Spurned By Apple, YouTube App Targets Lean-Back Mobile Moments

I have to admit that unless a link in another app or message kicked me over to it, I generally forgot that YouTube was on my iPhone. Once the iOS operating system introduced the folder, I tucked that old-timey TV screen icon into one of the folders containing unused programs just to get it off the home screen.

The app always suffered from a half-hearted execution. The basic operations of YouTube were there (Favorites, Most Watched, Playlists, etc.), but the sharing tools were rudimentary at best. The search mechanism was downright raw (no suggestions or categorized results). Worse, the app barely evolved over the five years it had been on the iPhone. When early builds of iOS 6 emerged this summer, it became plain how serious the Apple vs. Google war had become, as apps like YouTube joined Google Maps in leaving the home screen.

We expect that iOS 6 will roll out formally either tomorrow or within the next week as the iPhone 5 deploys. And Google has slipped in at the last minute to anticipate the change with its own new and much enhanced version of the YouTube app now available for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Early this morning, YouTube’s head of mobile Andrey Doronichev posted to the YouTube blog announcing the arrival of the new YouTube app.

To their credit, YouTube has improved the experience considerably over the default configuration of the video hub we have lived with these many years. Of course, the bar was set pretty low. Most notably, the interface is designed to help highlight the channels structure that Google/YouTube has been promoting of late. The channels to which you are subscribed online show up automatically when you log into the account in a handy slide-in menu.

One of the real advances in the YouTube app is discovery. The Add Channels feature is especially interesting. The default suggestions, including a channel for Mini Coopers and Penguin Books, seemed to be picking up my YouTube usage history to drive the channel selector. The search box is supercharged. It not only cascades down suggested results, but has a detailed filter that allows you to sort by multiple parameters: view count, relevance, date, even duration and presence of closed-captioning. These all can be set to default as well.

The results also push the user toward the YouTube channel structure. You get results sorted both by direct video hits as well as a tab that directs you to relevant channels to which you can subscribe.  

The video viewing experience is also enhanced for discovery. In portrait orientation, half the screen is devoted to recommendations off of the choice. And the commenting feature is built in seamlessly so you can type comments directly into the interface as you watch.

The sharing tools are especially strong. While Google+ is put at the top of the share list, it also enables you to send to the usual social media suspects as well as via text messaging.  

To be sure, there is a lot to handle here. One of the sacrifices of personalization is serendipity. The default YouTube experience on mobile in the old app was a mosh pit of most-watched clips. Now you default to your home feed and can look at a Popular channel to get tapped into the zeitgeist of video sharing. But the app is clearly pointing the way for YouTube to become a more polished experience that highlights more professional fare than piano-playing cats.

In fact, in this mobile experience I happened upon relatively few rough-edged user-generated videos. For marketers, there may be less opportunity here for viral videos to find a mobile audience. There is less of a feeling of randomness here.

YouTube says that over a billion videos are viewed via its mobile sites and apps each day. It is still unclear to me how video watching integrates into everyday use of mobile. Doronichev refers in his blog post to YouTube “diehards” who apparently simply tune in to YouTube habitually as a discrete experience. I am guessing there are a good number of mobilized media mavens who simply get a hankering for some “video,” and for them YouTube is a reflex.

As a resource for video versions of topical search queries, I am not as sure that YouTube has become a resource as effectively as a standard mobile Google search. When you want to catch clips of that Clint Eastwood RNC speech to an empty chair, where do most of us go -- to Google search or to YouTube? My sense is that this app helps forge the distinction between the two resources. This app seems designed to encourage mobile moments of personalized lean-back media consumption. 

Curiously, YouTube only issued an iPhone app this week and promises an iPad version "in coming months."

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