For a couple of years now, executives at YouTube have been working on what they call "the lean-back experience" -- ways of watching online video that don't require viewers to choose something else to watch every two or three minutes.
The company has tried various tactics to increase the time users spend on its site, from deep integrations with connected televisions to funding channels led by celebrities. It has also redesigned its Web site and mobile apps to emphasize a left-hand "guide" feature, which is designed to make it easier to find stuff you might want to watch.
And yet for the past year or so I've done much of my YouTube viewing far away from the site and its apps. ShowYou, a video discovery startup from San Francisco, has a free app that has created the slickest experience for watching online video to date. And with a major redesign of its iPad app that launches today, ShowYou aims to make that even easier.
Mark Hall, ShowYou's CEO, told me that, up to now, TV viewers could be grouped into two categories. The first likes to come home at the end of the work day, sit on the couch, turn on the TV and see what's on. The second also likes to watch TV at the end of the day, but picks and chooses favorite shows using the on-demand technology that has become possible over the past decade.
But with the rise of online video, Hall says, a third category is becoming possible: people who want to come home and watch the Internet. Their friends spend all day sharing links to interesting videos on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr; unless the Internet-watcher is glued to a screen at work all day long, it would be easy to miss the day's best videos. So the first thing ShowYou does is to collect all that stuff -- sign in with your various social media accounts and it will gather everything that has been shared during the day, and present it for you in an attractive grid.
ShowYou turned heads with its last design, which presented the day's videos on an enormous grid that scrolled in every direction, like a giant map of the video world. I liked the grid, but about half of ShowYou's users hated it, Hall said, and so with version 4 ShowYou is taking a new approach.
Now the grid scrolls straight up and down. The company redesigned its iPhone app earlier in the year using a vertical scroll, and users prefer it, Hall said. It's also easier to do simple vertical scrolling on the iPad Mini, which the company expects to become the top-selling iPad in short order.
The videos are picked using 18 different criteria, Hall says, aimed at picking the right video for you to watch based on your interests. When you see something you like, you just tap and it starts playing. The "carousel" player ShowYou built for the new version lets you swipe from side to side when you want to change videos. Or, if you want a truly lean-back experience, you can just tap "autoplay" and ShowYou will do all the work. The app is AirPlay-enabled, so if you have an Apple TV you can stream everything straight to the big screen.
"We're not quite in the fully interactive 'lean forward' mindset we experience in front of a computer; but we're also not in a passive, lean-back mode, either," Hall said in a blog post announcing the new design. "The key is to provide functional and useful ways to interact with the app, but to make that as easy as possible."
For those who do want to lean forward a bit more, ShowYou 4 also has a "feed" view that brings up more information about a video: who in your network shared it, any comments they may have made, and a "topics" tag that attempts to categorize the video. If you're interested in the topic, you can tap it and ShowYou will show you other videos from that topic.
Though not yet a household name, ShowYou is starting to gain impressive scale. The company retrieves 11 million videos from users' Facebook and Twitter feeds a day, and its own database is approaching 100 million videos. And then there are the numbers that should really make other video companies jealous: the average user who opens ShowYou on the iPad spends 40 minutes inside the app. At a time when most apps are lucky to capture a user's attention for six or seven minutes, that's impressive.
More than that, though, it's just fun. ShowYou has been my favorite way to watch online video for some time. The redesign takes what was great about the last version and makes it simpler.