It took one Uber to get from real-time photos to live video broadcasting on mobile


You might have heard: Live video broadcasting apps for smartphones are the hottest trend in online consumer tech right now. First it was Meerkat that captured the hearts of the tech multiplicators and curious media crowd. Then last week Twitter launched its competitor Periscope. To be fair, YouNow, another live streaming app which has gotten popular among teens, might turn out to be the bigger deal in the long run. Nevertheless, Meerkat and most recently Periscope are the talk of the town in technology and startup-land.

Coincidentally, during the launch day of Periscope, a building in New York City collapsed. Some people on Twitter and news blogs got pretty excited about the capability of streaming live video from the scene of events. I found this remarkable for a reason: 6 years ago, a plane crash-landed on the Hudson River. This event wrote social media history, because the first report and photo about the plane swimming on the river was published on Twitter.

This was a bit more than 6 years ago. It took 6 years to get from realtime citizen smartphone-reporting in text and photos to live video broadcasts. Considering the fast pace with which technology usually advances in our time, this seems to be a rather slow evolution.

Certainly 6 years appear only slow to those whose expectations about the speed of technologial advancements are huge, as Martin Oetting pointed out on Twitter in a response to a tweet of mine. That is true of course. The perception of time and speed is relative anyway, and it always depends on what one compares with.

In comparison with how many years it took us to get from the telephone to the commercial Internet, 6 years are nothing. But think about this: When the tweet from the plane floating on the Hudson River traveled around the world in January 2009, the on-demand transportation company Uber did not exist. It was founded 2 months later. Today, Uber is valued at more than $41 billion. The company operates in more than 250 cities accross 55 countries. Back in 2009, the streets of New York where dominated by the iconic yellow cabs. 6 years later, Uber cars reportedly outnumber yellow taxis in the city.

Measured in fast-paced Uber time, it took quite a while until live smartphone broadcasting had reached a state ready for mass-market. Especially considering that live streaming apps already existed in 2009. Just that they were crappy and ahead of their time.

Apart from Uber, here are the names of some other tech giants that were not even incorporated in January 2009: Xiaomi (now the world’s third biggest smartphone manufacturer), WhatsApp, Pinterest, Snapchat and Medium. Dropbox and Airbnb had been founded a few months before.

With these comparisons in mind, it gets obvious what kind of major bottleneck the lack of fast broadband or other technical infrastructure actually can pose to business models and the progress of new technology. In 2009, mobile data networks could generaly not provide the bandwidth needed for smartphone video broadcasting in adeqate quality. Nobody enjoys pixelated streams that buffer all the time. However, mobile data worked fine enough for a company like Uber to create a multibillion dollar business that totally depends on data networks.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick found the perfect time to start his company. A company based on an idea that matched the capabilities of the available infrastructure. Those founders of live broadcasting apps back in 2009 on the other hand underestimated the constrains of the infrastructure their products were depended on.

(Photo: Josué Goge/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)


  1. What I really don’t get about the hype is, how is Periscope and Meerkat any different from uStream or They have apps for smartphones since ages and I can remember some people streaming stuff from protest and so on e.g. Stuttgart 21. In 2009 the mobile networks in Germany were already good enough to live stream. I do not believe, that on the long run many people want to see live how a building burns down, it is just boring to watch it burning for strait one or two hours, apart from the fact that most of the people have to work and can’t sit in front of the screen to watch a building burning.

    • Well as I wrote in the article: The quality of the streams, the performance of mobile data networks and the usability were not matching people’s expectations.

      But I agree with you: The current hype often circles around the needs of the creators. Few seem to realize that most of what they are streaming is not interesting at all. Also, consumption of live video requires a different kind of attention than just quickly reading a tweet or Facebook post during a break. So the audience is harder to reach. On the other hand: If you have a look at the YouNow article on TheVerge that I linked to, at least among teens, even boring streams in which nothing happens seem to get a lot of viewers.

    • “Often it’s like hanging out and chilling. It’s not necessarily about action or news. ”

      Yep that’s what seems to happen especially on YouNow, with its much younger demographics.

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