Ottawa firm hopes VOD technology is a hit with cable giant

An Ottawa-based company has landed a starring role in a new media service that is set to challenge Netflix in the Canadian video-on-demand market.

You.i, a startup founded six years ago, has designed the user interface for the forthcoming subscription streaming service Shomi, a recently announced joint venture between Rogers and Shaw.

Following Shomi’s launch, which is scheduled for the first week of November, users will be able to browse through 11,000 hours of television and 1,200 movies on a handset and tablet interface created by You.i.

The company first caught the attention of Rogers when it launched its user interface engine about a year ago. You.i showed its stuff with an uninvited redesign of Netflix it posted on its website in early 2013, meant to demonstrate the interface's innovative potential.

The company’s software designers found themselves “frustrated with the current state of the (Netflix) experience and design,” according to a blog post on the firm's website.

You.i wanted to show how the application could be improved by incorporating new and improved features such as richer imagery, improved touch controls, greater personalization and a better layout – some of which can be found in newer versions of Netflix.  

The demo garnered “millions of views, and got us a lot of credibility,” CEO Jason Flick explained.

“(Rogers) saw the design that the entire world looked at. It literally (went) in a couple of months from, ‘Who the hell are you?’ to ‘Let's get going on this thing.’”

At launch, Shomi will be available for $8.99 per month – the same price as Netflix – but only as a limited beta release to Rogers and Shaw customers with Internet or TV service. In addition to smartphones and tablets, it will also be available on web browsers, cable boxes and Xbox.

Shomi will attempt to respond to a customer demand that's two-fold: “They want all the past seasons of the most popular, current TV shows and they want it to be easy,” Rogers Media president Keith Pelley said in a statement.

You.i is responsible for the second part of that demand. While Rogers and Shaw will deliver the programs, Mr. Flick's team will make sure that delivery system is easy and enjoyable to use.

“They know user experience is the most important,” Mr. Flick said. “Content is a lever you can pull up or down. Rogers can put almost any amount of money they choose into this to buy content. The user experience, you have to nail it. And that's why they chose us.”

A video demo of the interface shows a multitude of touchscreen controls used to access trailers, make playlists, filter by genre and more. Though its features don't appear to be that far off from those currently offered by Netflix, Mr. Flick said unique press-and-hold and double-tap commands will help set Shomi apart from its major competitor and give greater control to the consumer.

“You can do so much more on every screen,” he said. “Everything you touch comes to life with a motion or animation, which makes it very intuitive.”

Shomi is just one of many big reveals to come this fall for one of the city's fastest-growing startups. You.i has doubled in size and revenue each year, and the company reached its revenue goal for the current fiscal year – a target that was double that of the previous year – in just the first month.

All that growth poses a challenge, particularly when it comes to raising the formal capital required to continue expanding so rapidly. You.i will be hiring 50 new people to double its head count over the next year, Mr. Flick said, adding the firm will need to partner carefully as the company wades further into the TV market.

He said it'll be interesting to see how things play out over the next few years, since more and more viewers are dumping their cable subscriptions in favour of on-demand streaming services. It may soon be that television consumers will subscribe to not one or two but several providers, he said, each trying to one-up the other.

“My kids, they don't turn on the TV, they turn on Netflix. My kids have been testers of this, and now they only turn on Shomi,” Mr. Flick added.

News of You.i’s key role in the new entry into the at-home video market comes just after the recent departure of another Ottawa-based company in the sector.

Zip.ca announced in mid-August that the online and kiosk movie rental business was shutting down after more than 10 years. The company ended all subscriptions Aug. 15 and charged its more than 305,000 members a reduced fee for the half month of service.

The local business stuck with the mail-order movie model for years after Netflix moved away from it and began offering instant online streams back in 2007. Now, the California-based provider will finally see a new rival move into its Canadian territory.