South by Southwest kicks off in Austin this coming Friday. Judging by its enthusiastic embrace by users, Meerkat — an iOS platform enabling users to stream live videos over Twitter — looks to be anointed the Next Big Thing at the festival, too.
The nine-week-old app began as a side project by the Israeli startup Life On Air, and much of its appeal centers on allowing anyone who sees a tweet about a live Meerkat broadcast to follow along and comment on it. Meerkat has generated so much buzz since its February 27 rollout, in fact, that Twitter is reportedly talking with another live streaming app called Perioscope about an acquisition.
It’s no wonder. While Meerkat has plenty of predecessors in live broadcasting online — from Qik to uStream to Google’s Hangouts on Air — by simply appearing in Twitter users’ feeds, Meerkat has managed to change the game. As writer-analyst Ben Thompson noted at a San Francisco dinner last week, “I almost find Meerkat more compelling from a Twitter perspective than a Meerkat one. It really just gets at how being native for video – being in the stream – is important.”
No one yet knows, of course, if Meerkat will turn into anything. Twitter could kick it off its platform. Prospective users, frustrated by frequent crashes, could abandon it. Through its commenting feature, Meerkat could also suffer the same kind of abusive behavior that has plagued other popular social networking apps. (That’s saying nothing of its business model, or lack of one.)
Back home in Israel, not everyone appears to be cheering for its success, either. Last week, StrictlyVC talked with Mike Feldman, a Hong Kong-based consultant who advises on cross-border technology investments from China to Israel, and who has helped a rival of Meerkat — four-year-old, Tel Aviv-based Mobli — raise capital from investors. (The company has garnered $86 million across four rounds so far. Life on Air has meanwhile raised $3.6 million.)
From Feldman’s perspective, Mobli – an Instagram-like platform that last year introduced live broadcasting from within the Mobli app – has more staying power, even if it isn’t as much on the radar of Silicon Valley’s illuminati. For one thing, he says, it already has 25 million users, including across South America and Russia.
To the degree that it has succeeded, it has done so without the help of Silicon Valley’s hype machine, too, Feldman says, noting that Mobli’s unconventional roster of investors includes Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim and tennis star Serena Willlams.
“I think there’s just some companies — maybe you call them the Product Hunt type companies — that get backing among the twittering VCs in Silicon Valley,” Feldman continues. “But to those of us half a world away, what happens there doesn’t necessarily represent the world as a whole. Meerkat is totally integrated with Twitter, so it’s been drawing the same kind of people who use Twitter. But the vast majority of people are not using Twitter.”
Whether or not that’s true — Twitter has gone so far as to cut off employee access to its metrics — Meerkat’s creator, Ben Rubin, doesn’t sound like someone who expects Meerkat to become the next Twitter, whose own star took off at the South by Southwest Festival in 2007. At least, Rubin appears to know to hope for the best but expect the worst.
“People get excited by the novelty of live streaming, but it wears off,” he told Gigaom last week. “I’ve seen my product go through word of mouth before and I’ve seen it wear off. I know what that feels like in a week.”
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