Why Ustream Will Change Mainstream by Shel Israel

May 28, 2007

Why Ustream will change mainstream by Shel Israel

Chris Yeh
[Ustream CEO Chris Yeh. Photo by Shel]

I’ve been looking at online video for about a month now, spending less than an hour on most days, just poking around. There’s so much going on, in so many areas, that this approach is very much like assaulting a glacier with an ice pick. Except that even a glacier on steroids would not come close to keeping up with this rapidly growing, rapidly changing category. Over half the web’s content is now digital video, my friend JD Lasica, a citizen video expert says. He says many predict the web will eventually be 98 percent video.

This changes things. It changes how the Internet will be used. Some of this is just a new and better distribution mechanism. For example, the day is fast coming when you’ll be able to get whatever commercial TV or video program you want from your computer and wirelessly send it to your TV set for viewing whenever you want. Cable providers need not be involved. There’s also the new pro0am explosion best typified on YouTube.

But there is much more happening and from time-to-time, I plan to write about the companies and people who stand out in my perception as the diamonds in the coal mine, companies and people who are changing the nature of the online experience.

A simple idea

Of the companies I’ve come across so far, nothing has so impressed me as Ustream. Chances are good that you’ve already heard of Ustream, despite it’s tender age of four months, and despite the fact that the company consists of three guys, no financing and a few off-the-shelf cameras, cables and baseball caps customized for hands free video recording. I am almost equally impressed by its CEO Chris Yeh, a sequential entrepreneur who seems to fully grasp Ustream’s potential and has the smarts and experience to help this tiny company change the world.

Like most enduring ideas, the Ustream concept is just plain simple. Ustream allows just about anyone to broadcast live video over the Internet and interact in near realtime with connected viewers using chat. Unlike Justin.tv, which features the novelty of some guy walking around (or sleeping) with a camera on his head, Ustream is intended as a platform, working with most other sites. In fact, during my two meetings with Chris Yeh, he was consistent. Every time I mentioned another company, he told me how Ustream could work with them, rather than compete with them.

The platform play is proving to be key. While Justin is based on the oddity of you watching a one guy’s life, even during the portions that are less interesting than paint drying, Ustream’s home page is diverse and wonderfully uneven in the quality and subject matter. It seems to have something new every day. Most is end userist in orientatation, but a growing tributary reveals considerable business applicability as well.

More about that in a minute. First, a brief capsule of the company’s brief history.

Ustream got early prominent coverage on some major blog sites. But where it really showed its potential was at Web 2.0, the recent mega conference, when Podtech’s dynamic duo of Scoble and Owyang walked around talking to people and showing presentations as they happened with hundreds of viewers worldwide commenting through text chat.

Like microwave popcorn

Shortly after, Ustream got a second boost from Gnomedex ubergeek Chris Pirillo who has extended his own live TV show onto the Ustream platform where about 100 people seem to be watching it, even during lengthy intermissions when the screen is essentially inactive.

Now, new experiences are popping up faster than microwave popcorn. Just a few from the last week.

  • When Zoomr, a photo sharing site headed up by respected photo blogger Thomas Hawk, needed to close down for updating, the company thought it might be cool to use Ustream to show what was going on behind the scenes, instead of posting the usual “Closed for Repairs” screen. It turned out to be more than cool, according to Hawk. “It let us interact with our community and get a lot of feedback about how to make Zooomr a better place going forward.” Hawk told me that Ustream helped Zoomr to get to know its own community better than they had imagined they could. “More than anything it’s just been a ton of fun,” he added. Moving forward Ustream, whose new site is scheduled to go live tonight, has Ustream built in to it, running 24/7. Sometimes the Zoomr senior team will interact directly with its community and at others, they’ll just run some videos. One other plus seems to have come out. Even with the site down for the past week, the number of visitors has increased.”Hawk eyePeople seem to like this a lot,” he said with apparent understatement.
  • Cisco, a company with a very yesterday image has been trying to get caught up with contemporary times. Last week it Ustreamed a news conference that it held in Second Life, which seems to me to be about as hip and cool as one can get.
  • A father had looked forward to seeing his daughter graduate high school, but got struck by leukemia and was hospitalized for treatments. Friends Ustreamed the daughter’s graduation ceremony which he watched with delight from his bed.
  • A Chinese movie superstar does a Ustream news conference for fans. In fact start watchers and amateur paparazzi seem to be moving from the flash cameras to video cams, using Ustream to live broadcast start sitings. Ustream co-founder Johnny Ham has the dubious achievement of live streaming Paris Hilton’s parents in one of Ustream’s first ever programs.

