I have been tossing new phones at this kid since she was 10. She essentially taught me how to use a cell phone. My PC-centric head was not wrapping around the conventions of phone navigation easily back in the day. There is a famous incident in my family when I botched an after-school pick-up because I couldn't figure out how to dial her mother's number on one of the review phones I was using. When I got home, my daughter flipped open the phone and said in disbelief, "That would be the green Send button, Dad. You were using the Cancel key."
And so I learned early on to let her decipher each new phone that came into the house and then show me how to use it later. But one of the things she also taught me was that content matters first and foremost with the mobile generation. She wasn't concerned with what each new phone "could do," so much as "what it could do for her." She immediately customized the screens, wallpapers and ringtones and checked to see what goodies it carried.
The Pre, which I think is a fine phone, underwhelms her because there really is not much on it for her. "Whatever happened to that phone that had SpongeBob on it," she asks when I try to impress her with the Palm Pre's "Today Show" app. She is referring to the first Verizon VCast phone (it even had a telescoping antenna) of five years ago. She sniffs at the tech. Give her the media she wants.
I shrank from the tortured interface on the early VCast, where users had to drill and drill through countless menus to find a clip that took almost as long to buffer as it did to play. She didn't seem to mind. SpongeBob was in there somewhere.
And some of the media providers are starting to step up. In recent weeks, several content brands have deployed apps that get us closer to media-at-your-fingertips. The "Today Show" app from Zumobu I used on the Pre platform is a little too cute for its own good (windows of content swim across the screen) but the opening screen gives you a simple "Watch" button that calls up a video list or a "Listen" button that starts that day's show in audio mode, which is perfect for low bandwidth moments. Once you get beyond the one-button start, the rest of the "Today Show" app interface becomes cluttered, and like a lot of things on the Pre, sluggish.
The immediacy matters, and that is one place where the technology and the content really come together to impress the user. Many reviewers have already praised NPR's new iPhone app because of its staggering depth. Virtually every show and every station is available in this app. It's a superb job of marrying text and audio. Most stories can be read or heard. Every item can be moved easily to a saved content area, so the user can triage headlines in lean-forward mode and then lean back later to consume.
But what really makes this app a must-click is the quick access to the latest hourly radio news report from NPR. Like the recently redesigned Web page for the network, the mobile app puts me one click away from hearing the network's anchor content.
It gets better. When you drill into the specific shows on the schedule, the interface tells you which are on-air now. The next page gives you a button to turn on the live stream or to backtrack to recent stories. This is simply brilliant. Talk about what you want, when you want, how you want it.
After using the PGA Tournament app last weekend and the new Home Shopping Network app (both on iPhone) this week, I am convinced that the well-targeted live stream is going to be extremely powerful. If a user is already tied to a TV brand or event, he will dip into it throughout the day. But the real differentiator, I think, will be how the publisher packages other non-live content around the stream. The PGA app had a live stream and a good collection of highlights.
As with many news providers on the Web, the key here will be speed. How quickly will a provider make past content available on demand? I like the NPR package of live stream bundled with past stories, but most of the older material is from the previous day's broadcast. What we really need to aim for is near-real-time cataloging of previous segments. Ultimately, the user wants a rewind on the live stream.
The Home Shopping Network app is a stunner insofar as it extends that HSN addiction off the TV screen. I was amazed at how quickly I could drop into the stream right from the home page of the app. And while I couldn't see previous segments on demand, I had access to the ordering pages of the last 15 items aired. The item currently on-air is at the top of the list.
When mobile video started several years ago, we all thought this was about getting video content onto a mobile screen. The question was, do we want TV in our pockets? The answers were mixed. A bare live stream? Maybe not. After all, it was video without context and without regard for the situation the user is in. What if I want to drop into CNN during one of the lengthy commercial breaks? Well, then how about a cluttered catalog of clips? Yeah, still, maybe not. Why do I have to drill and drill to find what I want from poorly tagged libraries? OK, let's try something else.
A well designed combination of live and on-demand material, nestled within supporting content that anticipates how and why you would access video content on the go? Yeah, that seems closer.
It was never just about mobilizing other media. It was about why we would want these media out of home and out of office. These apps are starting to think in that direction, putting the media in a set of tools that make mobile sense.
Editor's Note: If you missed Steve's last Mobile Insider in your inbox on Tuesday, find it here.