By Bobbie Johnson May. 1, 2012, 5:00am PT
Where would we be without animated GIFs? If I’m being honest, the reality is that we would probably be in exactly the same place we are right now… but the world might be a little less fun.
Once the preserve of web nerds, this weird, headache-inducing pop art form has had new life breathed into it by the rise of Tumblr and mobile photography — particularly with a surge in apps that let you make loopy GIFs directly on your handset. But now one of the leaders of the pack, Berlin-based startup Loopc.am, is taking a step away from mobile with a new desktop client that it hopes can turn it into a force to be reckoned with.
Until now, most of Loopcam’s activity took place on handsets, as people turned their videos into short loops. But as of Tuesday, Loopcam viewers can use a web widget to embed “Polaroid-like” animations made on the service into their site with just a click. The idea is clearly to increase virality, something that founder Tor Rauden Källstigen admitted to me.
“GIF sharing has historically been complicated to understand for a lot of people. Our new GIF/loop widget is probably the first one ever, and it’s definitely one of a kind.”
Mobile creation, desktop consumption
This is an interesting — and growing — problem for all mobile apps: the handset might be where the act of creation takes place, but in many cases the virality and consumption is heavily reliant on the desktop. Everyone is desperate to be an Instagram, where the mobile becomes the core platform for viewing as well as contributing, but it can’t always be that way.
It’s an issue that many app companies are switching on to, perhaps belatedly.
“It’s mainly about how shared loops are consumed,” says Rauden Källstigen. “Most of them are seen on desktop devices, and we want to ensure that the Loopcam experiences reaches all the way there.”
What Loopcam has added, then, are a set of tools that allow you to embed GIFs that people have created on other services — all with a handy link back to the app itself. They’re not perfect. There are no creation tools, and sharing is not as simple and easy as it could be… but they’re better than before.
Getting on the web is about getting traction, and that’s important if Loopcam is to beat the host of other GIF services out there — and it’s a surprisingly crowded space, with players like Flixel, Cinemagram, Gifboom and Kinoptic among the players.
The crucial platform for all of them is probably Tumblr — where every other blog seems dedicated to sharing must-see animated GIFs of Ryan Gosling looking hot, or kittens doing hilarious things. Get Tumblr users embedding your images and you can go stratospheric: hence Loopcam’s attempt to making web sharing easier.
But despite this pitch for a wider audience, Loopcam and its rivals still look very much like a business without, well, much of a business. The service is free, the consumption is free, and the product is — surely — going to be difficult to monetize unless it achieves gargantuan scale. And while the team is just four strong, so financial pressures may not be immense, when they talk about “future monetizing based on user behaviors, primarily by adding more value to the loop experience”, I can’t help but think it’s a bit hand-wavy.
That lack of a business model doesn’t seem to have deterred investors, however, and alongside the new web platform, Loopcam is also announcing a small seed funding round from London-based Passion Capital and a group of largely Berlin-based angels including local big hitter Christophe Maire and Soundcloud’s Alex Ljung and Eric Walhforss.
But how does any of this make animated GIFs anything more than just a fun feature?
Is it really something you can build a business around?
While a handful of savvy webslingers have turned LOLcats into media properties, I’m not so sure that the same applies to these brief animations. More likely it seems as if there is an acquisition play behind all these services — build the best animated GIF engine, with the biggest userbase, and you become attractive for somebody like Tumblr to bring in-house.
Either that, or you have to have a longer game in mind. But what might that be?