A Dizzying Survey Of Video Apps

A few months ago, after the Instagram acquisition, there was an inevitable rush to see if someone could pull off an “Instagram for Video.” I had drafted a post of why that was a silly notion to begin with but thankfully didn’t publish it because all the hoopla got out of hand. After that, we saw Viddy raise money at a really high valuation and SocialCam was acquired by AutoDesk.

There’s so much to say on this topic, and I was reminded of all this from a random Twitter thread last night with friends. A few disclaimers: (1) I cover a lot of “video-related” apps in here, but will undoubtedly miss some. Sorry about that, but we live in a time of AWS and app fragmentation; and (2) this post isn’t as “organized” as I like my writing to be, and that’s largely because all of this is so damn confusing for me. With that said, here’s how my own logic works:

It sounds obvious, but perhaps not repeated often enough: I don’t believe that taking videos is a fundamental human behavior. Taking photos is natural, easy. I don’t have statistics on this, but I informally polled friends on Twitter and the ratio of photos-to-videos on their phones is astronomically high, something like 1000:2. This implies for “user-generated content” (UCG) for video will be extremely hard because despite any innovation in on the technology side (which I’ll dig into below), it may not be enough to change this behavior. There are other ways and tools to get people to make videos on their own. Some of the more lightweight ones allow users to collage pictures into a slideshow, which one could argue is like a movie, or to use software like iMovie to capture and edit directly on the mobile device.

However, as YouTube (especially on mobile) demonstrates, people do want to watch videos that are already pumped onto the web, but they have trouble discovering what to watch. SocialCam figured this out with a very clever hack, perfectly timing their Facebook Open Graph integration to drive sign-ups and view. It turns out that people did, in fact, want to watch videos, but most of those SocialCams were people linking to and sharing videos that were already uploaded via other means. SocialCam provided discovery of video, but didn’t cause more people to take videos from their phones. (As an aside, this is what Klip does for iPhone/Android and Chill sort of does on the web, a Pinterest-style layout of people discovering videos, mainly from YouTube, because YouTube is mainly for search. Additionally, an app called Vodio shows you interesting videos based on your interest, and most of these are professionally produced.)

An “Instagram for Video” implies two things, generally. One, that a person uses the application to create UCG in the form of a video and is able to share that broadly, both within the app’s network as well as to other usual suspect publishing destinations like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. And two, that the user has the ability to manipulate that content in some way, post-capture, in the same manner that Instagram empowered users to touch-up photos with filters. This is the path Viddy took, and they were rewarded with high-growth (10m+ users) and a valuation touching $400m. (That’s a rich bet because a few weeks earlier, some of the smartest minds on Sand Hill valued Instagram at $500m, which now appears to be a steal, though these two products are very, very different. Another app, Ptch, let’s users do something similar to Viddy.)

As someone who spends some time thinking about video production, one of the hard lessons I’ve experienced first-hand is that, despite all the work to make something perfect, the bar for watching a video is very high for most audiences. Observing an Instagram is quick yet immersive. A video, on the other hand, requires commitment, and that’s why the only videos I watch are ones that come through my Facebook or Twitter feeds.

To combat this issue inherent in videos, a few companies have taken interesting twists on this problem. With Highlightcam, a user can upload a video, upload it into the app, which then sends it to their servers, auto-edits and compresses the video into a shorter format, and then gives the user a new video. Another mobile product currently in beta test mode, D____ (sorry, not available yet publicly), puts another twist on this model by building a technology that enables the same service, but compresses the video on the client side, making it (theoretically) much quicker.

Kinotopic and Cinemagram also provide yet another twist, also with clever constraints. Both of these services allow users to upload videos, but then to take a still image from the video and then animate only a portion of the image to create a GIF, a shorter media format which is easier to digest and also is prone to spread around the web as memes (if done well).

Recently, an app called “Vine” took a similar concept, allowing people to smash together a few videos and the service would compress into a hyper-short video to give the viewer a quick snapshot, a bit more immersive than a Cinemagram. Vine was recently acquired by Twitter, however. Separately, an app called Vyclone lets you see “videos taken around you” based on your phone’s location, though this strikes me as an add hook to center the service around given the chicken-and-egg problem of UCG videos to begin with.

Among all of these, only a few have caught on. SocialCam nailed Open Graph, but now work out of AutoDesk. Chill drives a good deal of traffic, and maybe Klip can do the same thing on mobile, but it’s early. Certainly, Viddy has enough users and money to be in the game for a while, so who knows how that will grow. And, in terms of organic growth, Cinemagram is doing very well. What they have going for them is the fact that Cinemagrams existed in the art world before the company built the software to empower people like you and me to make them. They force users to take very short clips (like 2-3 seconds) and then quickly animate a portion of it, the result of which is something as immersive as a picture with the flash of a GIF inside it. It’s low-commitment and some of it could be considered art, in my book.

I should mention here that I thought the same of Mixel before it was shut down. I was sad about Mixel because I liked the artistic aspect but it couldn’t grow at a decent rate, which is the risk for all of these startups above, that to elevate these artistic tools to the masses at Instagram-like scale will require something as simple yet powerful as what Instagram created, and that may not fundamentally exist for UCG video.

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus