At WWDC, The Mac Observer’s Dave Hamilton had a chance to sit down with the executives behind the ABC Player app for the iPad: Albert Cheng, Executive VP, Digital Media Technology, Disney-ABC Television Group and Skarpi Hedinsson, Senior VP, Digital Media Technology, Disney-ABC Television Group. They discussed how the app came about and some of the challenges they encountered during the development of the app.
TMO: I thought that was a solid keynote. Have you been to a WWDC keynote before?
Mr. Cheng: No, we’ve aways watched it afterwards, streamed. This is the first time we’ve been to one in person. It’s a lot of fun.
TMO: Tell us about the ABC app for the iPad.
Mr. Cheng: First, we’re at about 770,000 downloads of the app — it’s just for the iPad. And we’ve had over 3.8 million episodes viewed. Also, it was completely done in about five weeks time. And we didn’t have an iPad…
TMO: Right. Nobody did. Steve didn’t even give one to Disney?
Mr. Cheng: He didn’t give one to us. [smiling] But, all this really says something about the tools, the SDK we had. Literally, everything was based off that emulator — and it worked!
TMO: It’s gotta be weird developing an app for something you don’t have.
Mr. Hedinsson: I think one of the really tough things was … you’re developing a UI [User Interface], but because you really haven’t held the device, you never get the real experience. So when we finally got the iPad in our hands, that was one of the things that most surprising to us. Just how well it worked. Because we hadn’t really seen it working. There was the feeling, “wow, this is really natural.” So, it’s sort of what we were going for, but it was hard to determine if we had nailed it.
TMO: I talked to some developers who found a very different experience. Not so much from the UI… the UI kinda worked the way everybody envisioned.. It was more like, well, this API worked really well to do “X” in the emulator, and, hmmm, it turned out kinda different on the device.
Mr. Hedinsson: We had some of that. Especially with the orientation, the orientation lock and the code. So … the emulator didn’t fire all the same codes as the hardware did. That was a little bit tricky. That’s why, in the first release, we had to lock it all down … because Apple had told us that the orientation stuff didn’t work during the review process. So we just decided to lock it.
TMO: Aha. That’s why so many apps came out locked! Okay.
Mr. Cheng: And then we did a release a couple of weeks later, once we had the device, that fixed that. So the whole development process was pretty fast. I think it was about three weeks after Steve announced the iPad in January that we actually got down to talking about building a video app. Of course, everyone at the time was saying, this [iPad] is great, but you can’t use Flash. So for us, it was all about: how do we get our videos on this device? The two paths we could have taken were: let’s do everything in HTML5 on the site … or we’d have to do it in the app. Then we found out that HTML5 wasn’t quite ready for the level of ad insertion and monetization that we had to do, so that was part of the reason we went the app route.
Mr. Hedinsson: There’s a difference between, say, pre-roll, short form content, low value content that’s not protected, and, then, our sort of core assets, like Lost. We can’t apply the same standards to those, so we had to be able to protect the content, serve the ads without interference … and that was much easier to do inside the app. It wasn’t easy, but it was technically possible.
That’s one of the things that’s interesting about our app — that makes it different from other apps. It’s sort of this 24 x 7 living, breathing thing. The app is just the face of this machine that sits behind the scenes that’s publishing and cranking out content.
Mr. Cheng: There’s a lot more on the roadmap as we get more feature sets out there, going forward. We definitely get the Mac and Apple systems, places where people are consuming different types of media, so you might as well be there in a pretty profound way.
TMO: In the development process, were you working very closely with Apple? Or was it more of a hands off kinda thing?
Mr. Hedinsson: It was more or less standard operation procedure with Apple. We had a developer relations person. We filed bug reports, just like everybody else. There really wasn’t any kind of special treatment. But if you think about it, we had to build an app from about the middle of February until the end of March [for submission]. So we really had four or five weeks to develop the product, get it engineered, and get it working with all the video so that it was ready the day the iPad was released. In terms of product development, it took us two hours to basically write out the feature set on a whiteboard … it was crazy….
TMO: But that’s good! In a big company, you probably don’t often have an opportunity in your company to do something that fast!
Mr. Cheng: I think it was really kind of thrilling … and cathartic. And we told people we just had no time to make any changes: Here’s the product, here’s what’s going to be in it. Let’s build it.
The most amount of work, and the reasons you haven’t seen this duplicated by other media networks, is how to get the advertising inserted into the content, dynamically. Getting that right, and getting it so that it’s seamless and functional and quick and sort of natural was the majority of the work.
TMO: And you developed all on your own?
Mr. Hedinsson: Sure. We’ve done it before, but it had not been done before for that SDK. Sometimes you’re building something that the engineers behind the SDK just hadn’t thought about. Or they hadn’t envisioned an app like this. So we had to come up with our own creative solutions. But it’s doable.
Mr. Cheng: You know what’s really interesting is that a lot of our competitors out there say, “No, we’re not gonna build for the iPad ‘cause it’s too expensive, we’d have to redo everything.” Or some say “We’re gonna stick with Flash or we don’t think there’s any money in it.” But frankly, at the end of the day, those aren’t reasons to bet against the iPad because it didn’t cost us that much more money to do it, and we actually are making money on this — which is great. Which is what all developers should be doing.
TMO: And build something cool. But ultimately put food on the table.
Mr. Cheng: Right. And we do want to see more media players get in, we just can’t understand why they’re not looking at this.
TMO: [Laughs] You could contract out your services.
Mr. Cheng: I think we’ll let them figure it out. But really, this was incremental to how we do business. It didn’t cost us that much more money; we do all the time. We have the in-house capability. We’ve been able to prove that there’s a sustainable model here, and it’s scalable. We scratched our heads about all those excuses — they’re just not viable answers.
Mr. Hedinsson: We’ve found in our app that people have discovered shows that they’ve never watched before. So this is our new screen. By not having that channel on, we’d be leaving a lot of potential viewership on the table.
TMO: Gentlemen, I really appreciate your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mr. Cheng: I just want to add, here at this developer’s conference, that for us, this is a whole new opportunity for us to do Disney branded applications. We’re looking at bunch of those. The ABC Player was one thing. But we expect to expand on that. In the end, the [idea of an] app provides us with so many opportunities. It’s very exciting.
TMO: Thank you, again!