I've just gotten home from DEMO 07 and I've had a chance to reflect on the event and the companies who came to Palm Desert to spend six minutes on stage explaining why they exist, what problem they solve or opportunity they address, and why potential customers should care about the product or service they've created. As is always the case with event, one of the great things about how Chris Shipley and her team select and organize the companies that present is the notion tat there are trends that continually manifest themselves in new innovations and entrepreneurial efforts.
At DEMOFall, one of those trends was photos and mobile devices. It seemed as though every other company at the event was trying to figure out the recipe for success in leveraging the convergence of cameras and cell phones. At DEMO 07, a similar clustering of new offerings was presented for collecting, organizing, remixing, and sharing content with a heavy emphasis on video. As you've probably noticed, there's a video explosion going on fueled in large part by the explosive growth and adoption of YouTube as a way to incorporate streaming video content into blogs and web sites. More than one observer at DEMO 07 said to me that everyone was here looking for the next YouTube.
I'm not sure that's entirely accurate but what I did see was a really interesting continuum of services for remixing and publishing multimedia content that ran the gamut from a really easy-to-use solution designed for "everyday people" (Mixpo) to a complex authoring environment that repurposed and combined content in a way I've never seen done on a PC before with a complexity level so steep that I'm not sure anyone but the most ardent technologist will ever be inclined to use it (Vuvox). There were a number of companies whose offerings fell somewhere in the middle of those two extremes that showed real creativity in how they approach the idea of content aggregation and republishing that all have some nice features and capabilities.
I want to talk about three of these companies whose services define the continuum I'm talking about. Whether I define the range in terms of ease-of-use, audience, or likely size of audience, these three companies are perfect examples of the left, middle, and right of the spectrum. As mentioned above, Mixpo and Vuvox represent the edges and I put Splashcast in the middle. This is in no way a judgement on my part that the other companies at DEMO attempting to carve out a position in this space are lacking in merit or less interesting. It's a crowded space and only likely to become more so over time because the barrier to entry is relatively low. The barriers to success, on the other hand, are high and only going to get worse as one or two of the early entrants figure out exactly what they're doing right (and for whom) and get enough traction to either build a critical mass of users of get acquired by the right bigco.
Vuvox: Starting at the least-likely-to-succeed-in-a-big-way but too-damn-cool-to-ignore end of things, Vuvox is utterly unlike anything I've seen before and I'm finding it hard to figure out who's actually going to use the tool. In my booth visit, the company's Chief Experience Office (a job title I found frighteningly common at the show BTW) showed me a very nice example of what Vuvox can do. He had taken an image of a street lamp pole festooned with flyers and posters – a common enough sight on any street corner – and embedded a multimedia assemblage of still photos and video which played inside one of the posters on the pole. Nice transitions a la the "Ken Burns effect" familiar to users of iPhoto allowed seamless dissolves and transitions between the elements he'd assembled. Very nice.
But he told me it had taken him three hours to put this together. And my immediate (and lasting) reaction was that no one is going to use a tool that, even with deep familiarity, takes that long to produce something as inconsequential as this. Not that it wasn't amazing. It was. It's just that as I'm surfing through a site and come across a really compelling bit of content, I appreciate it for what it is and move along. And when the presentation of content trumps the content itself, I think there's a problem. Most people who will gravitate to tools like this want to tell a story, not generate "ooh, ahh" comments about how cool the storybook is.
UPDATE: I stand corrected on the complexity quote of three hours from the CExO. The three hours mentioned was making things come together in MySpace properly, not in building the Vuvox piece. If Vuvox does turn out to be as easy to use as was claimed on stage and in the follow up correspondence I've received, I'll be the first to celebrate the combination of ease of use and amazing output. As soon as I do receive an account to work with, I'll be better able to speak to the learning curve and ease of use issues.
UPDATE 2: I spoke with Dane Howard, Vuvox's CExO this afternoon (02/07) and he reiterated that the three hours was spent creating a MySpace page and not the Vuvox piece he showed me. He's promised to provide a beta account as soon as the "delight factor" is where they want it and assured me I would find that creating compilations is very fast and easy. I'll have a review as soon as possible and Dane has agreed to an interview to talk about applications for this tool as well. Stay tuned to learn more about Vuvox.
