How to Get Your Video on As Many Devices as Possible
“Part of Flash’s value proposition is that Flash Player is available on over 98% of internet-connected PCs, delivering a consistent video experience,” says Alan Tam, Adobe’s Flash Platform senior product marketing manager. “Flash Player operates not only across device and desktop operating systems and browsers but also multiple versions of each. So if you are an app developer wanting to achieve maximum reach and consistency for your content across screens, developing with Flash is a must. We also offer encoding tools and a strong video ecosystem that allow you to serve a number of bitrates, in line with your client’s distribution scheme.”
Web Is Web, and Mobile Is Mobile, and Never the Twain Shall Meet
It was British poet Rudyard Kipling who wrote, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Given that he wrote this in the late 19th century, Kipling wasn’t allegorically alluding to the two worlds of mobile and web content. But he might as well have been, for our purposes, because the same holds true: Apps and sites that work well on the web don’t necessarily look good in mobile—and vice versa.
“One of the most common oversights app developers make is not taking the differences between desktop and mobile hardware and bandwidth into account,” says Adobe’s Tam. “Today’s PCs/Macs, tablets, and internet-connected TVs have access to a variety of broadband connections and often gigabytes of memory. Unfortunately, 3G and 4G smartphones today do not have that class of hardware available. The result is an experience that works great on the web, but not on a mobile device as it may be disrupted by re-buffering or it may not even load at all. And when this happens, the result is that the user abandons the content or site and goes elsewhere.”
Speed and memory are not the only differences between the web and mobile; screen size is also an issue. “You have to program for the environment you want to support,” says Boxee’s Kippen. “Graphics that look great on a monitor or TV are often far too small for a mobile device. Meanwhile, the simpler graphics interface that suits an iPhone or Android [device] is just too big and plain for a web-connected viewer. To keep them happy, you have to provide apps that are optimized for both worlds.”
Stay on Top of New Technology … and Be Flexible
The never-ending evolution of new tablets and smartphones means one thing for developers: Keep up or else. You must know what new platforms your clients will have to support in 6 months’ time. And you must help your clients be ready for these new platforms, or some other developer eventually will.
Turner Sports’ Scott says, “We do our best to stay on top of new platform developments. The key is to be flexible. As an app developer, you have to be ready to adapt what you have to serve new platforms. But you can’t serve them if you don’t know what’s coming down the pipe.”
Being flexible can take nerves of steel, but it is the only way to survive in a chaotic tech environment that is frankly confusing and chaotic. “Two years ago there were barely any mobile devices that supported streaming video, and now virtually all do,” says Tim Davis, director of digital at jacAPPS. “Twelve months ago, HTML5 was obscure and uncommon. It was all about H.264 and Flash—‘When is Flash coming to the iPhone?’ And now Flash is all but cut out of the iPhone market, and Apple is promoting HTML5. BlackBerry and Android, however, haven’t taken that attitude by any stretch. And Adobe certainly isn’t backing off.”
The moral: It is impossible to predict where the streaming media market is going. Staying informed and being ready to adapt to what’s new is your best chance for success.
Do What You Can to Promote Standardization
On his or her own, an app developer is not going to be able to set streaming media standards. But in league with other developers, content providers, and device manufacturers, progress is possible. It is also desirable, if history is any indicator. HDTV is standardized. See how well it has done? AM stereo wasn’t standardized, and where is it today?
For the uninitiated, AM stereo was a technology that allowed near-FM quality stereo audio to be carried on AM radio signals. Developed in the 1980s, AM stereo failed because the Federal Communications Commission refused to select an official standard. This left a group of incompatible unofficial standards to duke it out. Even though many AM stations went stereo and some receivers were made available, the lack of standards meant that AM stereo died—even though it worked!
This isn’t to say that unstandardized streaming media apps will go the way of AM stereo. This isn’t likely, given the proven popularity of the web. But there is little doubt in Peter Scott’s mind that life would be easier for everyone if the streaming media industry worked together to create common standards.
“HDTV shows the power of standardization,” he says. “You have one basic video standard available in 1080i or 720p, and the result is compatibility among all HDTV receivers in the U.S. Imagine if the same was true for streaming media? It would be so much easier for everyone to distribute and receive content—thus driving the growth of the sector to everyone’s benefit.”
In the absence of official standards, even the informal adoption of open source standards such as HTML5 is a step in the right direction. Similarly, content providers should be discouraged from allying themselves with proprietary technologies wherever possible.
Stay Focused, and Don’t Forget Job No. 1
Chaos notwithstanding, a developer’s fundamental No. 1 job is to create great apps and sites. Not only should they look great, but they need to work no matter how the user uses them. They also have to be intuitive and easy to use. In other words, they have to work.
This mantra drives app development at Jacobs Media, which has mobile apps that are currently used by hundreds of radio stations. “We are developing for Windows Mobile 7 right now and don’t feel under pressure to move quickly, even though it’s been on the market for two months,” says Paul Jacobs. “The only rush is to make sure that our apps function properly. The timing is secondary.”
The Big Picture
The battle to “get your video on every device” is part of the larger streaming media challenge. In this article, we have looked at the software aspects of this issue, but there are other aspects that need to be considered during app development.
Take content: Even if you develop the most tech-agnostic app possible, it won’t gain traction if people aren’t interested in the content it serves. So be sure to ask clients about the specific content they want to offer—and who it is targeted to.
Knowing the intended audience will influence how your app or site looks and functions. For instance, an app aimed at an aging Baby Boomer crowd might benefit from incorporating virtual controls that mimic devices they are familiar with, such as car radios and TV remotes.
In contrast, an app aimed at 20-somethings should reflect the digital interfaces they are accustomed to. Can you say “iPod”?
The content being served has to work with the technology it is being served to. So it bears repeating that “web is web and mobile is mobile.” Be sure that your apps and sites properly support each. Also, remember that file size counts, even on the web. People like sites that load quickly and video that just works; never keep them waiting!
If your app is a “me too” app—and these days this is the case for most streaming media apps—you need to ensure that it is both familiar
and innovative: familiar in that it should reflect interfaces and layouts that consumers are already comfortable with in similar apps, and even expect, and innovative in that it should offer something extra in terms of functionality, ease of use, or just plain “cool factor.”
Apps should also be adaptable so that they can serve new devices as they appear. Remember the need for flexibility! Your client will not want to start from scratch every time the newest iPad-type sensation hits the marketplace. It may not be possible to future-proof an app, but it is possible to devise apps that can be adapted easily to new platforms.
Finally, remember that ultimately it’s about serving streaming media to consumers, not looking uber-cool or impressing other developers. When in doubt, go for simple, clean, and functional. This will encourage people to use your app and, thus, access your client’s content. That’s what will make your clients happy—and keep you working.