Why Vine is a killer app but it might have hit the LTE wave too early

About two weeks ago, I was sitting in the Castro Theater in downtown San Francisco listening to Google Ventures’ (s goog) Kevin Rose interview Instagram (s fb) co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. As someone who posts on average more than an Instagram photo per day, my first instinct was natural: I picked up my phone, snapped a few photos, and opened the app to filter and share the best ones.

But alas, the Castro Theater, while beautiful, is somewhat of an internet-less cave. I couldn’t connect to the internet via my wireless hotspot, or through the phone’s LTE. I tried repeatedly to upload the photo over the course of an hour (there’s something about having it fail that makes you want to upload it even more), but no luck. I kept getting the circular “fail” arrow of death. I couldn’t even get Twitter to load very reliably. It was indeed a tragic, first-world-problem, kind of evening.

Yet there was a greater reminder from my upload problems than just my inability to share a not-so-great photo. The moment served as a reminder that even as some of us get access to fast network speeds from technology like LTE on mobile or Google Fiber’s gigabit internet, there are still many moments in life where fast internet is hard to come by. Yes, even in the middle of tech hotspot San Francisco. And in these moments, when it’s impossible to upload or download even a single photo, video is still unthinkable.

Why Vine is the best we have so far

Vine screenshotAs I’ve written before, and continue to believe, Twitter’s Vine is the best app we’ve seen for mobile, social video-sharing. It’s not perfect, but the app that just launched in January and came to Android just this month gets the most important things right: it adds a crucial limitation — a six second clip, max — that forces you to be creative with your post, and makes it fun to watch (just think of all the times you’ve sat through a YouTube video looking for the funniest part). The interface is intuitive (just tap to record.) And the addition of looping the videos once recorded make them more like animated GIFs than long narratives. Everyone loves GIFs.

These advantages to Vine have only become more clear in the five months since the launch of the app. Twitter has not released precise usage stats for Vine, but it has 13 million downloads — more than Path’s 10 million announced in April, or Facebook’s paltry 1 million for Home. Anecdotally, I’ve seen many people download the app, and while not many of them post videos, the ones who do get pretty into it.

But technological limitations of mobile networking make it harder for Vine’s makers to deliver a consistent user experience, making immediate success much harder. This isn’t to say that Vine can’t overcome this hurdle, but it’s obvious why the Vine team has a tougher road ahead than Systrom and Krieger ever did.

Why Instagram isn’t doing video just yet

As we sat in the Castro Theater, the Instagram co-founders talked about how they built the product from a basic app (spun out of a failed attempt called Burbn) into something Mark Zuckerberg wanted to buy for $1 billion. It’s not a new story at this point, and has been chronicled extensively, but it’s still remarkable to consider that in the early days, it was just the two of them keeping Instagram running. (You can listen to the full conversation from the Commonwealth Club here.) Even now, the team that powers an app with over 100 million users is just 35 people. The two said they missed countless birthdays and time with girlfriends, just to keep Instagram online.

Mobilize 2011: Om Malik – Founder, GigaOM; Kevin Systrom – CEO, Instagram

Mobilize 2011: Om Malik – Founder, GigaOM; Kevin Systrom – CEO, Instagram

So when Rose asked the inevitable question — What about Vine? When will we see video on Instagram? — Systrom was diplomatic but clear in his response as to why video isn’t something they were previously or currently ready to tackle.

“We’ve always been really interested in video, and I think Vine does that well,” he said. But serving up video is the equivalent of serving “30 pictures per second to a given person, and that’s a really difficult experience to do on mobile.”

Systrom has talked about this concept before at our Roadmap event last November: that serving up photos quickly was the most important thing in making sure users kept coming back to Instagram. There’s no point in adding bells and whistles if the basic function — loading a photo — doesn’t work.

“No one wants to sit outside at a ballpark waiting for a video to load while there are 100,000 people around you wandering and you’re trying to get network signal. It’s hard enough for us to push an image down to you, I can only imagine a moving image,” Systrom said last November. Videos “are just innately harder to produce and consume.”

Systrom has said before that part of the reason Instagram took off was that it hit the technology wave just right — by October 2010, the iPhone camera had improved dramatically and smartphones with access to internet were become widespread enough to make a difference. It might be that Vine has hit the wave of widespread LTE and Google Fiber a little too early — the question is, can it catch up?

If you don’t believe me that Vine is pretty awesome, here’s a round-up of some of my favorite posts. My colleague Adam Kazwell has also created a great list over on Quora. Some of them are from famous people (Jack Dorsey, Ryan Gosling), my friends (normal people), Twitter employees (a group of comitted Viners if there ever was one), parents of toddlers (some of the best-equipped Viners out there) and crazy committed Vine experts (who have clearly put hours into perfecting the art.) But they give you a taste of the possibilities:

(Tap the middle of the square to play.)

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