There's an app for that: the iPad is setting the standard for online video on mobile devices. Here's a look at four of the leading iPad video apps.
The iPad's video options are still growing, however, and there's a lot of untapped potential to stream great content. The magazine and newspaper industries were especially quick to see the iPad's promise, with many offering mobile versions as soon as they possibly could. The reaction from the streaming video world wasn't quite as swift, but there are still several excellent apps for viewing video. In this article, we look at four of the best and show how they came to be.
Great apps can come from surprising places, and they don't all have a team of talented execs and coders behind them. TWiT touch, which delivers video and audio for programs on the This Week in Tech (TWiT) network of shows, was created solely by Ben Deming when he was a high school senior in Tennessee.
Now, Deming isn't on staff with TWiT, he wasn't asked to create the app, and he has never even met Leo Laporte. When he created TWiT touch, the TWiT network already had an official iPad app (called TWiT).
"I was using the official one, and I wasn't too pleased with it," Deming says. "It seemed more like a blown-up iPhone version."
The official TWiT app had a quirky design that Deming didn't care for, and it crashed occasionally. It also lacked some of the functionality found in the TWiT iPhone app, such as on-demand audio and video.
Deming saw the need for a better iPad experience and decided to create his own app. Before doing so, he reached out to TWiT's then-vice president of engineering, Colleen Kelly, for permission. She was completely supportive of the project and told Deming that anyone in the TWiT community could create a related app. Encouraged by her response, he went to work.
Deming was 18 years old and was entirely self-taught when it came to app creation, and the TWiT app was only his second effort. Prior to that, he created Formul8, an iPhone app for accessing math, calculus, chemistry, and physics formulas. His high school, he says, didn't offer much in the way of computer programming, so he had to learn on his own.
"The intellectual level around here, being in the South, those kinds of opportunities don't really present themselves. You have to go out on your own and do your research," Deming says.
The resources in Apple's iPad software development kit helped Deming out. His first step was to use the included interface builder to design mock-ups of how he wanted the app to look. He was able to turn those mock-ups into a working demo with little effort.
"You can pretty much not touch code and have a working interface," Deming says.
To include the live and on-demand TWiT programming in his app, Deming simply needed the URLs for the various streams. That was actually one of the easier steps in creating the app. All he needed were three lines of code per stream. His completed app contains the links for the roughly 20 TWiT network shows. He launched with audio streams only but soon added video. Viewers can watch live or on-demand content and can chat in real time with other viewers.
Creating the app took Deming about 3 weeks, working no more than 4 hours per day. The TWiT community has been encouraging, pointing out a few bugs and things he could improve on--suggestions he used in minor revisions.
While Deming is reluctant to talk money, he says that TWiT didn't ask for any of the profits from his 99-cent app (it's serving ads off the streams, after all) and that his income has been in the low thousands. That's not bad for a homemade app with no promotion behind it.
"[It's] enough to keep a high school student's car filled with gas," he says.
Deming entered the University of Memphis this fall as a freshman. He plans to study computer science and engineering and, perhaps, go on to law school. While he wants software development to stay a part of his life, he doesn't plan on making a career of it.
"If you make it a career, it's something that you're not going to have too much passion for for side projects. If you're spending 8 hours a day coding and doing something at work, would you really want to come home and program and code for another few hours?" he asks.
Not surprisingly, he's already at work on his next creation, a scheduling app for college courses and related events that he plans to use himself.
"I think the best programs come from personal needs," Deming says.
Netflix's streaming video app was so important that some technology journalists called it the iPad's killer app, the breakout star that would convince some people to purchase Apple's new tablet. The app was so important that the company's chief was invited to give Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference keynote address in June to break the story.
"Reed Hastings, our CEO, was on stage with Steve Jobs a couple weeks ago at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference to show the iPhone app that [came out] this summer, and that's another wonderful opportunity for Netflix members to enjoy movies and TV episodes on the device of their choosing," enthuses Steve Swasey, Netflix's vice president of corporate communications.
Netflix's business has changed significantly since the company launched in 1999. But to hear Swasey tell it, this was all part of the plan. The company became known for its DVDs-by-mail service, which stole a lot of business from Blockbuster and other video rental stores. But the entertainment industry changed again when Netflix began offering instant streaming online.
"We always assumed we'd be streaming because we're an internet company. The founders named the company 'Netflix,' not 'DVDs by Mail' for that reason," says Swasey.
More than half of Netflix members currently use the "watch instantly" option, says Swasey. While the company currently ships more than 2 million DVDs per day (a number it expects to rise for another 3 years), the number of streaming customers is growing even faster, as is the number of movies available to stream.
Being able to view any of Netflix's watch-instantly titles on an iPad makes the service that much more valuable, and customers can switch between devices with no hassles. They can start watching a movie on their television, for example, and pick it up in just the right spot on their iPad. Streaming is available over Wi-Fi or 3G connections.
