More on FRONTLINE’s Android Plans

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My post last week on our app’s Android strategy got more attention than I was expecting – most notably in this Slashdot thread that sadly had people thinking I was discussing a PBS app (this is being built for FRONTLINE.) I want to clarify what we’re doing with our FRONTLINE app and respond to some of the ideas we’ve heard in the comments.

More Than Just Video

From the beginning of this process we’ve focused on building a larger experience around our films – attaching related artifacts, exposing more source materials and telling stories alongside the film itself. A good example is last week’s amazing series written by A.C. Thompson as part of our collaboration with ProPublica called Life and Death in Assisted Living. We want these types of features to be as integrated with the film as possible in order to present the project as a single coherent work. And mixed into this experience we want to experiment with nonlinear ways of storytelling. At the risk of sounding like a press release, we’re building a platform for the future development of FRONTLINE.

But rest assured, this will not be the only way you can watch FRONTLINE. PBS has a fine iPad application which allows you to watch a selection of our films and their newly redesigned PBS Video portal uses responsive technology to let you watch our films on desktop computers, tablets, phones and Roku devices. Many of our films are available on commercial video streaming services like Amazon Instant Video and Netflix. And finally we’re in the process of moving our web site to use responsive design. Thus whether you use Android, iOS, a desktop computer or a media extender you’ll be able to watch FRONTLINE.

Adapting to Screen Sizes

A great deal of the criticism of the last post was around the idea that we’d want to design to specific screen sizes. Between our internal experience building flexible web designs and the flexibility offered in Android SDK for layouts, the adaptation itself is not a huge technical issue. However, it continues to be a considerable design and testing problem — and ultimately the user experience is what suffers. I use a Nexus 7 tablet regularly and even on fairly mainstream applications there are elements that don’t work well as compared to the phone versions of the same app on a Nexus 4 or HTC One.

Specifically because we’re looking for more than simple video playback that means there’s likely to be modes with more video interaction than you would be in simply clicking play and sitting back to watch. We’re still in the product definition phase but that’s the scope for a lot more exploring — the places where your fingers land are much more important if you’re going to be interacting with the screen often. That alone makes the flexible design parts much harder even if we limit our support to only a few resolutions.

Time Has a Cost

There’s no question that these are solvable problems. A lot of the criticism leveled at the post (particularly on Slashdot) was that all it takes is a good developer and that other brands like Netflix have managed to do this. These are both true; if we had more developers we could absolutely build and release the app simultaneously on all platforms.

So it becomes a question of priorities: Do we build an application that is simple and largely duplicative of what’s already available? Or do we build something more limited in technical scope and ambitious in terms of ideas first, learn from that and apply what works more widely? We believe the latter is the way to go.

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