The most popular app at the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival was small and simple. Meerkat, which launched only a few weeks prior to the festival, allows users to set up ad-hoc live video streams, which they can advertise to their Twitter followers.
Tap a button to begin recording, and everything a smart phone’s camera can capture is sent live to those followers who choose to tune in.
The app was immediately popular. Several reporters used it to stream Apple’s “Spring Forward” event, at which the Apple Watch was launched, to their Twitter followers. Tony Hawk used it to show his followers Icelandic views. Jimmy Fallon used it to share behind-the-scenes glimpses of his late-night talk show.
But just as Meerkat was gaining traction, Twitter announced that it had purchased a competing live-streaming app. Following the announcement, Twitter made things difficult for Meerkat by hindering its ability to notify people when a live stream was taking place. Users can still use Meerkat to distribute videos on Twitter, but they can’t push a notification to their followers to alert them to a live stream.
Twitter’s competing app, Periscope, launched on Thursday on the iOS App Store. Neither Periscope nor Meerkat has an Android app, though both are presumably coming soon. Periscope performs exactly the same function as Meerkat, but with some additions – such as the ability to view replays of live streams – baked in. (Meerkat doesn’t have that feature yet; once a stream is over, the video can’t be rewatched.) Both apps allow watchers to tap on the screen to indicate their appreciation for what they’re watching, and Periscope allows viewers to comment on the video in real time.
Without the ability to push Twitter notifications, it might seem that Meerkat is in a tough spot. But the company announced on Thursday that it had raised $14 million in funding from Silicon Valley investors and other venture capitalists. That money will allow it to improve its app and hopefully find a new way to let users know when live streams are happening.
Why the sudden widespread interest in mobile live streaming? It’s mostly to do with the fact that it wasn’t feasible until very recently. Not many people had smart phones powerful enough to stream live video, and data networks weren’t fast or widespread enough to allow users to send videos to the cloud. But now live streaming is starting to catch on, and Meerkat and Periscope are leading the charge.