Wednesday, November 26, 2008

YouTube Needs Widescreen. But Not All The Time

In the same way as it has become a real time warning signal for such natural disruptions as wildfires, earthquakes, it was Twitter that first brought me news that YouTube was switching its native player to widescreen.

The first alarm came in all caps.


WTF, indeed. YouTube going wide sounds like a good thing. Everything's going wide, even the humble Flip video camera. It's not so much that they did it, it's how they went about it: abruptly, disruptively, and discourteously.

Overnight, YouTube's entire legacy of standard format (4:3) videos were needlessly bracketed with black pillars. Was it really necessary to throw everything into the same 16:9 player? It's software dammit, not that physical collection of toxic metals, glass, and plastic that passes for a TV in my living room.

While many cheered, others were upset. Here's YouTube contributor, Nerimon, railing against this and other YouTube changes.

Side notes on Nerimon's rant: If you're just a casual viewer, many of these issues will seem obscure. But most builders and users of software will recognize the pattern. Unnecessary, unwanted futzing with "ain't brokes," while annoying rough edges remain unsanded and unbuffed. Nerimon is smart, funny, engaged, and a passionate, successful creator of content. He's a great example of the kind of customer who can help guide a development team away from the rocks and toward greater product excellence. If you make any kind of software you should take an earful of Nerimon. Think of him as a younger, funnier Dave Winer. Like Dave, all he asks is that developers listen to and respect their users.

Why frame everything at 16:9? Surely YouTube can detect aspect ratios and put up a player with the right aspect ratio. I did it. And I'm just a marketing dink.

Behold: The same clip, but this time Nerimon rails against pillars that aren't even there.

Is that so hard, YouTube?

It's easy to see why YouTube has to accommodate widescreen. Rival is rapidly growing the internet audience for widescreen, even HD movies and TV. If there are big, Google-worthy bucks to be had in online video, that's where they lie. YouTube has already cut deals with MGM, CBS, and Fremantle Media (those wonderful folks who bring you Idol, Got Talent, Let's Make a Deal).

But much of the active community of vloggers works with 4:3 webcams. Their content is usually a single talking head. Does it serve them well to go wide? Remember what Fritz Lang said when confronted with Cinemascope. It's a great format if you're shooting snakes and coffins.

Community-generated content on YouTube now finds itself competing with corporate media, not only for audience, but for some courtesy from the mothership.

Mickeleh's Take: YouTube big-footed the change without offering a warning to their creative community or providing guidance on how to prepare uploads for widescreen. That was just rude.