Video Goes Social
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Last year, the internet video segment in India hit a number of signposts. If southern movie star Dhanush's nonsensical paean to jilted lovers captured the fancy of a capricious online audience, Shraddha Sharma's adolescent take on popular Bollywood numbers gatecrashed into the cyber-hall of instant fame. One thing quickly became clear: our appetite for video and its twitching pixels was growing. We were no longer mere foragers of information online; we were arbiters and sharers of memes, joined in our collective love or hatred for the latest celebrity parodies on YouTube.
According to a 2011 comScore report, over 30 million Indians watched online video in a single month last year, with an average viewer consuming 58 videos and watching five hours of video content. Later that year, the number of internet users in India scraped past the 100 million mark, with about 10 per cent of the country's population now extolling the stimulations of the screen. Statistics poured in from Google and digital analytics firms, anticipating a tripling of this figure by 2014. This growth, industry experts say, will be driven by video consumption more than anything else.
A decade ago, if you had to watch the 3D dancing baby video chain-forwarded to you by a friend, you'd hit pause and go make coffee while you waited a full 10 minutes for it to load. Today, with better broadband penetration and the promise of 3G and 4G networks, the wait for smooth video streaming is nearly over. "We are witnessing the inexorable rise of online video," says Anupam Srivastava, investment director at Intel Capital, which funded two startups in the video space two years ago. According to Srivastava, online video consumption is dictated by changing consumer preferences — from a big screen experience in a family setting to a mobile, personalised experience on a tablet or a phone — and by the democratisation of content uploaded to sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Verismo Networks, an Internet TV technology company, and Althea Systems, a video discovery engine-based product company, both backed by Intel, are pivoted around these factors.
When Verismo Networks started eight years ago, the problem it set out to solve was that of streaming Internet video seamlessly on television screens, a common feature now built into 'smart' TVs. Today, the company has a cloud-based content aggregation and delivery system that can stream video to any device in the market. "We basically built a platform where a content owner could create a channel on the Web in less than three days and choose to deliver it on any device he wanted," says Satish M, co-founder and head of product development at Verismo, which has offices in Bangalore and California. Early this year, the company licensed content for the first time for a new global entertainment video portal called Mela, where, for $5 (Rs 270 approx) a month, people outside India can watch as many South Asian movies and TV shows as they want .
In the developed world, consumers are starting to swap satellite television for Web TV platforms like Roku and Boxee, which can stream from popular mainstream video sites like Hulu and Netflix. The idea is to pay for only what you want to watch. In India, however, the cable cord is not easily cut. By taking Indian content abroad and vice versa, Verismo is merely trying to fill a distributional gap. Another Bangalore startup is more ambitious, at once taking on well-entrenched cable operators and YouTube — the "400-pound gorilla" of video, in startup lingo — to digitise and create a searchable library of over 1,00,000 mainstream videos in several Indian languages. A former YouTube content partner, iStream launched its own video platform in November last year, giving users free access to popular regional TV content, movies and live news.
It has been a screen-happy six months since — iStream has added 20-plus TV channels, 3,000 movies and several important live-streamed events to its repertoire, it hit two million unique users in May 2012, and recently, launched a subscription-based service for users abroad. "We pick the most popular content — sourced from TV channels with whom we have content sharing agreements — based on TRPs and social networking feeds and editorially curate it before putting it up on our website," says Radhakrishnan Ramachandran, founder and CEO of iStream. In well-lit cubicles at iStream's second-floor office in Indira Nagar, Bangalore a team of 40-odd content editors is busy scrubbing videos, editing out advertisements, tagging and composing headlines and descriptions to make sense of the day's dose of entertainment. Each editor is fluent in at least two, if not three, languages and uploads 60-70 videos a day. It took trudging through resumes from truck drivers and petrol pump owners to find the right people, says Ramananda Sengupta, chief editor at iStream, which is currently focused on Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and English content. The company recently released India's first video app on Windows 8 and has received $5 million in funding from SAIF Partners.
Is there a case for watching TV on the Web? You could, of course, catch an episode of your favourite show at your convenience, but interestingly, video aggregation startups are advocating a discovery and recommendation-based user experience in place of good old-fashioned search. "Video is going social and we will see startups sprout in this space," says Verismo's Satish. Kishore AK, CEO and founder of Althea Systems, whose video app, Shufflr, has added four million users in two years, agrees. "We want users to start setting aside an hour or two for Internet video every day, just as they do for TV. We push for popular videos on the home screen so that they know they keep coming back. An intelligent engine chooses subsequent recommendations based on their preferences," says Kishore. "The online video explosion will not only rip apart how TV channels are and expose content directly to consumers, but it will also bring non-mainstream content and viral videos closer to the user," he says.
With a startup ecosystem beginning to form around video, we can expect innovation in content delivery, user experience, ad networks and other business and technology enablers, says Srivastava of Intel Capital. One such offshoot of this ecosystem is the year-and-a-half-old Avani TV, a Mumbai-based in-car entertainment company that enables users to watch live TV while travelling. Having installed over 5,000 units in 25 cities, CEO Ishwar Jha says he sees ample business opportunity in the Internet video space. "We use 3G broadband and a set-top box to bring live news and other television content to your car. The system is integrated with the car's audio for a rich user experience and there's a TV-like remote to operate it — no browsing on the iPad or phone, just sit back and relax," he says.
At the other end of the spectrum, Ray Newal, 35-year-old CEO and president of Jigsee, a mobile phone video streaming startup funded by Sequoia Capital and other investors under the Indian Angel Network, wants to democratise access to the Internet and help "the next billion" Internet users across developing countries experience new media. "Video accessibility on a mobile device is much more important to these people. They spend most of their day commuting, they lack access to television and broadband, and often can't afford services such as 3G. We see video to the "next billion" as much more than a luxury. A Bhojpuri-speaking farmer in Bihar should be able to use his native tongue to discover videos that will help him learn how to protect his rice crop from new diseases," Newal says. The company has an office in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, where a team of 20 works on UI and apps, and a core technology team based in Ottawa, Canada.
Jigsee is a mobile application for feature phones — although it also became available for Android in May 2012 — that brings a smooth video streaming experience to basic devices and low-bandwidth networks. On a Rs 1,000 GPRS-enabled phone, a user in a remote village can now watch Bollywood clips, health and weather news, cartoons and more for free. The interface is pictorial and easy-to-use, and Jigsee's network optimisation technology ensures continuous streaming at data rates as low as 40 kilobytes per second. In the nine months since the app was launched, Jigsee has seen four-to-five million downloads, added 27 channels covering lifestyle, health, entertainment, sports and education, and aggregated over 5,000 hours of video from partners such as UTV, TED talks and 1take media. But this is only the beginning, Newal says. Jigsee will raise another round of capital later this year and foray into emerging markets such as Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
There are over 900 million mobile subscribers in India. Of these, 300 million live in rural areas. An equal number subscribe to data services, making the mobile phone the most ubiquitous Internet-enabled device. "This is the last mile and this is where we want to solve problems," says Newal.
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