Google-YouTube: Questions, Questions

Harry McCracken tackles big questions about the hottest acquisition of the week

Funny thing about rumors: Sometimes they turn out to be true. Last week, the buzz was that Google was in talks to buy YouTube for about $1.6 billion. Even some savvy observers scoffed. Yesterday it happened.

Some obvious questions about the deal got answered today: Google says that YouTube will maintain its name, management, and freedom to serve its users as it sees fit, and that Google Video, the YouTube competitor Google had already launched, will live on. But that leaves room for lots of other things to wonder about involving the site which I'm not the first person to call GooTube. Such as:

Will it be sued out of business?

Some folks who thought Google wouldn't or shouldn't buy YouTube did so on the basis of the fact that it's rife with copyrighted video and the possibility that it might crumble, Napsterlike, under the weight of lawsuits from content owners. Google, presumably, thinks it can avoid that scenario--and today's other big YouTube news was of new deals with Hollywood for authorized video streaming.

I'm no lawyer but there are a bunch of reasons to believe that YouTube can avoid a Napsteresque fate. For one thing, entertainment companies are at least a little more likely to embrace the Internet today than they were when (the original) Napster got shut down, as the deals YouTube has already struck prove. You've gotta think that almost anyone would rather partner with Google than sue it. (Er, emphasis on the "almost", I guess.) And while Napster provided entire albums with excellent sound quality, the fact that YouTube videos are short (ten or fewer minutes), fuzzy, and streamed rather than downloaded means they're as much a promotional vehicle for movies or TV delivered by more traditional means as a replacement for them.

Will YouTube get more Googley? Will Google get more YouTubey?

The two companies say that there won't be some sort of hasty Googlization of YouTube, but they also say they see lots of opportunity for integration, and there's clearly endless opportunity for Google-YouTube mashups and general influence of each site upon the other, in part because YouTube already has a Google-esque flavor. Likely scenario: Something like Google's relationship with acquisitions Blogger and Picasa, both of which retain their own branding and style while connecting to the Google mothership in various ways, only on a grander scale.

Does this bring us closer to a world in which search isn't mostly about searching for words?

Probably. It's a no-brainer that eventually, we'll all spend as much time searching for video content as we do for text stuff. And given that it's not yet a sure thing that Google will dominate video search, the company has every incentive to take steps such as buying the Web's hottest video site.

Will any other big company launch a serious YouTube rival?

YouTube is so popular in part because it's so easy to use, and as usual, usability seems to be remarkably difficult to clone. So far, the competition seems to range from lackluster to downright clueless. I just tried visiting Microsoft's YouTube killer and found that you can't even get into it to watch video if you're on a Mac. Or, for that matter, if you're on Windows but use Firefox rather than IE.

Was 1.65 billion bucks a reasonable price to pay?

That seems to be the question of the day. Me, I not only don't know the answer to this, I also don't really care--I'm a Google user, not an investor. I do know it's way too early to know; five years from now, this deal could look either like the deal of the century or an absurd waste of money.