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Plenty of potential -- and frustration -- in the Periscope video app

Aaron Pressman
16 Hollywood Stars to Follow on Periscope: Aaron Paul, Shonda Rhimes, Seth Meyers

Actor John Hodgman is goofing off with a friend. Famed venture capitalist Chris Sacca is taking questions while walking down the beach. And someone I don't know at all -- not even her name -- is reporting on the building collapse in lower Manhattan from a rooftop nearby. All live, in real time.

These were all videos I watched over the last few days on Periscope, Twitter's (TWTR) new live video streaming app. Install the app, start following people you follow on Twitter who have already installed Periscope and videos start popping up as notifications on your phone. As you watch, in real time, you can also comment or ask questions. Tap the screen to send a "like" in the form of floating, colored hearts.

It's often an interesting and intimate video view directly into someone else's life (it's also much like the view from a similar app, Meerkat, that debuted a few weeks earlier). Perhaps somewhat more often, it's a boring, mundane scene of someone walking down the street or eating a burrito.

There's clearly a big, big idea here, one poised to blow up with mainstream folks, just like the original concept of Twitter. Like Twitter, Periscope goes everywhere on a smartphone, operates in real time and lends a sense of immediacy and access to other people in other places. And just like Twitter, the basic concepts of Periscope work equally well when sharing among a small group of friends, following faraway news events live or seeking a more intimate view of your favorite celebrities and brands. Mario Batali, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Seacrest are already signed up.

Venture capitalist Chris Sacca broadcasts live from the beach in Twitter's new Periscope app.

A natural progression

It's a fitting evolution, really. When Twitter started in 2006, smartphones were slower and mobile data networks were much slower. Now with a camera-equipped supercomputer in every pocket and ubiquitous 4G networks getting ready to give way to 5G in a few more years, there's sufficient bandwidth to turn many text messages to video. And won't the carriers be pleased that people have found a whole new reason to burn through their data plans faster than ever? Eugene Wei, the head of product at Flipboard, has a hilarious 32-point prediction of sorts for how the entire live streaming scene will play out.

Periscope and Meerkat are hardly the first to offer this kind of real-time broadcasting. Earlier apps like Qik and Ustream never took hold in the technological zeitgiest, though. The YouNow network claims over 100 million monthly viewers but offers more niche content  (among the top trending tags this morning: #bored, #random and #sleepingsquad) . As Ben Popper, a reporter for The Verge web site recently noted, "A lot of what happens on YouNow feels like the PG-13 version of Cam Girls, part confessional conversation, part vaudeville performance."

YouNow is more developed in some ways than the hot, new apps, though. It allows streaming from a desktop web browser as well as a smartphone and includes a tipping feature, so performers can get paid in real time in real money.

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But it's the deep integration with Twitter that give the new apps so much potential. "Twitter really is the real-time platform, so leveraging the Twitter audience and using Twitter to get the word out about broadcasts is huge," explains Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. In the current era, Twitter is where most news breaks first.

On the whole, Periscope offers a smooth and professional-looking app without the cheesiness of some of these other efforts. (In its terms of service, Periscope bans "pornographic or overtly sexual content," though that hasn't stopped some users from streaming salacious content.) But Periscope also suffers -- suffers badly, in fact -- from many of the same weaknesses that afflict Twitter.

First, it's much too hard to find reliably interesting people to follow or cool streams as they happen. Then there's a firehose-like flood of notifications of too much junk. Follow more than just a few Periscopers and you'll likely turn off notifications to avoid being constantly bombarded. And, finally, the conversational quality of commenting and asking questions quickly breaks down as the audience for any particular video grows beyond a few hundred viewers.

These problems will be familiar to Twitter users, Twitter management and, particularly, Twitter critics in the investor community.

As the apps are currently set up, the focus is on video of your friends, more like an imitation of Snapchat or Facebook's (FB) Instagram. That's obviously a valid and popular way to serve videos, but it doesn't play to Twitter's unique strength as a massive yet customizable distribution platform. To let Periscope truly reach its full potential, Twitter needs to solve the search and discovery problem. And that's nothing new.