Welcome to DiskYT
Сегодня я расскажу тебе новую сказку.*
I wish I could squint hard enough and tell you that playlists were front and center of the DiskYT grand vision from day one. Except they were not. In fact, even YouTube itself came into the picture much later. It all started with a simple music player. But first things first.
If I am from a late baby boomer generation, then my parents are from the silent generation and computers were always somewhat a mystery for them. And not only that, English was not their native language either, so it was yet another barrier for them on a computer. Being a software developer by trade I always wanted to make some simple customized tools for them, including some sort of a music player. I tried it many times and the result was always subpar. They were thankful, but did not really use it. Until one day, I decided to use the program they were most familiar with – the browser. And it suddenly clicked. In fact, they quickly forgot who made it - they just used it. You know that warm feeling when they show you a product that you created and praise it. The feeling when you know that they listen to your player every day and feel comfortable with it. Trust me, after the age of 80, people sometimes forget much simpler things. That was incredible and made me think, how to make it even better, how to make it available to more people.
It is no surprise that YouTube by now is one of the biggest collections of everything, including music. So I thought, what if while keeping a familiar player layout, make YouTube itself a source of music and not their local collection of mp3 files. Of course, I knew that YouTube supports channels and playlists, however my problem with YouTube is that it supports also much, much more. There is always way too much going on any given YouTube page. It recommends you something, it shows you something, it is busy and noisy. And it also changes over time. All in all, not exactly the experience I was after. YouTube however provides what is called an embedded player that you may include on any other web site, making YouTube available outside of the YouTube site itself. This was god sent. I replaced the song source with YouTube, bought a domain (GrandPhonograph.com) and bookmarked the site on my parents’ computer.
It worked, but the change was not as dramatic, from their perspective. They obviously did not care where the music comes from. For me though it was good enough and I switched to some other projects.
Over time though, two problems started to bother me. First, all YouTube content is constantly in flux and things disappear almost every day. The site however was statically generated and checking and updating broken links was quite a hassle. The static nature of the site also made it less appealing for other people to use. And this is when the DiskYT (pronounced: “disk-it”) journey begins.
DiskYT was not the first site, helping to manage YouTube music. Many other sites came and went before us. But DiskYT also did not even try to compete with anyone. It was just planned as a more convenient version of GrandPhonograph, where you can easily add stuff from YouTube and edit it as necessary.
The first big question for DiskYT was how to make the whole flow less laborious and more fun. Manual links copy/paste did not look like much fun. Fortunately, by now most modern browsers support tried and tested drag and drop. Yes, it is not exactly a mobile friendly feature, but for the desktop/laptop browsers it is a fantastic feature. With drag and drop the whole concept started to make much more sense.
Interestingly enough, once you start building, you see more and more cool features that can be added. The best part is that you do not need anybody’s approval - just do it. And use whatever technology you find handy. It is really liberating. Pretty soon things started to take shape into something cohesive. The whole project grew and more and more features were added. My parents were obviously not the target audience for DiskYT, however luckily I found another devoted customer. My son Jacob found DiskYT to be cool and started to build his own collection of YouTube music. Not exactly the widest audience, but it feels good when at least one person likes your product. What was even better Jacob became instrumental in making video tutorials for the project.
There was one big problem with DiskYT though. It was just a side project and you can devote only so much time to it. (Another big problem is your budget, which is even more limiting, but that is secondary while you are building the product. On a shoestring budget it is hard to have a decent visual design and it is even harder to market your baby). Luckily (or should I say unluckily) my position in a big American company was terminated (I am in Canada) and I suddenly had enough time on my hands to finally finish the project. Enough time is of course a relative thing, as soon after you need to start to look for another job and the routine resumes.
As with many projects, DiskYT started as a pet project, there was no market research made upfront and no clear vision of what would be the final product. I was just adding features that looked cool to me. Honestly speaking, Jacob was oblivious to all the frills, beyond the basic functionality, so it was not clear if any new feature made any sense.
The process looked something like this:
- Let’s try to add a collection of audiobooks to a station and see how it goes. Oops, there is a lot of noise in how things are named. OK, let’s add search and replace feature to fix that.
- Let’s split all the books into separate playlists. Oops, it’s inconvenient to drag things across playlists, when many playlists don’t fit on a single screen. OK, let’s provide some compact view without images.
- But moving many titles manually becomes quite laborious. OK, let’s add support for scripting and automate the routine operations.
- Let’s add all the videos already hosted on GrandPhonograph. OK, even more automation is required.
- And on and on …
This process of constant improvements definitely contradicts the minimal viable product mantra, but I was doing it nevertheless. You know, engineers sometimes just cannot stop (especially if they have some time).
At the same time, I started to look at the YouTube playlist landscape. Surprisingly it looked very unsatisfying for many YouTube users. Managing playlists was rather rigid and inconvenient; many useful features were dropped over time due to limited demand. During recent YouTube changes, many features were broken and stayed broken for some time. There was also a problem with YouTube playlists being deleted by YouTube - sometimes on purpose and sometimes apparently by mistake. That looked very promising for DiskYT. Having DiskYT as a backup would allow many users to hedge the risk of their playlists being deleted irreversibly.
By September 2017 I posted a few announcements and started to promote DiskYT on the YouTube forum. On the first day, the DiskYT site was called suspicious and I was blamed in fishing attacks. Not exactly a warm welcome, but, hey, that is the Internet. The original DiskYT version supported only social login via Google and Facebook and some people were understandably cautious to try the site. (I actually expected that to be a problem, but my kids assured me that that is a totally acceptable thing by now). To somewhat rectify the problem I just added a simple name/password login to make things easier for the paranoids among us (being paranoid myself I totally share the sentiment).
While working on the website it became quite apparent, that a companion mobile app would be helpful as well. It is just much more convenient to use a dedicated app instead of a browser. I had zero experience with developing for mobile, so it took a while to figure out how to slap together even a simple app. I had neither a Mac computer around nor an iPhone, so the iPhone app was skipped for now.
One of the problems with modern technology is that things change rapidly and if you jump between different projects, next time you return to a project the technology landscape may have changed drastically and many things would require a major overhaul, slowing the release process even more. This is not a problem in a company, but when you act solo, being in charge of many constantly changing things becomes a challenge.
At some point you just need to stop worrying about too many things on your plate, release the product and wait for the customer feedback, to see if anybody cares. And this is exactly what I did by September 2017 – the site was announced (it was publicly available long before that) and the app was finally released.
Let the game begin!
* Hello, my friend. Settle in comfortably. Today I’ll tell you a new story. (from Russian kids show from 70-90s).