What’s Wrong With Online Videos

Inspired with the launch of Bud.tv, I took a quick tour of what is available in online video. And the results are a frustrating mixed bag to say the least. It is certainly more complicated than the video programming that I can get from my DirecTV dish. How any normal person is expected to make this technology work is beyond me. After looking at a couple of video sites, I have come up with eight different issues:

First off, my expectation is to be as close to the YouTube user experience as possible: you search for the video content on the home page, click on what you want, and the video starts playing inside the existing browser frame. I don’t want to download any special media player, thank you very much – I already have a truckload of them running around my hard disk. I don’t want to hunt around looking for the video either – it should be easy to find whatever it is that I want to watch.

Second, it should just work with my configuration. I don’t want any secondary window to pop-up, because I may have pop-ups blocked, and don’t feel like letting your video site into my whitelist. I don’t want to make any other changes to my browser configuration to allow your video to start up, because that might break something else or open me up to other exploits.

Third, I want this to work in just about any browser and OS that I happen to use, but certainly more than the Windows/IE combination (and while we are checking, let’s make sure that IE 7 doesn’t break when I use it to browse your site too). A lot of us use multiple browsers on multiple platforms, and we don’t want to have to boot up a particular PC just to watch something. This of course goes against just about everything that Microsoft and Apple are doing.

Fourth, I want an easy and simple way to “email this video to a friend.” Part of the fun of watching videos online is sharing them with 100 of your closest pals. Having said that, I want some element of trust that you as the site owner won’t take all those emails and sell them to some spammer in Moldova.

Fifth, I don’t want to go to extreme measures to deal with your registration system just to get your video. Life is too short, I already have far too many passwords to deal with, and I can go elsewhere to get video content anyway, so why mess with trying to pass through whatever gate you place in my way?

Sixth, I don’t care whether or not the content is copyrighted. I know, this is heresy for someone who makes one’s living creating content, but I think a short three-minute clip comes under fair use. Get over it, you mainstream media moguls, and be happy that someone cares enough to record and post a clip that promotes your show. Now, certainly there are different issues involved when you download an entire two-hour feature film, but I am talking about consuming short pieces of content here.

Seventh, if you are going to stream, then do so with the right amount of caching so the audio doesn’t cut out and the picture doesn’t jerk around. And if you are going to have me download something, the download shouldn’t take longer than watching the actual clip. But I would prefer streaming, just because I don’t want to clutter up my hard disk with videos that I won’t watch more than once.

Finally, I want more than a postage-stamp sized window to watch. I don’t have to have full screen, DVD-quality, but it sure would be nice to at least see something that comes close to filling my screen. Right now that is more of a bandwidth issue, and most sites – including YouTube – don’t display a big enough image.

Taking all these issues together makes for a tall order for most Web video today. YouTube just about satisfies all criteria, more or less, which is why the site has gathered such a following and why it has gotten plenty of GoogleBucks. Let’s look at a few others and see where they are lacking.

Netflix announced they will start streaming videos to their customers soon, and I have yet to see it firsthand. But as a very satisfied customer, I wish them well. They have the best video search in the business, and they have the right idea for the rest of the user experience. I hope they live up to the hype.

Bud.tv, the new venture from our hometown industry here in St. Louis, uses a special player in a pop-up that they got from Akamai/Nine Systems. (One demerit for that.) It has quite the registration system that actually checks my birth date against a national database (no more using Jan 1 as my default entry, which is something I recommend to confound ID theft). They do this to make sure that you are over 21, but I didn’t see any content that I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with my teenaged daughter on the site. There are already people complaining of problems, and I would predict that they will scrap this system before long.

Bud.tv also falls down in search – you scroll through a horizontal channel bar that now is fairly short but once the site gets going won’t be very workable. I don’t imagine that many users will tolerate this method for very long, and either not return or just go back to one or two channels that resonate with them (the short films from TriggerStreet.com were big hits for me). They stream all their videos, and the sound cut out several times on my DSL connection. Given that the site just launched this week, I can’t say whether I will be a frequent visitor.

An example of a video site that I won’t be returning to is CinemaNow. They require IE, download their own player, and generally make it painful for me.

One video series that I have been really enjoying is Amanda Congdon, on ABCnews.com. I have been watching her in iTunes, because it was too hard to find the content using a Web bookmark. So right away I am breaking a few of my the rules, but I consider my iTunes a pre-existing software condition. The weekly videos are about five minutes, and Congdon is cute, funny, and informative all rolled up in one. The downloads happen in the background (one of the advantages of having iTunes as your player) and the quality is first-rate, what you would expect from a TV network.

So as you can see we have a ways to go before online video can be as easily as punching a couple of buttons on a remote and watching ordinary TV. Well, maybe we are about to cross over — getting my DirecTV remote to turn on and off all of my living room entertainment devices isn’t easy, and I still don’t have it all working the way my wife wants. Maybe those browser video plug-ins aren’t all that bad after all.