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As iOS 6 debuts minus YouTube, video apps fight for attention

Support from Apple and a changing YouTube could give apps like Squrl and ShowYou the opportunity they've been waiting for.

Squrl's app searches for videos across a wider range of sites than YouTube's does.
Squrl's app searches for videos across a wider range of sites than YouTube's does.

When Apple users start upgrading to iOS 6 this morning, it'll be missing an app that's been baked into the operating system since the release of the first iPhone: YouTube. For the first time, consumers will have to search for a video app on their own -- and that has developers eager to get their attention.

Most consumers will doubtless start by simply downloading the YouTube iPhone app that Google released last week. But for now, that one's iPhone-only -- an iPad version is months off. In the meantime, makers of other so-called video discovery apps are pouncing on a rare opportunity to gain users in large numbers.

They're launching new versions to capitalize on YouTube's sudden absence. They're courting the tech press to get the word out. And they're hoping users will follow. No one expects these apps to dethrone YouTube. But they've never had an opportunity like this before -- and might not have another for ages.

Also in their favor: Apple is doing its best to help them along. Last week the company updated its App Store to showcase a wide range of video apps on the store's "Featured" page, in a collection called "TV Time." Notably, as we reported last week, YouTube was left off that list -- while discovery apps like Squrl, ShowYou and Vidyou get prominent placement.

"Now all users will be faced with at least making a decision," said Mark Gray, co-founder and CEO of Squrl.

All these apps make use of YouTube's content, piping videos into their app using APIs. The value they add lies in the way they organize and surface videos to people looking for something interesting to watch -- something that YouTube seems to be growing less interested in over time.

Building a better search
The question is whether, over time, users come to prefer a kind of universal search app to YouTube's, which has become more narrowly focused on channels and subscriptions. Spend some time playing with apps like Squrl and ShowYou, and it's easy to make a case for the former.

Squrl, which launched last year, launched a redesign today aimed at making finding easier. In addition to YouTube, it searches Netflix, Hulu, Ted, Vimeo, AOL and Blip.TV. You can also connect accounts from Twitter and Facebook to Squrl; it will collect all the links shared there over the day and show them to you whenever you're ready to see them. The app uses algorithms to track your video-watching habits and to suggest things it thinks you'd like to see. It also tracks videos that are trending across the Web.

In short, it finds videos in places that didn't even exist when YouTube was created in 2005. YouTube remains the top video search engine, handling billions of queries a month. But it won't find videos across the range of popular sites that have sprung up in YouTube's wake, like Hulu, Netflix and Vimeo. Squrl and its fellow apps will.

For your basic cat videos, YouTube search will more than suffice. But what happens when you're looking for a TV show or movie and aren't sure which service it's available on? Or when a video you thought was posted to YouTube is actually hosted on Vimeo?

As high-quality video migrates onto an ever-increasing number of platforms, YouTube search could become less useful. The need for an app that searches more broadly will only increase.

A changing YouTube
There's a second factor that could play to the advantage of apps like Squrl: YouTube is changing.
YouTube's app is evolving to emphasize channels over user-generated content.
YouTube's app is evolving to emphasize channels over user-generated content. YouTube
The original iOS YouTube app, designed by Apple to Google's specifications, shows us the YouTube we used to know. It prominently features the most-viewed videos of the day, along with a serendipitous assortment of "featured" videos.

It's an app, in other words, that is built for discovery.

Now pull up the new YouTube app. Mostly what it will show you is the channels to which you're subscribed. Occasionally your feed will include a recommendation based on other videos you've watched. But open the sidebar and YouTube's focus on channels becomes clear: all your subscriptions are stacked on top of one another. "Popular" videos are buried at the bottom of that list, with no option to see the most viewed videos of the week or all time.

YouTube launched its channels initiative last year in an effort to attract viewers and advertisers that it couldn't reach with the user-generated content that made the site famous. It invested $150 million in 100 or so channels, and in June said it would spend $200 million more.

The Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube already recouped its initial investment with advertising revenue generated from the project. But the new channels have been slow to produce breakout stars. Many of the site's most-viewed channels rely on established stars and brands -- and fewer than 20 channels are doing even 1 million views a week, according to AdAge. (The most viewed videos of the week, by contrast, average at least 2 million views.)

That suggests users are more interested in finding the quirky viral hits that made YouTube famous than they are subscribing to the low-budget pop culture gabfests that have become the new channels' stock in trade. And if YouTube won't drive traffic to those viral videos through its own apps, someone else is happy to.

"I don't know if I would say the opportunity is huge," said Mark Hall, the thoughtful founder and CEO of Remixation, which makes ShowYou, a Squrl competitor. "YouTube has a dominant, massive brand. It's the no. 1 free app being downloaded right now from the app store. I wouldn't want to overstate it and say that suddenly it's an even playing field.

"But," he added, "I definitely think it's a good step forward for us."

Even if they fail to crack the mainstream, the developers could be in for a rich payday. A company that solves video discovery to the tune of millions of users will be an attractive acquisition target to Google -- a company that loves buying startups. If the Squrls of the world can't beat YouTube, don't be surprised if they join them.

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