It’s hard to beat YouTube. Yes, the platform is such a part of pop culture that it may have reached the point of vanilla. It’s also spawned a great source of either joy or terror, depending on your age, musical taste, and proximity to Canada. And because YouTube has become the generic video platform, narrowcasting upstarts like Machimima have tried to steal away pockets of its audience. Or buzzy startups like Viddy have tried to beat it at the social game. Then there’s the famously flawed Airtime, which is sweet for trying.
But not many video companies have tried to be better than YouTube at being YouTube. Web sites like Dailymotion have tried, with unspectacular results. Frequency has taken on that lofty goal. There are some differences in the approach. The company, which closed a Series A of $3 million last year, bills itself as a way to watch and find videos all in one place, from every corner of the Internet. A user can subscribe to different channels – from the New York Times to College Humor to Facebook, where videos that your friends share on that social network get pushed to your Frequency feed.
It’s basically Google Reader for video. This isn’t the way most people think of YouTube. Conventional thought says YouTube is for typing in a video search query, and watching the videos that pop up. But YouTube has had a subscription feature for quite some time now that pushes video content from similar places (like the Times or College Humor) to your homepage. Frequency’s strength is that it is much more robust, and has a friendly interface with an ever-present viewer and the feed off to the side, which makes it easy to sift through videos. But it may not be enough to lure people away from YouTube, the reliable stalwart.
Frequency’s Chief Executive and founder, Blair Harrison, is using an all-angles attack to try to gain supremacy. He believes the way to win is to be on all screens. “Most of our competitors are only tied to a single platform,” he says. So far, Frequency is on PC, TV, and tablet. Today the company launched an app for iPhone, the last piece of the puzzle.
But the game plan doesn’t seem very promising, and the company’s priorities seem askew. It feels like Frequency is just going through the motions in releasing an iPhone app because, well, every tech company needs an iPhone app. The company developed a connected TV app for Samsung in September, a few months before today’s iPhone release. Sure, I can see the rationale, considering Frequency is a video company, and getting things right for the living room screen is the Holy Grail for many tech companies right now. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to prioritize developing for a smart TV platform that isn’t fully baked, when a product like the iPhone sold 18.65 million units worldwide in Q2 of 2011. If the company was really so bullish on the promise of a mobile app, it seems Frequency would have developed this earlier, instead of mucking around with a TV platform that no one is on yet.
So now that the company does have an iPhone app, will it help? It may just be hubris, but Harrison thinks it will be the most used of all the platforms, claiming that viewers will use it more times during the day, as opposed to engaging with it for a long period of time. It will of course do well to catch stray eyeballs. But it doesn’t help the company’s case in setting it apart from competitors.
Harrison compares Frequency’s role in the world to those of two other big online video companies. “Netflix is for movies, and Hulu is for television,” he says. He wants Frequency to be a catch all for everything else.
The caveat, though, is that those roles aren’t as clearly defined as Harrison suggests. Netflix is known just as much for TV as it is movies. It even made the blockbuster move of scoring the new season of “Arrested Development,” a beloved TV show. And Netflix also dips in the pool of “everything else.” The website also has TED Talks – which are 18 minutes at most – in its library, and which Harrison cites as some of the longer content that users view on Frequency. So it will be hard for Harrison and Co. to carve out an “everything else” niche if the bigger players are not going to stick to their supposed boundaries. And an iPhone app is not likely to help there either.