Recently I’ve run into more apps similar to my own VideoSkip, and I saw that there is a lot in common. In this article, I compare some of their features for the readers’ delight. Naturally, since I’m the original developer of VideoSkip, this app ends up on top. But you’re still curious, aren’t you?
Video filters go back more than a decade, actually. In this Wikipedia article, you get the sense of an epic war between the developers and, mostly, the Hollywood film industry. Hollywood has won most of the battles, but the war is not ended. Quite the contrary, with the advent of the internet their opponents have acquired new weapons that might prove irresistible.
If you’d think that there would be a lot of offerings in an industry that has been around for so long you’d be mistaken, for even today you can count them with the fingers of one hand. And a number of them share a most curious geographic clustering, too. Without further ado, here are the contenders:
- ClearPlay: Although their streaming app is what occupies us today, they still offer special BluRay players that hearken back to the days when videos were edited at their physical source (VHS tape, later, DVD) by companies like CleanFlicks and Clean Films. Those two don’t exist anymore in their original form because renting or selling edited videos (unauthorized by the owner, as opposed to videos for showing on airplanes, for instance) was deemed a violation of copyright law. But the ClearPlay players do not alter the physical media put into them, they simply skip to different times during playback, under the control of a special file that the player can download from the internet. The same scheme is used by the ClearPlay app, a browser extension that controls the playback of movies streamed from Amazon. ClearPlay is a commercial enterprise, which derives its income from a subscription model ($7.99 a month as of August 2020).
- VidAngel: You may have heard about them, likely because of their ongoing legal troubles, which has placed them in official bankruptcy even though they are still operating and even producing original material. Their initial model was very similar to that of CleanFlicks and Clean Films, which brought in a number of lawsuits. Currently their technology is quite similar to that of ClearPlay, except that it runs on mobile devices and streaming boxes, but not on computers. Therefore, they complement the ClearPlay offering quite nicely, but you need to add another subscription that costs $9.99 a month. They say they can control the playback of Amazon, Netflix, and HBO Now titles, but in my tests I’ve found that many links do not work.
- Play It My Way: This is the third Utah-based offering, in addition to the previous two. It started life as “Sensible Cinema” back in 2010 and later changed its name. As of July 2020, it simply requests donations rather than charge a membership fee. It has a little over one hundred titles, all hosted on Amazon; the Play It My Way website supplies a control file to an extension as it loads the appropriate Amazon page, and the extension in turn controls the playback, skipping when directed by the control file.
- Skipper Video is based in California. Their service has ties to Albatenia.com, a website devoted to movie reviews. There are a number of such websites aimed at families, but typically they limit themselves to offer recommendations rather than filter content. Their service, which seems to have stalled before it really launched, appears to be quite similar to ClearPlay, since it runs on computers and involves a membership fee.
- VideoSkip is the new kid on the block, having been born in Chicago during the spring of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. I am the founding developer, but already there are others helping with the project, which is open-source, including some of the Albatenia people. It is meant to stay as a community effort involving only volunteer work and no fees of any kind, and to run on any video source, local or streaming. Users exchange their edits informally, or through the built-in VideoSkip Exchange. At present it runs on computers for streaming and local content, and mobile devices for local content only. VideoSkip is the only one of the bunch that includes editing tools for all users (and not just those running the service), since the idea is that everyone can contribute to produce and improve the files used for filtering each feature film.
Having introduced the contenders, I proceed to list desirable features and give a (obviously subjective) point value to each. Here’s my list:
- Runs on PC’s and Macs: 10 points. If you can run it on a PC or Mac, you can simply attach it to a screen with a cable and you’re set. Slightly more cumbersome than streaming boxes, but more flexible.
- Runs on mobile devices: 5 points. I give less points because they are less powerful than computers and hook up to TVs with greater difficulty, so if you have a computer around you are more likely to use it over the mobile device.
- Runs on streaming boxes: 10 points. Easier than computers but less flexible. It’s really hard, for instance, to run the content of a given service through somebody else’s app or channel.
- Can play local content, whether on a disc or as a file: 5 points. You can always extract a video from a disc to a file using Handbrake or similar software (though it’s tedious) and likely you have some content you’d like to watch with a filter. If a service can do this but needs special hardware, it gets no points.
- No subscription: 20 points, 10 points for a cheap one (under $10 a month). It makes no sense to pay more for the filter than for the content.
- Selection of films: 20 points for over 1000, 10 for over 100, 5 for over 50 if it is growing fast (so my very young app gets some points here 😉
- Diversity of sources: 10 points for unlimited sources, 5 for three or more, 0 points for single source, or nearly so. More and more services are developing their own content of have exclusive arrangements with the producers. You really can’t function getting everything from Amazon, even if the number of titles they offer is large.
- Filter granularity: 20 points. It’s not the same to filter for children or filter for adults. One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit anyone and gets zero points. Five extra points for fine-tuning down to specific expletives, which some people seemingly need.
- User-editable and shareable: 20 points. I’m giving a lot of points for this because it allows users to improve the filtering of each title over time. No points for talking about it but not doing it (I was tempted to give negative points on this account).
- Open source: 10 points. This allows more sophisticated users to improve the service itself over time.
- And, of course, being legal: 10 points. Everyone gets this except VidAngel, who still needs to pay a $62M judgment against them (I give them 5 points, though), since the contenders that were found infringing copyrights are not with us anymore.
And here’s the tally:
|ClearPlay||VidAngel||Play It My Way||Skipper Video||VideoSkip|
Unsurprisingly, VideoSkip is the clear winner. This is because I designed the app to score well in the categories that are important to me. If your priorities are different, go ahead and change the scoring template, and see what you get. I value the freedom to edit what I want to skip, which no one else offers with complete control. Most importantly, I want to skip the middle man as well, and nothing but VideoSkip allows me to do that. Like most other apps, it doesn’t support streaming boxes at the moment. Only VidAngel runs on streaming boxes, so if that’s a must, you’ve got your winner, especially if it manages to emerge from bankruptcy and pay off its considerable fines. VideoSkip only counts a little over 50 titles in its Exchange website at the moment, but the number is growing quickly because every user can produce edits, not just a few paid individuals.
So take VideoSkip for a spin and pass the word if you like it (or even if you don’t 😉
Update Jan/21: Version 0.3 of VideoSkip has just been released, sporting a simpler interface and automatic syncing of skips for sources that the skip file has seen. The title count at the Exchange has reached 140, thus making it the 3rd service in number of movies after surpassing Play It My Way, and keeps on growing quickly. Thanks to all the folks involved, who are making this happen.