YouTube is launching a new version of its mobile site today for HTML5-capable smartphones such as the iPhone and Android handsets. I saw a demonstration at a press briefing this morning, and it looked like the most YouTubey mobile version of YouTube to date, with most of the major features of the full-blown version of the service, playback of videos within the browser (rather than in an external media player) [CORRECTION: I got the previous point wrong], and higher-quality video than is currently provided by the YouTube apps for iPhone and Android. Judging from the demo, it’s extremely snappy for a Web-based app–screens popped up as quickly as they would in a local application.
It also has a user interface that’s designed to be as touch-friendly as possible, without demanding the user to poke at the screen very precisely–Product Manager Andrey Doronichev even conducted part of this morning’s demo using…his nose.
The new YouTube Mobile looks cool, but it’s most interesting as a salvo in the war between local apps (a form of software championed by Apple) and Web-based ones (Google’s bread and butter). When Google writes iPhone apps–like, say, Google Voice–it’s at the mercy of Apple. When it creates browser-based services, it doesn’t need to seek anyone’s permission to distribute them to every iPhone user who cares to give them a try. And with YouTube, at least, it looks like there’s no particular advantage to writing an iPhone app–the Web-based incarnation works at least as well as a piece of native software would.
Even if the unique challenges of getting into the iPhone App Store weren’t an issue, there’s much to be said for YouTube being a Web app rather than a local one. With a Web app, YouTube can roll out new features on as aggressive a schedule as it chooses, instantly putting them in the hands of everyone who uses the service. It can’t do that with the YouTube app for Android, and the one for iPhone is completely out of its hands, since it was written by Apple. (For what it’s worth, a YouTube exec at the briefing I attended said he hopes Apple continues to update its YouTube app, and that YouTube would be happy to help.)
You gotta wonder: How long will it be until Web apps are capable of doing nearly anything a local app can? It’s not going to happen in 2010, 2011, or 2012…but it will happen.
Here’s YouTube’s blog post on the new YouTube Mobile. One surprising note: The company says that it hasn’t finished polishing up the service to work well in Safari on the iPhone 4.