There I was, sitting at YouTube HQ in San Bruno, when news came down that the pre-loaded YouTube app would be removed from the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS6. I was in the middle of a meeting with Hunter Walk, who was telling me about YouTube for Good — his initiative to help education, non-profits, and citizen journalists to better take advantage of the video-sharing platform. It was then that my coworkers, knowing where I was, started blowing up my phone, email, text, and Yammer, all in the hopes of getting some official response from YouTube.
For those who missed the biggest tech story of the day, you can read Chris Velazco’s account of the news here. The short version is that the app, which has long been a fixture of iOS home screens since 2007, will soon go away.
Anyway, while I wasn’t able to help my coworkers out immediately, I was lucky to be at YouTube at the time, and I ended my day by meeting with Shiva Rajaraman, product manager at the company and the guy responsible for its channel, device, and developer strategies. Rajaraman was reluctant to say anything on the record about the app being removed or YouTube’s iOS strategy going forward, but based on our conversation, here’s why Google is unlikely to be too upset about the change.
First, though, here’s a bit of backstory: YouTube was one of the first apps to be available on the iPhone when it was released, and has come pre-loaded on all iOS devices over the last five years. Of course, when it first came out, the world was a different place. Then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board, and Apple, hoping to hit it big with the device, wanted to have a video application to set it apart from existing
smartphones. YouTube, based on its popularity, seemed like a natural choice.
Of course, a lot’s happened since then. We all know how upset Steve Jobs was about the launch of Google’s Android mobile OS, Schmidt’s departure from the Apple board, and Apple’s recent moves to get distance itself from other Google applications — like Maps — in iOS 6. Furthermore, with the proliferation of video apps on Apple’s App Store, Apple users aren’t nearly as reliant on the YouTube app for video content as they were just a few years ago.
Apple might have decided not to re-license and pre-load the app, but YouTube actually stands to benefit from its removal. The truth is that it was never an ideal situation for the company, since it couldn’t monetize videos viewed on the app, and it had little control over the user experience.
Google attempted to correct this with the launch of a mobile web version, but unless a user specifically went to YouTube’s mobile web site, links opened up the default YouTube player. Which is why removing the app will actually allow Google to better control its own destiny, both in terms of how videos are served and how it will monetize them going forward.
Apple says a new app is coming, but Google’s official statement only says that it’s “working with Apple to ensure we have the best possible YouTube experience for iOS users.” Rajaraman wouldn’t confirm that YouTube was working on a new app, and reiterated that “mobile web is a core part of the YouTube experience” in order to reach all sorts of new platforms.
It seems likely that a new app is actually in the works, as mobile accounts for about 20 percent of all YouTube viewing, and more than 50 percent in some countries, like Korea. Rajaraman said Youtube believes native apps are the better navigation paradigm for users, so it’s possible there might be a few months in between the launch of iOS 6 and availability of a native YouTube app made by Google.
There could be bigger changes coming. Let’s not forget that there’s also a YouTube app on Apple TV, which is even clunkier than the mobile app — and is damn near unusable unless you also use the Apple Remote app to control navigation and type search queries into your iPhone’s keypad. It’s like a new YouTube app could correct this, by taking advantage of AirPlay and dual-screen capabilities to enable users to navigate content on the tablet or phone, while watching video on their TVs.
Anyway, it’s too early to tell what YouTube is working on, but whether it’s building a new app or simply relying on the mobile web, either way users should get a better user experience.