Friday, February 19, 2010

YouTube today, gone tomorrow?

Over ten years ago, I recall watching online streaming video on my computer screen.

An area barely larger than a postage stamp contained a highly pixelated, low frame-rate moving image and sound.

It was kind of like the re-invention of the movies all over again.

Despite the poor quality, the frequent buffering and the very limited content available, video was on the Net -- whether we needed it or not.

Back in those days, Real was king and their RealPlayer was "the" streaming media software to have on your PC if you wanted to enjoy live audio or video.

Over the years that followed, things improved significantly.

Dial-up gave way to broadband, Microsoft took over from Real as the dominant player in the streaming software market and then something ground-breaking happened...

Five years ago, YouTube was born.

Unlike other streaming video options, YouTube's video clips loaded relatively quickly and although they initially suffered the same pixelation and buffering as those early postage-stamp videos of years gone-by, things were quickly improved.

Even better, YouTube didn't care if you had the right version of Windows Media Player, the right codec or other tech-stuff. It used Adobe's Flash player and that was already ubiquitous so just about anyone could watch streaming video without getting all involved in installing new software and tweaking system settings.

Although it started relatively slowly, the YouTube community quickly grew and today it's "the" place to watch video and upload your own contributions.

Despite its tremendous popularity however, even Google hasn't been able to spin a dollar's profit from the enterprise since they purchased it a few years back and there are no guarantees that they ever will.

Far from being just a dumping ground for music vids and tedious home-movies, YouTube has rapidly become an incredibly useful source of relevant and up-to-the-minute information.

When a news story breaks almost anywhere in the world, a YouTube search will almost certainly find you some of the latest broadcast reports, uploaded either by the broadcasters themselves or by some keen third party.

I also find YouTube incredibly useful for hunting down all manner of other types of information. If you'd normally search Wikipedia or Google for something, try a YouTube search as well and you may be surprised with just how much relevant material you find.

However, more important than the technology is the insight that YouTube gives us into the composition and attitudes of the "average" Net user these days.

Back in the days of postage-stamp video streaming, just about the only content available was of a technical or news-related flavour. This wasn't entertainment, just information.

Today however, as YouTube celebrates its fifth birthday, we can see that things have taken a decidedly different turn when it comes to the content that's available and that which is most viewed.

Just what are the most popular YouTube videos ever uploaded?

Are they documentaries? Informative pieces? Technical commentaries? Scientific reports?

No.

I'm afraid (and this is surely a very sad indictment on the average IQ of the Net audience in the 21st century)...

1. Charlie bit my finger - again !

2. Evolution of Dance

3. Miley Cyrus - 7 Things - Official Music Video

Or maybe it's simply an endorsement that the internet has become as wonderful as television.

Hmmm...

Perhaps the most interesting question is to ask "where next for online video?"

If Google can't work out a way to spin a dime from YouTube, will they continue to pour good money after bad by providing the service at all?

Will video become the predominant format for information and entertainment online? Just a decade ago, I doubt anyone would have believed that we'd be seeing as much video now as we do -- could the growth continue to eclipse all other content formats?

Or will the confusing conundrum surrounding copyright effectively scuttle services such as YouTube. Indeed, even a cursory inspection of YouTube's content will show that despite automated software designed to prevent copyright infringement, an astonishingly high percentage of YouTube's content infringes someone's copyright -- either by unauthorised uploading of TV content or the unauthorised use of music tracks.

YouTube is old enough to go to primary school -- but will it still be around when it comes time to go to high-school?

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