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Weekly Column

Whistlebox: Video blogging for dummies.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (63)
By Robert X. Cringely

In today's world of modular software and web services, there are often three competing ways to add functionality to an application or web site -- build it, buy it, or subscribe to it. Which option you choose depends on where you are in the adoption cycle, the strategic importance of the feature, how good you are as a developer, and how much you are willing to pay. The classic example is whether to choose, with its small per-seat cost, versus building your own customer relationship management (CRM) application, or buying a CRM app from, say, Oracle, for serious money. Most of us would find is good enough. This decision model can be applied to adding many types of features, and this week I am trying to decide, myself, how best to add a video-response capability to NerdTV, when we shortly begin distributing new shows.

Video response is one of the keys to the success of YouTube. I never would have thought to do it, myself, which is why I'm not worth $1.65 billion, but this capability to respond to a video WITH a video is profound and greatly encourages viewership. It gives users a new outlet for expression and, most importantly for YouTube, keeps users on the site far longer. Video responses are used to critique a posted video, to respond to it in the manner of a discussion, but the most popular use is to emulate the target video: here is MY guitar version of Pachelbel's Canon in D.

It would be crazy not to add a video-response capability to NerdTV, but how? Up to now there have been two ways to add video response -- one easy but far from ideal and the other very expensive and time-consuming. The first approach is to leverage YouTube or one of its competitors, mashing up some code to allow NerdTV users to submit response videos to YouTube, with those videos also embedded in the NerdTV page. This is relatively simple, free, and gets the job done, but it can be a more effective tool for sending my users to YouTube than for keeping them at NerdTV, which I would prefer.

The second alternative approach would be to write my own video-response application. This is a LOT of work. Not only do I have to write and debug all that code, I have to find a way to host the video responses and maintain the whole mess, which can easily grow to thousands of responses to my few dozen shows. That means building a database. If I am a YouTube competitor, writing my own application is a no-brainer, but I'm not a YouTube competitor. What I need is the of video-response applications. I need Whistlebox.

If you are wondering why you've never heard of Whistlebox, that would probably be because to my knowledge nobody has written about it before. Whistlebox is a self-funded start-up based in Brooklyn, New York, and unless you are friends or family of the founders, it has been a big secret right up to this moment. But since I am planning to use Whistlebox for NerdTV, that secret is out.

Most of the Whistlebox founders came from an online ad agency called Mammalfish, where they spent years building interactive online ads. They have spent more than a year building Whistlebox as a generic business-to-business tool for submitting what they call asynchronous video. The idea is to make it as simple as possible for users to respond with video -- ridiculously easy, in fact.

If you want to submit a video to YouTube or any of the other video-sharing services, you have to first make the video, then encode and compress it in some acceptable form, after which you upload it to the video service. You can do that with Whistlebox, too, but the target application is quite a bit simpler, requiring only a webcam and a microphone.

Say you have just watched an episode of SuperNerds or some other NerdTV program, and want to respond. Click a button on the show web page and the Whistlebox applet loads. Look into your webcam and say what you have to say. Click another button to review your post or even to edit it. Once you are happy with the way your video looks, Whistlebox automatically compresses and uploads your response. There is no application to buy and learn.

PBS rules require that I explain here that I have no financial interest in Whistlebox. I own no stock and they aren't paying me anything. I just think this is a cool application with a lot of potential.

Let's think of some ways Whistlebox, or a Whistlebox equivalent, might be used beyond YouTube-like video responses.

Given that the Whistlebox boys come from an ad agency background, it isn't surprising that their product has a lot of potential ad-related uses. Dating sites can use it to post video introductions. Okay, that's a no-brainer, but why not use the same technology to advertise babysitting services, allowing parents to have a good look at that babysitter even before making the call? There are many services where it would be a great help to see and hear the potential service provider before making a commitment.

Whistlebox could even be used as the core engine for a video-blogging platform.

The first application of Whistlebox will appear shortly as part of a promotion for Candies Clothing, where it will be used to allow music listeners to ask questions of Fergie, the pop singer.

In addition to helping users post videos, Whistlebox has a number of features that the founders feel will augment the service. "Viewers will be able to comment on videos, rank them, and vote," explained Whistlebox founder Howard Tager. "The voting system can even involve a meritocracy where the votes of people who submit videos or are very active on the system count more."

Whistlebox, which is now in beta, was built over the last 12 months by a pair of programmers using Java, MySQL, Flash Media Server, and Flex for Flash 9, and can be made to work with most content distribution networks. The interface can be totally customized and re-branded as needed. The word "Whistlebox" need never appear. And while the beta service is asynchronous (users submit videos), the system can function synchronously as well, supporting two-way or even many-way communications, which will be enabled in a future release according to Chas Mastin, the lead developer.

A particularly powerful application of Whistlebox is recording two-way interviews. You might use your webcam to connect to a live webcast with Whistlebox giving the host the ability to record from either his webcam or yours effectively making it a two-camera interview. It would be like bringing CNN-style satellite interviews to the web for very low cost.

Of course you could build your own Whistlebox, in which case please go ahead. But even if you are the best coder in the world it is still going to take time to write, debug, and test -- time the Whistlebox boys have already spent. Time is money. So while there will undoubtedly be Whistlebox competitors, many commercial web sites may decide not to build themselves in favor of having the new feature up and running in a day or two.

Whistlebox isn't aimed at end-users. It is a business-to-business service that is paid for with real money. Maybe some Whistlebox customer will choose to implement it as a free ad-supported service for end users, but the company founders aren't presently planning a retail version.

You can try Whistlebox shortly as part of NerdTV, where we will use it not only for comments, but also for viewers to submit questions to future guests on SuperNerds and other NerdTV shows.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (63)

Facebook seem to be doing the same thing with their video application (i.e. allowing you to click 'Record' and automatically uploading the video to their site). I wonder if it's something they developed in-house, or if they're using something like Whistlebox.

Norman Rasmussen | Jun 19, 2007 | 6:53AM

Alex mentioned a webcam teleprompter. Here's a link to a free online telepprompter that works with it. You can also order the teleprompter on the same page for only $59.95.

Keith Wells | Jun 19, 2007 | 4:34PM

Love your stuff, Cringley!
Video will be the way of the future .. with a few writtin words thrown in for good measure and emphasis -- kind of like chapter titles!

ralph miller | Jun 20, 2007 | 6:48PM