Google’s value to the world (and advertisers) lies mostly in an open web where it connects the dots — thus, closed environments like Apple’s application platform and Facebook’s somewhat private social network are serious threats. But thanks to the rise in usage and functionality of connected consumer devices such as smartphones and televisions, developers are flocking to build native apps that take advantage of proprietary platforms, as opposed to applications that run on the web itself.
Google can’t ignore the threat to its business, which is why it’s especially telling that yesterday, Google-owned YouTube launched new and improved versions of its site for mobiles and the living room, both of them entirely web-based and accessible from any browser. Given that native apps often function more smoothly and have better platform support, it’s a big move for a resource-intensive video streaming service to shrug off the benefits of native apps and existing native video file formats and go exclusively through the web.
The new interfaces, m.youtube.com and youtube.com/leanback, aren’t exactly a coordinated two-pronged strategy (notice the lack of a naming convention), but they both are aiming for the advantages of cross-platform compatibility that are derived from being based in the browser. The benefit of building for the web is that your service can be displayed on just about any Internet-enabled device, even the ones that haven’t been prototyped yet. (If you thought there was too much fragmentation on mobile, hold on to your hat for consumer electronics.)
Google’s orientation towards web apps versus native apps is well known, and it’s only been accelerated by the company’s frenemy-turned-enemy relationship with Apple. For instance, Google doesn’t even offer a Gmail app for the iPhone, instead offering an HTML 5 web app that’s surprisingly snappy and full-featured. Now YouTube is taking the same tack with a rich-media consumption service — usually not a project where you’d want to run away from special access to hardware and software support.
YouTube mobile product manager Andrey Doronichev made the pro-web app stance explicit at a press conference yesterday, as Janko reported:
Doronichev called the new YouTube mobile site “by far the most full-featured YouTube mobile implementation out there,” which is an interesting take on YouTube apps for iPhone and Android. He demoed the video playback quality in direct comparison to YouTube’s iPhone app, which was built by Apple. So why is the website better than the app experience? Building apps involves a lot of partners, including carriers and app stores, Doronichev said, adding: “With the site, we can iterate faster.”
On connected entertainment devices, YouTube had already declared its distaste for making case-by-case custom apps last year, when it debuted a living-room-ready version of the site YouTube XL and swore off its previous strategy of individual deals with TV manufacturers. The new Leanback product, which also launched yesterday, is an extension of that strategy, taking users’ Facebook connections to compile a continuous playlist of videos they’ll be interested in. The result is a personalized TV channel that’s formatted to look good on a large screen viewed from your couch (hence the name).
But YouTube is giving up even more in the living room than it is on phones by going to the web instead of going native. That’s because in connected TVs it will be especially important to get promoted to users, make the best use of hardware and the full-screen real estate, and tie into each software platform and its peripheral controls in a simple way. All of those criteria are key because of both the nature of the lean-back environment, and the fact that hardly anyone owns and uses these broadband-enabled TVs yet.
Of course, Google isn’t putting all its chips on the browser. It also has its own native platform for mobile and, eventually, televisions: Android. As was announced in May, the new Google TV devices — which will be distributed using those dreaded case-by-case partnerships with consumer electronics manufacturers — will run Android apps. But Google TV promises to be more of an even playing field than other platforms. At launch, it will only support web apps (used through a Linux version of Chrome), including Leanback, with Android Market coming to devices in a later update. Native apps may be all the rage right now, but with the kind of support Google is giving them, web apps won’t be far behind for long.
Related GigaOM Pro research (sub req’d): Google TV: Overview and Strategic Analysis