With YouTube’s exclusive deals with mobile operators Verizon (in the US) and Vodafone (in the UK) coming to an end, the video sharing site has launched a mobile-friendly version that can be accessed by anyone with a compatible handset (capable of playing back .3gp video) and an appropriate data plan. With regards to the later, the first time you visit the site from your phone you’re given the following warning: “YouTube Mobile is a data intensive application. We highly recommend that you upgrade to an unlimited data plan with your mobile service provider to avoid additional charges.” What the site doesn’t highlight is that many providers impose a ‘fair use’ policy which means that in reality they’re unlimited plans aren’t unlimited at all, as well as prohibiting access to non-partnering video sites as part of their terms of service. It will be interesting to see how the mobile industry responds to non-exclusive access to YouTube Mobile.
The first thing you’ll notice when visiting the site is the lack of content currently available. This isn’t the complete YouTube, but instead offers a subset of videos based on most viewed, highest rated, and editorial picks. Additionally you can search for videos, although none of the content I was looking for was available. In YouTube’s defence, it’s early days and — should they choose to — it will take a significant amount of time to re-encode the site’s back catalogue into a mobile-friendly format. Having said that, it’s not clear how ambitious the company’s plans are for YouTube Mobile. Will the site remain a cut-down version of YouTube or will all future uploads be made available for mobile viewing?
Ignoring the limited choice of content, I found the site worked flawlessly. Pages loaded quickly, and on my Nokia E61, clicking on a video launched the phone’s version of RealPlayer and, after a few seconds of buffering, videos played back smoothly. The picture quality was also surprisingly good and often looked better than the regular version of YouTube — perhaps benefiting from the phone’s low resolution screen which helps to mask any compression artifacts.
On the downside, like with Verizon’s original offering, YouTube Mobile doesn’t have the viral aspects that helped make the non-mobile version a success. If a friend emails you a link to a YouTube video taken from the main version of the site, clicking on that link via your phone won’t take you to the corresponding video on YouTube Mobile. The same applies when trying to view YouTube videos that are embedded on blogs and social networking profiles such as MySpace. This is in part a technical issue, but also the result of YouTube Mobile being a subset of the full site.
Although videos played back smoothly and look surprisingly good, YouTube Mobile fails to offer the full YouTube experience — in part due to the limited content available (which should increase over time) but also because the mobile version doesn’t integrate seamlessly with the existing site. As a result, YouTube Mobile feels far too much like a silo, devoid of the social aspects we’ve come to expect from the video sharing site.