In all fairness, I shouldn't say no one is going to use a tool with this degree of complexity and learning curve. But I don't see broad adoption. Like Flash, many will consume but few will author. And this looks harder to use than Flash. If you've ever tried to assemble a Flash piece you know what I'm talking about _ it's like learning how to use Photoshop or any other multi-dimensional pro authoring tool. In fact, in a discussion over lunch with a fellow blogger, we agreed that this is really more of a production house tool than an end user play.
I'd love to show you a Vuvox piece but there's no samples to point to yet and very little useful information on their web site at this point in time. You can watch video of their onstage DEMO here. Despite the repeated claims in the onstage DEMO that kids will be able to make their MySpace pages into full-blown interactive theater, I didn't see that in the company's booth in the pavilion. I'll reserve final judgment until I actually get a chance to use the application myself but what I saw was not a kid's tool.
Splashcast: This is the tool that will probably appeal to those who aspire to be a publisher – pro bloggers, digital content creators, and subject matter experts with a solid following in their community of interest. I say that because syndication of the assembled content is a big part of the Splashcast premise. The assembly of content is all done in the browser, straightforward and nicely designed, allowing you to pull video, images, text, and audio from both online and local hard drive sources. Arranging the order of display is drag and drop simple and generating the requisite code to embed in your blog post or web page is a one-click proposition.
That's all meeting the minimum required to compete in this emerging space and it's all really well done. The resulting viewer is elegant and easy for the page reader to use. The controls are hidden until you mouse over the player space which causes them to slide into view. These controls are nicely arranged around the edges of the content and are easy to understand and use. The key to understanding Splashcast;s approach is the Menu control which allows a viewer to:
To subscribe to a channel (that is, to grab the channel for embedding into your own blog or site), you log into Splashcast and either add the channel to a player you've already created and embedded or grab the requisite HTML code to embed a new player.
The social implications are obvious. What's not so immediately apparent but truly powerful about Splashcast is that the channel is just that – a constantly evolving and updated view of the producer's work. Once you've subscribed to the channel and embedded it in your blog or web site, the content updates in real time every time it's displayed and played. It's a powerful approach to generating an evergreen flow of content and one I think will find lots of traction.
Mixpo: Where Vuvox is utterly cool but almost completely out of reach for most people and Splashcast provides an excellent balance between ease-of-use and power for the digitally literate, Mixpo claims to be a tool for "everyday people" that offers "endless possibilities". It's a powerful tag line and based on what I personally witnessed at DEMO, it's a promise that is actually delivered on. Let me explain.
My wife Sue is a fine artist. She enjoys her computer because of what it allows her to do – it's an information appliance. She can e-mail, surf sites, listen to music, watch video, shop, and generate documents that support her work. But the essential truth to Sue's relationship with the PC is that she doesn't have any real interest in the technology, only its application in her life. She's not fascinated by the "how", and is only really interested in the "what" in the sense of "what can I accomplish with this thing". I think that's pretty typical of a vast segment of PC-using consumers which of course translates into a market segment in the context of this analysis.
Sue sat down with the Mixpo team in the lobby of the conference hotel and in about two minutes looked up at me and said, "I can do this!" with a note of triumph in her voice I rarely hear when she's exposed to new tech. She is actually excited about how she can use this technology to support and enhance her communications with her clients as a storytelling device to keep them engaged in the process of creation of the work they've commissioned her to produce.
An individual example to be sure but one that illustrates why I put Mixpo at the easiest-to-use and very-likely-to-appeal-to-the-most-people end of the continuum I'm describing. A Mixcard (the delivery mechanism for an aggregation of content in Mixpo terminology) can be assembled in a matter of minutes and embedded using the same copy-and-paste technique used by Splashast, YouTube, and every other content play in this genre. The company announced an integration with Microsoft into the MSN Live Spaces bogging tool which has millions of users who can now embed a Mixpo widget into their blogs. Again – the focus is relentlessly on "everyday people". At least those who use a WIndows-based PC. Mixpo requires an authoring tool that is installed locally on your PC and it's currently only available for Windows.
I think that, in the final analysis, all three of these solutions provide a great solution for adding a multimedia component to the personal publishing toolbox. They're designed for different kinds of users and I believe that each can succeed in building a substantial community of users relative to their appropriate use. I'll be watching how each develops and will mark DEMO 07 as the point in time where multimedia content aggregation and publishing really came into its own.