It was only a month ago that we pondered Seesmic’s future in the video conversation arena. Then just a fortnight ago the startup’s founder Loic Le Meur himself publicly doubted the viability of a future in video.
As they have already launched a well-received Twitter and Facebook app, Seesmic Desktop, it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Friday saw the launch of a browser-based Twitter app and the erasing of pretty much any mention of video conversation from seesmic.com.
So, can this new focus on creating apps for existing services make Seesmic profitable? Let’s take a look.
The problem with video conversation
Seesmic Video has some rabidly enthusiastic fans. They appreciate the emotional engagement you can get from seeing a person express themselves on camera. They have a point; video debate can convey a much more complex message than text alone. The problem is that these fans are few and far between.
A lot of online conversation takes place while people are doing other things. Whether people are at work or sat at home with other people in the room, recording video messages can be anything from antisocial to a sackable offence. Then there’s the fact that many people like to be anonymous online. Away from the walled garden of Facebook, these people don’t use their real name – some don’t even use their own photo as an avatar. Convincing them to publish publicly-available videos of themselves talking into a webcam is going to be difficult, if not impossible.
Even for people comfortable with the idea of being on camera, Seesmic can be an unappealing prospect. Few people are good orators; most people stumble over their words, pause a lot and can take a long time to get their point across. Paying attention to someone ramble through their argument for five minutes can be a difficult prospect. Then there’s the grueling task of replying. If you want your reply to be coherent and watchable it can sometimes take several ‘takes’ at recording your video. Simply typing out a reply is more convenient.
Seesmic’s new approach
Seesmic’s new app-centric approach is three-pronged. The Seesmic Desktop app, supporting Twitter and Facebook, has been available for a few months now and has been well-received. An iPhone app is coming soon and the browser-based web app launched yesterday.
At first look, the browser app appears to be a rather ugly, under-powered piece of work. It’s only when you dig deeper that you see the true value for hardcore Twitterers. There is a choice of two views; the Seesmic Desktop-esque multi-column view will be more instantly comfortable for most users but the single column view is where the real value lies.
Resembling Gmail in appearance, it looks like a rather dull list of tweets without any avatars on show. Scratch the surface though and you’ll find a much richer experience. Click a tweet and it expands to display the user’s avatar as well as options to reply, retweet the message, DM the user and report spam. Click the user’s name and a popup appears containing all their profile information as well as the option to follow/unfollow them.
Users who don’t like Adobe Air apps may well find Seesmic’s browser app to be their best option for interacting quickly and easily with Twitter. It’s not perfect of course, there’s no support for multiple accounts yet and it’s not very visually appealing. It’s a work-in-progress though and in combination with Seesmic Desktop and the forthcoming iPhone app, Seesmic has a strong portfolio.
Can Seesmic make the new direction a success?
Another company has offered both an Adobe Air app and a browser app for interacting with social media for some time now. PeopleBrowsr already supports a wide range of services and has just launched realtime search and monitoring tools. In many ways they are Seesmic’s main competitor and have a much stronger product at present. Seesmic’s biggest advantage right now is its brand; the little raccoon with the wonky eyes is recognisable and may pull people towards its less well-developed product.
There’s a still long way to go for both these companies, of course. Profitability comes from mainstream adoption and we’re a long way from reaching the point where people mention Seesmic and PeopleBrowsr in the same breath as Facebook – and even Facebook hasn’t turned a profit yet. Can companies that piggyback on top of networks like Twitter and Facebook ever find a way to make money?
Tweetdeck is one social app that has already found ways to generate income. The rebadged versions they have produced for rock band Blink 182 and blogs Techcrunch and Mashable point the way to further corporate paintjobs for cash in the future, while there has been talk about Tweetdeck charging web services to be added to the app. These models could be copied by Seesmic, but their longterm sustainability is as yet unknown.
Seesmic isn’t going to go bankrupt any time soon, rumour has it that Loic Le Meur is sitting on millions of dollars in unspent investment cash. However, its future is just as uncertain now as it was before the change of direction. The good news for Loic is that a mainstream audience will probably be much happier to type tweets into Seesmic’s social apps than they would have been taking part in public video chat.