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Commentary: Apps, Plug-Ins, and Old-School Players

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All I wanted to do was keep an eye on the turkey.

More specifically, I was hoping to see Jose Castillo's annual live stream of the Thanksgiving Day turkey fry, complete with goggles and the odd looking pink toboggan hat that I'm sure his wife insisted he wear.

Unfortunately, though, I was stuck in the land of dial-up on Thanksgiving, and only had my trusty 3G iPhone.

Siglin Apps 2So I pulled up the URL on the iPhone and was greeted with the "you don't have Flash" warning at Ustream.tv, meaning that I couldn't watch the video via the web browser. No surprise there, so I Facebooked Jose to ask for pictures instead, to which he replied with a variation of the most-heard line in all of mobile computing:

"Pull down the Ustream app to watch it!"

There's an app for that is certainly a popular saying, one that I've used myself when someone asks whether a particular smartphone or tablet device has a particular built-in feature.

So, like any self-respecting geek, I went out and pulled down the app, in this case the Ustream Viewer (as opposed to the Ustream Broadcast app).

The first time I fired it up the app, I was met with a cryptic message:

"This new version of Ustream's popular viewing application supports a new streaming format. The transition to this new technology can result in some previously recorded streams not being viewable on the iPhone temporarily. We are working to resolve this issue as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience!"

I think this means there's a transition underway to HTML 5 playback (for iOS devices) that would use H.264, but I haven't heard back from my press request to Ustream to verify.  Regardless, I clicked OK and then started to search for the event.

Turns out the Ustream viewer only lets you see a few of the live streams, and only lets you search for a few others. Since Jose's thinkjose account wasn't among those that were in the search mix, each attempt to search returned a "no results" query when I tried to find the live stream.

I verified, a few days later, that the regular website would allow me to type in the account name and find the information I'd seen on my iPhone browser, as Safari functions consistently between the mobile and desktop browsers.

Siglin Apps 1It struck me as odd that the app would be more limited than the web version, so I dropped by the iTunes feedback area, and found a deluge of complaints about the limited search capabilities from iPhone users who are effectively cut off from viewing the content with their mobile browser and the official Ustream Viewer app.

Akamai's president, David Kenny, last week stated the company's position that apps offer an advantage over traditional streaming, in terms of security and bandwidth benefits, but I have to wonder if there's any thought being given to the benefits of the user experience.

On reflection, I also wonder if we aren't reverting back to a world we fought so hard to rid ourselves of: the world of the stand-alone player, each with its idiosyncratic quirks and inconsistent user experience.

Think about what we're facing with the onslaught of apps: instead of one or two players to view content in, the victors in the player wars of a few years ago, we're now faced with dozens of apps that we have to keep on our mobile devices. And, to make matters worse, the user experience on each app will be different, from the basics of content availability to the basics of user interface design.

In the end, we may have to have an app to meta-crawl all the other apps, telling us which-if any-app a chosen video stream can be played back on.

Another anecdote from the same timeframe drives the point home even further.

I received a message from an older colleague who asked my advice on a number of the set-top and over-the-top boxes, including Boxee, Roku, GoogleTV and Apple TV.  He wanted to know which to buy, so I replied by asking what he planned to do with it.

"I want to watch Hulu and channels like it, Vimeo, and perhaps Youtube," he responded, adding, "I often stream videos from three websites, and I want to stream from my Mac to my TV. I would probably use Netflix or some similar service-I am not now. Basically, I want to be able to watch Internet videos on my TV."

When I thought about this, I had to ask myself whether a) I had the time to break down all these requirements by box type and b) whether it was even feasible to do all of these things on any one box.

So I punted and suggested he just hook his Macbook laptop up to the TV.

"I can and have hooked up the Macbook to the TV and it works," he replied. "But it is a hassle-one cable to the TV, two cables to the audio. Wires, wires, everywhere wires."

That about sums it up, except I see apps, apps, everywhere apps. Somehow the wires look like the lesser of two evils.

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