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SXSW '15: Meerkat's Ben Rubin in the Spotlight

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At every SXSW, there’s a breakout company or app, and this year it’s definitely Meerkat, an app that lets users easily stream live via Twitter. Or at least it seemed to be until last Friday, when it ran into two setbacks.

First, Twitter itself confirmed that it had bought Periscope, which is still in beta but offers similar functionality as well as the ability to save streams for on-demand viewing. Second, Twitter turned off Meerkat’s access to the Twitter social graph, meaning that, among other things, the app can’t automatically notify all your Twitter followers when you’re starting a live stream.

Meerkat co-founder and CEO Ben Rubin sat down with Yahoo’s David Pogue at Yahoo’s SXSW Yodel House to talk about the ups and downs the app is facing just a few weeks after its launch. Rubin said that as of today, the app has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and he claims that he’s not concerned about Twitter preventing Meerkat access to the social graph.

In fact, according to Rubin, Meerkat’s user base actually grew by 30% after the Twitter news—crossing the 100,000 user mark on March 14—and the number of impressions is in the millions, with the majority of users watching multiple hours of video per day.

Using Meerkat is simple: After installing the app and linking it to your Twitter account, all you need to do is touch the screen to start a livestream. If you want to watch other people’s live streams, just search for #meerkat and "get a look at the world through other peoples’ eyes," said Pogue.

That simplicity was baked into Meerkat from the beginning. "We wanted to create live streaming at the speed of Twitter," said the 27-year-old Rubin, who studied architecture and discussed how that discipline helped him design the Meerkat user experience. His company of 11 employees has been working and developing for two years, then built the app in 8 weeks, launched it at the end of February.

"We’re able to unlock this great habit from the get-go," Rubin said, referring to people’s frequent mobile use of Twitter, adding that his team's goal was to place no barriers to entry. "We don’t judge if the content is good or not. But if it comes from the heart, you can build a very good community. People going live on Meerkat right now are very exciting."

Pogue asked Rubin how he felt about being both in the spotlight and the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism after Twitter's announcements.

"A product is defined not by the amount of articles written about it, but by how people use it and whether or not it makes a difference," he said. "We’ve seen the swearing in of the secretary of commerce in a real time, we’ve seen BBC reporters going to Ferguson this past Thursday. You see more and more use cases that make live video interesting again, even small use cases like a real estate company showing an apartment on the upper east side of New York, or church worship services." Rubin himself was streaming his interview with Pogue via Meerkat, with 361 people watching at one point.

Rubin says the live-only nature of Meerkat is part of the vision, at least for now. "We wanted to make sure that you control the content after you create it," Rubin says. "So we decided not to let the content stay (online) but to stay on your phone. It’s important to make sure that people feel comfortable to press that button and stream." Once the app reaches even more users—"when my aunt is using it," Rubin said—Meerkat will likely add the ability to archive the video for on-demand viewing.

As for Twitter blocking access to the social graph, Rubin was not surprisingly adamant that it doesn’t affect Meerkat’s long-term plans. "We never set out to build our community on top of the Twitter graph," he says, adding that the company chose Twitter because it has an engaged, habitual user base that would be a good place to "jump-start" its own user base. Without going into details he said that "in the next couple weeks, we will be out of this" and introduce other ways to find other users than via Twitter.

Rubin said that his team is working on making Meerkat video easier to find outside of Twitter, but didn't go into details. He said the video is H.264 delivered via HLS, and that there's a 10-second latency from source to stream, adding that Meerkat decided to favor video quality over low latency.

Rubin says Twitter’s acquisition of Periscope only confirms that he and his team are on to something, adding that Twitter recognizes that live video is the future.

"We’re in the beginning of a decade that’s going to be very exciting for participatory media," he says. "It’s not a binary with just one company and a competitor. We don’t look at it as a rivalry."

Rubin was vague about the long-term business model, but said that major brands like Red Bull and American Idol were already using Meerkat, and that he expected broadcast networks to use the technology eventually, though he said the company is not considering accepting sponsors for Meerkat streams.

He also said the company wasn’t looking to get acquired. Pogue shared the story of the Flip camera, which was looking at adding live streaming when it was acquired by Cisco for $500 million, then promptly shut down. "See? That’s why you shouldn’t be acquired," Rubin joked.

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