It’s Christmas at Vimeo. Ever since Tim Cook squeezed his way down the company chimney to leave the gift that Apple Mac OS X Mountain Lion would have the company's platform hard baked into the Mac software as the video service of choice, the eggnog hasn’t stopped flowing. So exactly why did Cupterino shove a giant two fingers up at YouTube from across the Valley Freeway? Pocket-lint sat down with Vimeo CEO Dae Mellencamp at her hotel during Mobile World Congress 2012 to find out.
We arrive at the pre-arranged tapas meet a casual hour and a half late. The day is as busy as it is hot in Barcelona and our taxi driver hasn’t had the best of time getting from one side of town to the other and back again. As it turns out, Mellencamp hasn’t made it yet either, although for very different reasons. Instead, her team takes us through the new Vimeo for iOS app while we do our best not to drop croquette crumbs on their white iPad 2 or smear the screen with chorizo sauce as we swipe our way about the impressive-looking interface.
“Dae’s [pronounced like the things that make up weeks] not going to be coming along,” they explain to our palpable disappointment.
A few half explanations as to where she is later and it seems that the boss is having a lie down. Somewhere between jet lag, interview exhaustion and a less than happy stomach is the general conclusion and, in the interest of tact, it seems wise to not pursue it any further. All the same, some pan con tomate, calamari with lemon juice, a quick plate of bravas and a text message later and we’re back in Vimeo’s suite where a not quite 100 per cent but considerably less peaky CEO appears for a chat.
Still noticeably keeping her distance from a spread of welcome drinks on one side of the wood panelled room, she looks relieved to be back in the game. “First, I thought it was the coffee, now I think it’s the jet lag,” she jokes as she looks with some ne found respect at the steaming porcelain pot on the counter. “I haven’t travelled this far in a while and, wow, the stuff over here is really thick.”
If you haven’t heard of Vimeo before, then, you’re wrong. You have. If YouTube is the household name in online video, then Vimeo (an anagram of movie), along with DailyMotion, is the next most likely you’ll come across when sent a link of the latest must-see. A little different from the other big players, Vimeo prides itself on a more discerning user base made up of indie filmmakers or those with a passion for movies of all lengths and genres who call themselves Vimeans. Home to 10 million of them, the site was the first to support HD videos in October 2007 and one of the few to shun preroll adverts from the start of their clips.
“We work very hard to create the best online video experience possible,” says Mellencamp, describing Apple’s validation of the company. “That’s our goal and the fact that they support that is evidence that we’re doing a good job.”
Indeed, it was news to the Vimeo CEO and all her staff when the Mountain Lion announcement hit. As it turns out, they were on a team outing at the time and were as shocked as anyone else.
“They didn’t tell us at all. It’s really quiet when you work with them. Apple keeps us in the dark as much as anyone else. We work with them and they’re a great partner,” she adds, understandably quick to not break any invisible rules, “but you don’t always know the details or when.”
One reason that makes Vimeo the likely choice for a company like Apple - aside from the obvious conspiracy theories on the Google/Apple conflict - is inherent in an ethos that very closely matches that of the computer giant. Part of creating the best online video platform is putting the user experience first. While Apple’s iOS and OS X are well known for their simplicity, Vimeo too has plenty of gongs on the UX front and pages in books on the subject devoted to its platform.
In January, the company unveiled a huge redesign of the sort that might just have caught Cupertino’s attention in the first place. Features, like a larger player, a stripped-back look with fewer links per screen and hidden browser, aim to put a greater focus on the videos themselves while adding more keyboard shortcuts, greater social support and multiple file uploading are just a few of the additions to make Vimeo easier to use and a richer experience for those for whom it’s already familiar. But if some of those ideas feel obvious, then it might be because they’ve been in the pipeline for quite a while.
“We’ve wanted to put the big player on the page for about two years but the redesign took about a year to develop,” says Mellencamp, remembering the sleepless nights.
“The vision has been there but it’s been about figuring out how to make it real and how to get it built because we had to build the whole site again from scratch. We literally had to rewrite every single page. That takes time."
"I think we’ve added in more and more features that help beginners. It has been a little more advanced. I think the redesign is about that.”
While the needs of the beginner are addressed on the main website, it’s been the needs of the more advanced user that seem have been served by the company’s other recent news - that of a major update to its iPhone app and the launch of Vimeo for iPad.
