When Apple showcased the future of Messages at WWDC on Monday, many were surprised to see a relic of the internet’s past.
JibJab, one of the apps housed in the revamped Messages, allows users to add their face to an animated gif that they can text to their friends.
When Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi demoed the new app, many asked, “What’s JibJab?” But others instantly recognised JibJab as the startup behind political parody videos that went viral during the 2004 election.
JibJab was founded in a Brooklyn apartment in 1999, but didn’t make it big until it released an animated video of Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry singing a parody of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
The video amassed 5 million views in the first week and 80 million views in total. Late ABC anchor Peter Jennings anointed JibJab’s cofounders Gregg and Evan Spiridellis as the “People of the Year.”
“Without question, [“This Land” has] been singularly the most widely viewed political ad in 2004,” Larry Purpuro, the Republican National Committee’s deputy chief of staff, told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. “Any time you have a single communication watched by an estimated 50 million people, you’re talking about serious influential impact.”
But after a few more viral videos, JibJab faded into obscurity.
Until Apple called.
What has been JibJab doing in the meantime?
“We built the business on using the newest digital forms,” Greg Spiridellis, a former Wall Street banker who serves as JibJab’s CEO, told Tech Insider. “We initially started producing short-form viral videos, and it was because YouTube was so popular.”
But YouTube videos eventually stopped bringing in the bucks. As Spiridellis told Recode in 2014, the company only made $20,000 in revenue for 10 million video views.
So, JibJab shifted its focus to new digital forms. First, it created technology to allow users to insert themselves into eCards and videos that could be shared on social networks.
But then, in 2014, after seeing the success of emojis and the birth of a number of messaging apps like WeChat and GroupMe, JibJab decided to focus on content shared within messages. JibJab released a mobile app that allowed users to create personalised gifs they could copy and paste into text messages.
“That was the bet we made,” Spiridellis told Tech Insider. “And it seems to paying off.”
Enter Facebook and Apple
JibJab’s messaging efforts didn’t really pay off until it partnered up with Facebook in 2015. The JibJab for Facebook Messenger app allowed users to create gifs within the Messenger app without the hassle of copy/paste.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the new feature at 2015’s F8 Conference with a gif of himself playing guitar.
At the time, Spiridellis told the Tech Times that he expected other messaging platforms to follow Facebook’s lead.
“Other messaging platforms are trying to create all the experiences in-house, but Facebook has empowered a global network of creators to build really amazing experiences for their users just like they did on the Web,” he told the Tech Times. “I think other messaging platforms will have no choice but to open up to third-party developers if they want to be able to compete.”
And, he was right.
Now, Apple is looking to take on Facebook Messenger with its revamped Messages, and the new Messages app from Apple includes a slew of third-party apps, including Seamless and JibJab.
“When we learned about Messages, we threw our product roadmap out the door and rebuilt it,” Spiridellis said. “When Apple calls and offers you to be a chance of a new product release, you jump at it.”
Spiridellis said he was barred by a non-disclosure agreement from commenting on when Apple reached out or what the collaboration looked like. But he did say that JibJab was developing new content for Messages, which he predicted would be out by fall.
“Apple is controlling the operating system, so we can create really rich experiences with iMessage that we can’t do in other third party messaging platforms,” he said. (JibJab will continue to service Facebook Messenger and its individual app.)
Apple might just be what puts — and keeps — JibJab on the map again.
“Our vision for JibJab is that we want to be the funny button in people’s lives,” he said. “Apple, I think, is going to make that vision that more real.”
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