Years ago, when the iPhone was first released, Apple introduced an elegant solution for its lack of Flash support: the YouTube app. This native video viewing app allowed iPhone users to whisk between user-uploaded videos in a tidy interface that didn’t compromise YouTube’s peripheral features, such as comments, ratings and suggested similar videos. But as YouTube continued to develop, the native iPhone app began falling a step behind. For example, YouTube no longer uses a five-star rating system, a change that has not yet been reflected in the iPhone app interface.
Now, Google has regained control over how iPhone and other smartphone users experience YouTube by launching the m.youtube.com. This mobile-optimized version of the website is accessible through a mobile browser and provides mobile users a suite of updates and features that go beyond the iPhone app. Google touts the mobile version of YouTube as faster and more user friendly and promises that new updates to the site will be incorporated immediately into the mobile version, rather than lagging behind as the iPhone app does. Google also says that viewing YouTube videos on the mobile site will yield higher quality—according to one exec, Apple’s YouTube app was optimized for streaming over the EDGE network, rather than the faster 3G network. Plus, as many iPhone users have noticed, the YouTube app behaves differently when connected via WiFi or mobile broadband. Lower quality videos are loaded by default when iPhone users are on the EDGE or 3G network, presumably to save on bandwidth. Users are likely to have more control over video quality when accessing via the mobile Safari browser.
An ulterior motive to the mobile app may lay in advertising. With the release of iOS4, Apple announced a sea change in its mobile advertising platform and policy. One of the most controversial facets of the new iAds system is that it effectively boxed out many of the network’s core features for Apples competitors—namely AdMob, a Google-owned company. By bringing YouTube traffic off of the native iPhone app and back into the browser, Google will undoubtedly have more agency in the way its ads behave.
While the roll out of mobile YouTube is being heralded as a boon for users, what’s apparent to onlookers is the ongoing tit-for-tat battle between Google and Apple. Google’s latest reclamation of one of its biggest sources of traffic and revenue is a quiet victory for the search engine giant.