Sunday, December 14, 2008

YouTube is easy?

I read a lot of blogs where developers voice their opinions on how to do successful things. Often YouTube is raised as an example of a service that was easy to implement, but filled a real need in a user-friendly way (unlike Google Video) and so became popular. I agree with everything except the "easy" part. If I think about web services, YouTube really doesn't seem comparatively on the easy side.

YouTube seems like a total nightmare to scale for starters. Their bandwidth usage boggles the mind. YouTube currently uses more bandwidth than the entire Internet did less than eight years ago! They spend an estimated million bucks PER DAY on bandwidth.

So OK, perhaps when they say it was easy to implement, they mean when it started, not the way it is right now. Some blogs like to point out that because they use PHP and MySQL, this makes it easy to implement. Granted, the site UI part itself doesn't seem to be especially difficult. But is that really the meaty part of YouTube? Personally I think transcoding is the essential and also the difficult part. Perhaps they use something like FFMPEG to do that, making it easier than I imagine, but they really had to overcome some kind of a mental hurdle to realize that this uploading thing could ever work well enough.

Also from a legal standpoint it does not seem easy. YouTube seems like it might have been much easier to start from China or somewhere with less strict copyright laws. Being a company in the US, I wonder how they got any sleep at night with lawsuits and cease and desists flying at them left and right.

And now they have yet another tiny little detail: how to even make any money from all this. The founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen of course don't really have to worry too much about this any longer, but I'm thinking about this from the point of view of the business itself. Assuming they really are spending $1M/day on bandwidth, and believing the estimate that they have 64M monthly uniques, they would need to extract about 50 cents per user per month just to cover the bandwidth cost.

I don't believe they are doomed. It can likely all be made to work, maybe that $1M/day bandwidth will cost a small fraction of that after 10 years. Maybe there is some magical d'uh-obvious moneymaking scheme they will come up with. What I just mean is that none of this makes me feel like YouTube should be the first company people pick as an example of something "easy" to do.