Oh Chatroulette

What to make of it? Those who know me, know I’ve been skeptical. Right from the start, I didn’t think that this Chatroulette thing would ever turn into something more than a bell or a whistle. I was working on a blog post suggesting as much a couple of weeks after it hit the news in February, noticing that the hype was pretty far reaching. But then something happened which caused me to back off from my predictions: Silicon Valley and NYC investors got interested. When I read Fred Wilson’s post, I thought, “You know what, maybe we’ll just wait and see what happens.”

In all of my own business experience, I kinda missed the boat on the whole world of investment. Everything from angel investment to full on venture capital and IPO’s is a new topic to me. I have taken a lot of time over the last year to meet people and I’ve been learning a lot about it. One thing I quickly leaned is that investors can do a lot for a product that a product otherwise could not do on it’s own.

This of course got me thinking beyond the merits of the product of Chatroulette and more about the potential, and the man behind the site, Andrey Ternovskiy. I read several interviews during his trip to America, asked some questions, heard some rumors, followed the story, and it left me with the impression that he was a very young, conservative, impressionable young man who had not yet thought through the implications of where Chatroulette could go, or how to turn it into a business.

But that is just my outsider impression. I never met Andrey and thus have never asked him specifically about it. But because he seemed to be in a good position to attract the interest of the US tech scene, and because of the enormous wealth of brain-trust investors can bring to a business, I imagined it was possible we could see this product evolve into something.

So far, there has been no sign of any such evolution.

Nevertheless, an investor does not a success story make, and because the technology is so simple, and because the reach of any user’s effort on the platform is close to only one, by design, it seems the product will need to evolve significantly in order to establish itself as a significant business, inside of a significant market, for which Andrey himself could corner, if he or anyone else ever decides that’s what they want to do. More than money, this project appears to need a plan. Why not shoot for the stars with a big one? The biggest plans can often become realized from simply adding the smallest features.

I do believe this type of a platform, as is, will endure the times on a small scale, even if it doesn’t ever turn into a big business or something more influential. Not just because some people need a place to expose themselves but because there are other important uses that this kind of random-peer to random-peer video platform enables for strangers who want to talk.  This is essentially a type of social video blogging not much different than uploading a video of oneself for the world to see, or talking to anyone who will watch one’s live stream, for example.

The “what would you do” scenario is one you sometimes cant help but ask yourself. I put this out there as more of an interesting perspective, one I have been thinking about all year because I have been intreguided by it and I would encourage others who are intrigued by the idea of Chatroulette (minus the porn) to let Andrey know what YOU would do. I’ve read a lot of articles criticizing the site but I have not read a single article or comment suggesting any ideas for where to take it.

First of all, adding penis recognition technology and threatening users with the cops is not really where I’d be spending my time right now. This is definitely a problem but there are other more elegant ways to keep the dregs out of the rest of the non-porn content.

One of the greatest challenges of this platform, should an objective be to scale up adoption, is the dilemma of accepting that the essence of the site provides the user with a one-to-one broadcast proposition, by design, thus limiting the growth that any one individual can experience, the kind of value that otherwise gets users excited in other social platforms when broadcasting one-to-many, like on YouTube, or Ustream for example.

The site could maintain it’s core one-to-one essence while also supporting some consequential activity around a one-to-many design, in parallel. For example, what if users who received a thumbs-up, or a positive score of some sort, could rise-up, and thus based on merit within the community, work their way up to the top of the chatroulette charts where their broadcast could be watched by many. Thus, a user who entered into Chatroulette, could have the option to (A) dive in as a participant, as it is set up now, or (B) dive in as viewer only. The participants could begin with a one-to-one relationship with each other and, whereupon reaching a certain threshold, could opt to enter into the one-to-many broadcast section of the site, beside other interesting live content being viewed by a passive audience.

The site or community could also categorize the various feeds. Categories could also uphold the integrity of the one-to-one broadcast model while still providing value for more people to suit specific needs. People could get categorized into various interests and thus if you wanted to meet a random stranger to have a one-on-one conversation about a movie you saw, you could find someone under the movie>inception category, for example, to chat specifically about that interest. The site could obviously be used for dating (in the right way) in a local region which is big business, as we know from the successes of Match.com, etc.

There are lot of different directions to take this, what would YOU do?

