Outlook: Considerations for Developing Media Applications

This week, I was fortunate enough to hangout at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference, where I ran a workshop on The Business, Strategy, and Marketing of Mobile Applications. I love chatting with folks in the publishing industry both because I am an author and because we’ve found a particular niche in helping clients with media-centric iPad applications since its launch. During my workshop, I promised a follow-up post, addressing common questions that emerged in the workshop, on Twitter, and through my other conversations…so, here we go.

  1. Ebooks versus mobile applications If the resources are available, distributing content both as ebooks and mobile applications offers visibility benefits (see “Multiple mobile applications…” below). For many publishers, however, they simply don’t have the resources (i.e., staffing, budgets, etc.) to make that happen.

So, in these cases, for the most part, ebooks are the right starting points. Mobile applications, however, should be considered for audio and video content or text and graphical content that can be made more interactive (e.g., animated). Good examples are what Penguin Group did with The Pillars of the Earth for iPad and Disney’s TRON : Legacy The Complete Story.

  1. Mobile web versus mobile applications To reduce costs, some look to the mobile web or cross-platform frameworks as the solution to the typically more expensive native mobile development. I have no problem with the mobile web and in fact, for some clients, I recommend they focus on it, depending on the content they have and what their audience is demanding.

My issue, however, is in using a hybrid model offered by cross-platform frameworks, where a native “wrapper” is used for an app that is really just written in HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Without going into specifics, we’ve helped clients migrate off of these frameworks because performance and the user experiences really suffers. So, focus either on developing an optimal mobile web experience or just build a native mobile application but don’t mix the two. If cross-platform and lower costs are primary goals, then the Web is your answer, especially because it’s likely that web developers are already on staff.

  1. Multiple mobile applications versus a master application A less straightforward situation is whether it is better to proceed with developing multiple applications or one “master application” that provides access to an entire content catalog. Even if we look at some of the largest media brands in the App Store, there’s mixed results on how to address this scenario.

On the plus side for multiple applications, there’s an immediate boost in brand visibility when there is more than one title and especially for five or more. A recommended approach for proceeding with multiple applications is to have specific applications for the biggest titles or brands (e.g., PBS has a separate application for PBS NewsHour), including lesser known titles (while still including the top ones) only in a master application.

The benefit of a master application (e.g., Netflix), however, is generally lower costs both in bringing the app to the market but especially in lower ongoing maintenance costs. Again, if budgets are tight, a single, master application is likely the right choice.

  1. Off-the-shelf frameworks versus custom solutions There are a growing number of mobile-specific publishing platforms including Bluefire Reader, Vook, ScrollMotion’s Iceberg, and soon Push Pop Press, that can help serve as off-the-shelf frameworks for creating content-focused mobile applications. Typically, but not always, the costs for these solutions are lower than custom built applications with the downside being that the feature set provided is often “as is.”

While the bottom line for these solutions can be appealing, ensure that what they offer is going to serve your customers and most importantly, compel them to purchase your content. A product that costs you a fraction of what a custom built application would, can still result in a poor investment if you select it solely because it meets budget but not consumer requirements.

  1. Return on investment versus cost of development It’s not cheap to get into the mobile application ecosystem, especially if you are targeting multiple platforms (e.g., iOS and Android). An oft asked question is if spending tens of thousands of dollars for a media application is going to result in an actual return on investment. As a good consultant, my response to this question is with a question, “Can you afford not to invest tens of thousands of dollars in the most explosive market in the economy?”

To answer the question directly, many cannot immediately make their investment back, at least not on an individual, specific application. But, if the development focuses on looking at mobile as the next big platform and not as just another channel, then the initial investment is easily justified. That’s even more true if the mobile application was architected to serve as a framework for more than one application.