Experience for Shared Videos (AllThingsDigital)
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