While Netflix refuses to discuss development, video formats, or bitrates, Swasey is happy to extol Netflix's mobile plans, and its union with the iPad.
"Netflix wants to be ubiquitous on whatever screen you watch movies or TV episodes on," Swasey says. "When Apple announced it was developing this iPad, we talked with Apple and agreed we should get Netflix on it. Our engineers did a remarkable job turning out an app so quickly. It was available the day the iPad shipped, and Netflix became the No. 1 downloaded third-party app that weekend. It still continues to be the No. 1 entertainment app on the iPad. It's the wonderful marriage of two brilliant, innovative companies."
While Netflix has become the dominant movie service on the iPad, mSpot Movies is quietly making headway in the a la carte market. It offers $2 or $3 rentals that stream instantly over Wi-Fi or 3G connections. Viewers can also sign up for a $10 per month service that gets them four movies per month. The a la carte library contains 1,500 movies, many of them new releases. The club library holds 600 titles (the number is limited by studio licensing rights issues).
mSpot had a long history streaming music and movies before the iPad came along. Its services are used on 10 cellular carriers in the U.S. and Canada, and it streams to 6 million customers. It's been streaming movies to mobile devices since 2006, when it began working with Sprint delivering movies to feature phones. It carries movies from Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Lion's Gate, Disney, and more.
The company made a breakout move at the end of 2009 when it launched mSpot Movies and began streaming content under its own brand. The service is able to stream to more than 50 different smartphones. As of this writing, the service is still in beta, but that should change by the time this issue is printed.
The mSpot team wasn't one of those specially selected by Apple for advance access to the iPad, so they found out about it like the rest of the world did--during Apple's announcement. The company already offered an iPhone app. Once the team got an iPad in their hands, says Daren Tsui, mSpot's CEO and co-founder, they realized the device's potential for video. They began creating their app at once.
One of the hardest things to get right was finding the optimal mix of quality and stream size. mSpot needed to deliver a stream that looked great on the iPad's large screen but that would still deliver smoothly over a 3G connection. After may blind tests with focus groups, mSpot decided to go with a 512Kbps stream with 24 frames per second.
"We really believe in this world where consumers are going to own multiple devices that could play back media. They're going to have a smartphone; they may have a pad or a slate device; they have a laptop; they have a work PC. Nowadays, there are all these set-top boxes that can support media as well. It's a world of multiple devices all being able to stream and [deliver] video. Imagine that to enjoy media, you have to sync to all these different devices. It's pretty daunting. Thus, we really feel like streaming with a cloud solution is the way of the future," says Tsui.
The app has been launched, but mSpot isn't resting: It's actively creating the service's next features. Tsui would like to add caching, so that even people without a decent connection can enjoy a movie. The service may even find its way to set-top boxes, although Tsui says that's a bit of a stretch since it would mean renegotiating contacts with movie studios. Don't be surprised if it happens, though, as mSpot seems eager to appear on every mobile device and to spread its service far and wide.
"Our mantra here is that we want to offer entertainment across a lot of different platforms. The iPad happens to be one of those," says Tsui.
When the iPad was announced, ABC's digital media team leaped into action, creating an app in 5 weeks so it would be ready when the device launched. The fact that they got it right from the start is a testament to the quick and thorough brainstorming that took place. What's surprising is that it's still the only network app for streaming current shows.
The iPad is ideal for television streaming, but television networks have been slow to embrace it. While nearly every broadcast and basic cable network streams video from its website, ABC is the only one (as of this writing) to create its own app. The nearest competitor is Hulu Plus, but that's hampered by a $9.99 monthly fee.
The team at ABC began creating their app as soon as Steve Jobs announced the iPad, and they did it without an actual iPad in hand, using only a software emulator.
Led by Albert Cheng, executive vice president for digital media at Disney-ABC Television, the team began by making a list of what viewers wanted, removing anything superfluous. They asked themselves how viewers would discover shows and what kind of playback experience people would embrace. In they end, they decided on a simple weekly schedule interface as being the most intuitive. The planning session took 2 hours and was deliberately kept short so that more time could be given to engineering.
Cheng's team already knew about adaptive bitrate streaming, thanks to the company's website streaming. But there was plenty that was new to them. For one thing, they had to learn the iPad SDK, which was constantly being changed by Apple right up until the iPad launched.
While the team considered offering website streaming that would play on the iPad, they abandoned the idea when they learned that HTML5 didn't support midroll ad insertion but could only do preroll. HTML5 might be great for short-form videos, Cheng says, but it's not ready for premium entertainment.
The ABC Player was an immediate hit. By the end of June, it had streamed more than 4.5 million episodes and had been downloaded more than 850,000 times. Cheng's team isn't quitting while they're ahead, though: They have some major improvements in store for the app--ones that will meet many users' requests. While Cheng won't say exactly what's coming, look for a new version around the time ABC's new fall shows debut.
Troy Dreier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior associate editor of Streaming Media and OnlineVideo.net.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2010|
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