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Native mobile applications present a unified product front for PBS

For PBS, providing the best viewer experience has required a lot of native mobile application development.

For some companies, video is a small part of their marketing efforts. For the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), video is their bread and butter. PBS is a large nonprofit television network that has kept up with disruptions in the media industry by making large portions of their video content widely available on the Web. For PBS, providing the best viewer experience has required a lot of native mobile application development.

iPhone Apps with iPhone

According to Matt McManus, ‎senior product manager of Web, mobile and over-the-top content at PBS, the effort to modernize content delivery at PBS started with flash players to support video streaming on their website. Today, that effort includes mobile applications on a growing number of mobile and entertainment devices. The mobile strategy at PBS still relies heavily on the Web, but they've found it's important to provide native mobile applications for all new platforms they support.

McManus said there are two major challenges for PBS Interactive, an internal department of PBS that covers content delivery on platforms other than traditional TV. The first is the technical challenge of providing for many different platforms. The second is the design challenge of maintaining a unified look and feel for the entire set.

Providing a smorgasbord of mobile app options

"Providing our content on as many platforms as possible is a big goal for PBS Interactive," so their efforts need to "scale across many platforms." PBS doesn't want to spend too much time fixing mature services if it can be helped. The broadcast company wants to maximize the effectiveness of content presentation efforts to expand the audience it reaches.

The increasing number of platforms presents challenges as well as opportunities.

The increasing number of platforms presents challenges as well as opportunities. To some extent, McManus' job is a balancing act between the different platforms. "It's tempting to get stuck on adding features for just one particular platform, but it's better to spend time on cross-platform features that have higher value."

He says the largest single factor in deciding between different platforms is the size of the market segment. "The more users there are on the platform, the more likely that we'll hit our own internal growth KPIs," he said. In fact, McManus said the most important thing to focus on is "identifying the right platforms and understanding the users there so you can cater to them."

"We focused on building the best video player we could for each platform because that's what delivers the most value to our customers," said McManus. With an optimized video player in place for a particular device platform, McManus said going for a fully native app is "just a matter of putting in the extra 10%."

Maintaining consistent UI design

The way that different users interact with the content might not be the same. For instance, a user watching from the Roku box in their living room will likely expect higher video quality and accept slightly longer load times as compared with an iOS user accessing content on the go. Most of PBS Interactive's users agree on three things, though. McManus said they "just need it to be simple, fast and easy to use."

The big design challenge is using the best parts of each platform while keeping all the mobile apps consistent with their backend capabilities. "We have mobile apps, desktop Web browsers and connected TV apps all reaching into the same backend content management system," said McManus. Each platform version has to be optimized for its particular audience, but it also has to pull video from the same basic server API.

Optimizing for each separate platform doesn't just mean tweaking video presentation settings. There are also user interface design choices to consider. McManus said he wants every PBS Interactive app to feel like a PBS app at heart in a user's hands and that each app also has to perform the ways users of that platform expect it to. "The Android app should work like an Android app and feel like a PBS app, while the iOS app should work like an Apple app and feel like a PBS app," he said.

The case against a single Web application

In order to provide the widest coverage possible, PBS could have provided a fully Web-based application. That way, anything with a browser can access the application via constantly improving Web standards. Any new functionality they produce will benefit all platforms more or less equally. There's no need for one-off projects to make any one platform work.

But, there's a big tradeoff there. Because the Web-based approach only deals with the browser, it loses out on the optimization that a native app could take advantage of.

For PBS, that loss of quality would be unacceptable. Because video is the main drive for their application, PBS Interactive decided taking a more native approach would provide more ability to optimize the video delivery.

McManus also noted that organizations with less focus on video might not want to develop native mobile applications. "Our whole product is video presentation," he said, "and that's something you can only optimize so much via the Web."

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Do you think developing native mobile applications is worth the extra challenges?
I love the PBS app and use it regularly to watch truly great programming. Unfortunately, since the newest version came out, it crashes whenever I try to select the "show" section to see the list of all shows you can view in the app. So I can only select things from the "Featured" or "Favorites" sections.