The app, which, of course, is free, allows users to edit, add titles, music tracks and effects to their video projects as well as enjoy the consuming side with a player that lets you watch one movie while still browsing others. One can’t help wondering how Apple will feel about its partner on the back of such an impressive alternative to iMovie but, as far as Mellencamp and her team are concerned, the added accessibility is all about addressing the much-talked-of democratisation of video; something which Vimeo feels is very much going on.
“I think it is real. Quality is coming from unexpected place, it isn’t just this niche group and we’re looking to support that.
“The quality of what can be captured with a mobile device changes your average consumer needs within video, which is what we’re trying to serve, and I think that is going to grow dramatically over the next five year.
"So what people realise they can do with video, what people think they can accomplish with video and what their expectations and requirements out of video to share are, is changing because they’re beginning to realise that it’s not so hard to do better things.”
Much of the drive behind the redesign, the iPad app and the continued mission from Vimeo has been to tool this ever-increasing video-creative population with ways and means of putting together works with more and more emotional impact for those users to share with others. There are tutorials and simple wizards, of course, as well as support from the Vimeans whom themselves are a known, respectful and encouraging community.
The idealogoly is in stark contrast from that observable on YouTube. While Google’s video site is obviously usable and complete with tools of its own, a very brief look at comments stream on any of the videos is more than enough evidence of an entirely different user base. The movies themselves are far more disposable too.
While it has its place, failed motorbike stunts, TV clips and sneezing pandas - to pick three of the better examples on the service - are a world away from the reels of stop motion animation, original music videos and short films found on Vimeo. Indeed, for some with smart TVs, the Vimeo television app has become a viable alternate to channel surfing the reality TV shows and commercial breaks of certainly part of an evening. For Mellencamp though, she sees the likes of YouTube’s offerings and her company’s own as two separate codes and part of a rift set to broaden as online video matures.
“I think the bulk of online video will remain shorter form because that’s what people have time for. Not everyone wants to do something for 45 minutes but I think you will see more long-form work.”
"Reality TV has gone so far and it’s still huge, and it can stay that way, but there is room for more, and room for different. But I do think it’s on two fronts and the idea of the service is that we can fulfill both.”
Mellencamp seems pretty clear that she's not too keen to embrace on online rental system for TV and films as part of Vimeo, however.
“People will still watch broadcast. I think this is an add-on, this is unique and different. We’re not trying to replicate cable TV. We’re trying to focus on quality. Online video is not like this secondary thing. It can actually be a primary thing. When you watch our curated content on the television, it is gorgeous. It is different and it is a great experience, something unexpected.”
Of course, while the Apple news is a great boost for Vimeo, one of the big concerns for the team, and the Vimeans, has to be whether the huge influx of new users as direct result will change the nature of the community and the feel of the site. That 10 million-strong user base could quickly double and place quite the pressure on a culture that all have worked so hard to maintain. So are they concerned about such a large potential immigration?
“I think if you asked me about that three years ago, I might have been. Can you really sustain the quality, can you still maintain respectful comments? But the answer is yes. Because we have. We’ve been doubling at least every year already. With all these millions more than we have since I started at the company, we still have this.
“Our infrastructure and the way we’ve built it, and how we support the community has already proved that we can scale with significant growth. Once you’re at this many millions, I think there’s not as much to risk. Going from 1 million to 20 million, it might be one thing, but going from 10-20 is just double.”
The numbers will still place the service a long way behind YouTube’s - if and when the Mountain Lion launch provides the doubling of traffic that Vimeo predicts - but speaking to Mellencamp, and her senior staff, it’s clear that there’s a passion in what they’re doing a belief in this vision of online video with a conscience - a place for creativity and enjoyment rather than pop culture and schadenfreude.
"We have not followed the pack in so many ways. We have stuck to our guns and said video can be this and our audiences have given us that feedback all the way through. And it’s not because we’re trying to be different. It’s been because we believe that it’s the right thing to do."
For sheer traffic, the YouTube approach seems destined to win but if Vimeo ever needs inspiration that user experience, ease of use and the less popular path can eventually conquer all, it only need look as far as its esteemed recent business partner. Small wonder then, it was them that Apple chose.