Scoble’s Lament

Scoble & CameraUstream applications seem almost endless limited only by one’s own imagination. Scoble, recently lamented he was suffering from personal malaise caused by a paucity of exciting new companies seems to think this company is an exception. “Ustream is significant because it lets anyone with a camera become a live TV broadcasting station. Are you the only one at an event? You can share your experience with others-live.”

“Events,” as Scoble calls them, may involve any part of life. As Carl Sagan used to say, “Consider the possibilities and they are infinite.” Soldiers in Iraq, where Ustream co-founder Johnny Ham was recently stationed can talk live with their family from the war zone and their families can talk to them. A CEO of a global corporation can hold a companywide interactive video meeting with inexpensive off-the-shelf equipment. Elected officials, if they dare, can hold interactive video conversations with constituents. A surgical specialist in one location can oversee an operation remotely and provide text consultation that could save a life.

Citizen Journalism

I believe that modern citizen journalism began not with blogging, but with the amateur video taping of the LA police beating of Rodney King. That took several days for the person who filmed it to get it played on a TV station whose network then picked it up. Social media just makes such opportunities easier, faster and cheaper to send because we all have access to a network and we all have the ways and means to report what we see. Ustream takes it a step beyond where we have been because now we can video report live.

Almost anyone with a $99 camera and an Internet-connected report can upload to Ustream. Today, most of us will be tethered to our computers via USB cables. But we will all soon be unleashed. In April, the Nokia N95 video phone came out making it possible to upload directly from a video camera phone. It’s expensive today, but the time is not far away when the average device will afford millions of people with the same capability.

Competition & speed bumps
It is highly unlikely that Ustream will move forward without facing new and tougher competition. Perhaps it will come from another innovative startup. More likely a large internet or traditional media company will move into the space. Yeh believes that Ustream’s competitive edge will come from an 18-month headstart. By the time a startup can get to where Ustream is today, Ustream will be somewhere further down the line. As far as competing with a giant like either Google or CNN, Ustream is probably easier to eat than beat. Yeh did not share with me his business plan, but it is obvious, the company is going to have some pretty nice options on the road ahead.

The road ahead seems to have no major barriers, but it is filled with speed bumps.

One main problem is being heard. It is a tiny company, and the buzz about Ustream is only audible among innovators and early adopters in social media circles. It may shock you, but blogs do not actually reach most of the people in the world. They do not even reach most of the people on the Internet. they don’t even reach most of the people who speak English on the Internet. Ustream will need a very active communications outreach programs to keep the headstart it has. This may be it’s biggest challenge.

Second, is technical refinement. It is cool to send video and let me respond through chat. it would be cooler if I could respond with my own video at the same time and in the same space. Today, this cannot be done. I have no clue as to how you would watch multiple videos, coming from multiple sources simultaneously on the same screen. On TV there is a control room and perhaps that’s what our online video viewers of the future will look like. But, over time, people viewing video online would be well served if they could go from”You stream. I write,” to “You stream. I stream back.”

There is also an emerging problem of discoverability. Video is harder to scan than text, and current search engine spiders just don’t work. Over at YouTube, it seems harder to fiund what you want without getting muddled in a swamp en route. Even Ustream’s 4-month-old archives is getting pretty big. Archives is not their core business, but it will be important to users. I raised the issue with Yeh, who wisely opted not to discuss confidential business plans during an on-the-record interview, but he seemed confident that Ustream will be able to resolve the issue. I can’t wait to see how.

Executive summary

I’m pretty bullish on this company, but of course, I could be dead wrong. There could be a group of guys meeting somewhere right now, with something so much better as to blow right past Ustream. What I am certain about is that live streaming video is very important over the next few years social media and the Internet.

Live streaming video is going to be mainstream. The numbers are going to be huge and as of this moment, Ustream is in the best position of any company that I have been able to find.

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