When YouTube first hit the web back in 2005, it attracted attention simply by making Internet video-watching simple rather than a glitchy hassle — and the fact that large numbers of real people used it to share their mini-movies with the world was a novelty in itself.
That was a long, long time ago. Today, with four billion hours of viewership a month, YouTube is more popular than ever. But it’s also part of an Internet that’s radically different than it was when YouTube was young.
Today, when YouTube videos become monstrous hits — such as the multiple versions of the Harlem Shake, which have scored tens of millions of views apiece in just weeks — it’s because people have shared them on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks that were either new or nonexistent in 2005. Video created for YouTube is increasingly slick and professional, which makes it more directly competitive with conventional television programming. And while plenty of folks still use the service in its traditional, browser-based form, they’re also watching video on phones, tablets, HDTVs and just about every gizmo with a screen.
I recently sat down with YouTube Director of Product Management Shiva Rajaraman to talk about how YouTube is evolving to reflect where Internet video is in 2013, and where it’s going. Executive summary: The company’s vision involves it being irresistibly easy to find and watch YouTube video, on every video-capable gadget you’ve got.
YouTube, of course, built its popularity on bite-sized videos. It now offers longer-form items — even recent feature films — but it’s still dominated by quick-hit fare that’s consumable in small amounts. That has its benefits: “If you’re watching YouTube at work and you’re in front of your desktop, you’ll probably limit your watching to one video,” Rajaraman told me.
Elsewhere, however, you might be willing to watch lots of videos — a scenario that’s important to YouTube’s bottom line, since it means you’ll be exposed to more ads. So even if you’re more likely than ever to arrive at YouTube via a Facebook or Twitter link, the service would like you to stick around and watch more video, and return often for new stuff from your favorite creators.
One of the primary means by which YouTube makes it easy to watch lots of videos is channels — the pages of videos uploaded and curated by a particular YouTube user, which can be anyone from an individual to a major media company. A longstanding feature, these have become increasingly prominent.
The most ambitious channels, such as Felicia Day’s Geek and Sundry, feel like TV networks reimagined for the Net, with multiple series which show up every week on a specific day. Hollywood itself is getting into the game with offerings such as H+: The Digital Series, a Bryan Singer series from TIME sister company Warner Bros. that feels like a sci-fi TV show chopped into smaller pieces.
Here are small samples of Geek and Sundry and H+:
Even with channels in place, as Rajaraman notes, “going from ten of my favorite shows to 150 of my favorite shows becomes a challenge.” YouTube is addressing it in part through One Channel, a new channel format already used by Geek and Sundry that’s designed to encourage even more video consumption. It allows channel creators to show a welcome clip to new visitors, works on TVs and mobile gizmos as well as PCs, and suggests other channels which you might be interested in exploring.
Channels offer a neatly organized alternative to the classic way people consumed YouTube, which was to wander willy-nilly from video to video, relying on search and serendipity to keep themselves entertained. “‘Here’s what I like — give me more’ was largely missing from our platform,” says Rajaraman. They’re particularly important when someone watches YouTube on a TV, a scenario in which actively seeking out specific videos is usually more cumbersome than sitting back and watching with only minimal interaction.
Then again, YouTube is also trying to bridge the gap between its multiple variants. Send to TV, a feature already available for Android devices, arrived for the iPhone and iPad in Feburary. It lets you find a video using a YouTube mobile app, then watch it on a TV equipped with an Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Google TV — a little bit like Apple‘s AirPlay feature, though the technology is completely different. (Rather than streaming video from the mobile gadget to the TV, Send to TV simply tells the YouTube app on the Xbox, PlayStation or Google TV which video to play, so it can stream it directly from the Net.)
I asked Rajaraman about Google TV, the smart-TV platform devised by YouTube’s parent company. It debuted in 2010 to great expectations but it’s an also-ran at best compared to Apple TV and Roku. Rajaraman told me that Google TV provides a valuable offering for TV manufacturers who want to build the Internet into nearly every set, but often don’t have the resources to create their own platform. And “when you own the application and you own the operating system, you can make them work better together.”
But as he readily acknowledges, “it’s important for YouTube to be everywhere.” If YouTube becomes as omnipresent on TV as it is on PCs, it won’t be because it’s one of Google TV’s centerpieces — it’ll be because it’s available on nearly every platform, from Apple TV to the UK’s Freesat satellite service. The future of YouTube’s interfaces, Rajaraman told me, is to be simple enough to work on all sorts of devices, yet rich enough that people can find the videos they care about among vast quantities of available channels.
Today, “all sorts of devices” includes PCs, phones, tablets, game consoles and streaming-video boxes, nearly all of which can play YouTube videos via apps or web-based interfaces. Tomorrow, it could involve even more sorts of gadgets, and Rajaraman says that YouTube will err on the side of boldly going wherever people want to watch video. “I wouldn’t expect you to watch a three-hour movie on a 5-inch screen, but I’m shocked that it happens now,” he says. “If something has a screen, and it makes sense to show a YouTube video on it, let’s make it happen.”
“I’m not saying we should play a YouTube video on a microwave oven’s screen as it’s heating up. But why not?”