PandoDaily: Searching for the New Instagram

ON FEBRUARY 14, 2013

Vine is a smartphone and tablet app (although it’s optimized for smartphones) that enables users to compose videos that are up to six seconds long. There’s little doubt why Twitter acquired the company that made the app, which was developed by Vine Labs, Inc. — a three-person startup. After Instagram’s meteoric rise and subsequent acquisition by Facebook, it seems everyone is looking for the next big thing, and mobile video seems a logical choice.

But creating a mobile video service with similar impact to Instagram is easier said than done. That’s because when it comes to mobile, there are issues that make creating and consuming video more difficult than stagnant photos:

  • Uploading and downloading videos from mobile make video apps slow compared to apps where you can immediately start consuming content.
  • Shooting a good video is more complicated than taking a good photo, especially when it comes to editing and stabilizing the camera.
  • Dealing with video requires a strong Internet connection and devices with a powerful processor, long battery life, and enough storage space for all these videos. Not everybody has one.

The first notable mobile video startups – Socialcam and Viddy – showed brisk growth over the span of just a few months, and led to Socialcam being acquired by Autodesk for $60 million and Viddy raising $30 million at a $370 million valuation. Most of their early traction came from exploiting viral loops on other social networks (mostly Facebook, as explained by Socialcam’s founder Michael Siebel). However, the generation of original content in these networks remained stagnant, to the point that Socialcam started reposting popular Youtube videos. Based on a recent report from Keyhole Analytics, these apps haven’t continued that explosive growth and Vine passed them in usage in just a week.

Recently, a second wave of startups has emerged, focused on improving the way content is created and experimenting with different ways to create videos. Vine, for example, has taken the “less is more approach” popularized by its master, Twitter, and enforces strict time limits – roughly analogous to a 140-character tweet. Meanwhile Cinemagram allows you to edit the videos in several ways before publishing them, improving the quality of the end result, and Lightt revolves around easy consumption, letting you shoot 7 seconds of content that it speeds up to play in 1.2 seconds. Meanwhile brands like GENike FootballUrban Outfitters and Liverpool FC are experimenting with these tools (especially Vine).

Twitter clearly missed the bus when it comes to photo-sharing and despite their latest efforts to make pictures a more prominent part of the Twitter experience, Instagram is still the indisputably dominant player in the mobile photo-sharing space.

In launching Vine, Twitter has borrowed from the Instagram playbook:

  • The app is built on the premise of making insanely simple to create and easy-to-share videos – the same concept initially followed by Instagram. To achieve that, the social network that Vine has built-in has a lot of similarities with Instagram: once you take a video, you can share it on Facebook, Twitter, or only Vine.
  • It has launched as an iPhone-only app, focusing on nailing the experience for a single platform before moving to Android.
  • It includes similar discovery capabilities (even though one could say that Instagram borrowed those from Twitter), such as #’s and similar ways to import your friends.
  • The videos are processed very quickly and uploaded to the Internet very quickly too (despite it seems that they aren’t using the “move bits when no one is watching” approach that Instagram popularized)

Vine is a compelling app, and the initial distribution provided by Twitter almost guarantees that it will be a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, as Twitter refocuses its efforts on becoming a big media company, it should be able to monetize this original content as part of its advertising infrastructure. This is something other startups without deep pockets wouldn’t be able to accomplish until reaching massive scale (let’s not forget it took four years for Google to make Youtube profitable). This would likely scare away potential investors.

But has Twitter won the mobile video race? Not so fast. Before we name Vine the winner and anoint six seconds the new default for advertising, it’s possible another company could sneak in and grab the market.

I’m talking about Google.

Hear me out. One of the major challenges with mobile video is ensuring the image is stable and doesn’t shake, and that is something none of the solutions I described before has achieved. But Google has been working on this a long time. In 2011, it published research on algorithms that stabilize videos removing undesired motions. You can check out the results in the video below:

If you think about how Flickr, the once indisputable leader in the photo-sharing space, missed the mobile opportunity, it isn’t hard to imagine that Youtube is already working on something like this (currently, YouTube apps in iOS and Android only allow content consumption, not creation).

What about the other two challenges detailed above (i.e. initial distribution and monetization)? YouTube is already a profitable business and the third most visited site on the web, and as we have seen with previous products (such as Google+), Google has the capacity and to roll out a new product quickly to millions of users. It could become a serious competitor almost overnight. Additionally, if you had to think of a device that could disrupt the way mobile video works, wouldn’t that be Google Glass?

We’ll likely see a coalescing around a couple of major players – as we’ve seen time and again in other tech-oriented industries (search, portals, social networks, you know the drill).

If Google enters the fray, which I think is likely, it could spell a bitter end for existing mobile video apps – including Twitter’s Vine.

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