Note above that the US is absent from the top 10 regions. Below, re: note that NY/California users typical of first adopter startups are not very active.


The Next Phase of TV Will Look Like This

Steve Cheney outlines a compelling example of how Apple’s new Facetime feature on the iPhone will likely bring the much awaited video phone calling action to the mass market due to Apple’s ability to integrate the hardware and software just right, but especially now due to Apple’s advantage of a massive user base on standby ready to adopt it.

It’s also interesting to note, as Cheney pointed out, “FaceTime makes video-calling on the Android-based Sprint HTC EVO look silly, because the EVO awkwardly requires users to sign up and download a third-party app, then launch it every time they want to talk. Normal people simply won’t do this.”

In other words, Apple not only does it best, it now has a new massive market share in which to instantly do it best for.

When Apple introduced an entirely new category with the iPad, the stage had already been set and the platform would be easy to adopt because Apple used it’s iPhone Operating System (iOS), the ever-so familiar, yet newly interfaced world into utilities, games, music, books and all kinds of other “apps”. Even a two-year-old knew just what to do for the iPad is essentially the same exact experience as the iPhone, the only difference being that the screen is bigger.

As the difference is in screen size, it’s not hard to extrapolate where this is going next. By extending the Apple iOS from the iPhone to the iPad to the Apple TV, people would be able to turn on their TV screens and see what essentially looks like their iphone, a set of customizable apps. While you may have your favorite apps that are useful for your mobile activity on your iPhone easily available from your start screen, such as email, maps, foursqaure, etc., when you open your iPad, you may have it customized a bit differently, say, with ibooks, games and video apps ready to go on your home screen. 

Personally speaking, when I open up my TV, I’ll want to load up my Magma app first because that’s how I’ll want to dive into watching TV (I do this now via the magma boxee app). Some people will turn on their TV and open up their iTunes app because they’ll enjoy that. Some people will have a hulu app, a netflix app and a YouTube app sitting right there ready to dive in and out of on their TV home screen.

Of course platforms such as Boxee are at it, and their on-screen experience with software is a similar gist.

There is a risky problem however for Netflix, Hulu, NBC, boxee and all networks of content that don’t own their content. These companies currently rely on the fact that they, like Apple, have built a large user base for distribution and that they continue to offer what others can not offer. Unfortunately this will be relatively hard to maintain without exclusivity or ownership of their content. Meanwhile, Apple is poised to take over the entire TV and home-film distribution market just as they did with the music industry, now singlehandedly setting the market prices on “app” sales, and taking a heafty split in the revenue no matter if a show is direct or via a network app like hulu.

In the case scenario here with Apple iOS TV, what hulu offers now is a $9.99 per month ($120/yr) app to get a handful of great TV shows, like Scrubs, which is also part of the ABC network, btw. But if you just want Scrubs, you can buy individual episodes or whole seasons of Scrubs through iTunes right now for way less. And in the future, if there are millions of people watching Scrubs on the Apple iOS, why wouldn’t Scrubs wise up and cut out ABC, hulu, and everyone else besides Apple that stood in their way of doing direct sales to their audience? It’s natural to have middle people when they provide value, like access or service, but if you don’t need them, what’s the point in continuing to pay big for them in the future? And why should hulu, e.g. get to control the audience for Scrubs, their user feedback, communications, mail list, sales, PR, etc?

Imagining TV as an open computer platform based on software is not hard at all and people have been talking about this for decades. What’s becoming more apparent is that specifically right now, Apple’s iOS ported over to the Apple TV could be the tipping point for bringing the computer and the TV screen together at last.

So next time you notice an update pushed to your favorite show app on your iPhone and then point your iPhone at your TV to press play, it may not work that way, but it may work even better and show you just what you wanted to see. If you are a fan of Android, perhaps you’ll be a step behind, but you will get there too. Google already said that Google TV will be based on Android which is essentially saying they are already pushing the idea that this whole phone/computer/media/TV sync thing with developers building TV specific apps on their OS is going to work out.

It’s sad for the rest of the world that it takes Apple to make it happen but what that really means is that it takes an expert in identifying the right interface design and then taking it to market in the right way. If TV becomes an experience you like and can understand, like your iPhone, it will be pretty easy to buy in. Now that Apple has all the TV networks, popular tv shows, podcasts, hulu, netflix, and so on, it seems to me as if the big Apple already won.