I have been pretty much undecided about the iPad as a real force in media. It has before it the hardest job any new device can face -- carving a new niche in people's media consumption habits. Where exactly the iPad fits among the current collection of smart phone, TV, desktop and laptop screens is a poser. Is there really enough of a gap among these platforms for a fifth screen? So I was skeptical ... until I brought the thing to bed with me.
Yes, there is room in my life for a fifth screen after all. I am sure that many of the half million iPad owners have already discovered that its real killer app is Netflix. If you are a Netflix subscriber then you can use the iPad app to access your "View Instantly" library of recent and catalog film titles that live on the Web. Even better, you can watch your films in synch with the other screens. I started viewing the fashion industry documentary The September Issue through Netflix on my laptop, picked it up where I left off on my HDTV via Netflix on my Xbox 360, and then finished it off in bed on my iPad. Because all of the video streaming occurs in the cloud Netflix can maintain my queue of titles and bookmark my stop and start points across any platform. My understanding is that I will be able to add my iPhone to the Netflix family shortly.
The screams of joy over this brilliantly seamless video experience can be seen in the iTunes App store where users of the Netflix app rate it an unheard-of 4.5 stars and fill their reviews with a lot of "Holy Cow"s. Yeah, this is what they really paid $500-$700 for.
It almost goes without saying that Hulu is going to kill on this thing when they get around to making an app. The ABC Player app is quite good, as it formats the prime time schedule into a very compelling promotion. According to the Wall Street Journal, ABC's app has been downloaded 205,000 times in the first ten days and viewers watched parts of 650,000 TV episodes. Clorox, Lexus, AT&T and Sears have all run video spots here, and the ad frequency is about five 30-second spots an hour. ABC is planning to allow local affiliates to sell spots as well so that iPad viewers will see geo-located ads.
CBS has created an iPad-specific Web site that parses the programming into more bite-sized morsels, although the site fails at transcoding all of the episodes and back catalog into iPad-ready formats.
But the nets and any video portals that take aim at the iPad and other mobile screens, should note the Netflix experience well. The essence of its magic is not just video on demand from a highly portable TV screen (although that itself is incredibly cool). It really is in the seamlessness and personalization of the experience. That fifth screen becomes all the more attractive when it is personalized and can complement or complete experiences that I also have elsewhere. Stop thinking about how you get your video brand "onto" the iPhone or iPad. Think instead about how you extend your relationship with and knowledge of your viewer onto the next screen.