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ThE MaStEr

Get set for the tablet revolution

AKQA executive creative development director Andy Hood argues that tablet computers will be instrumental in transforming TV consumption.

Apple's iPad crashed into our lives earlier this year and began to turn the digital world upside down. As a beautifully styled device, it offered consumers a new and hugely engaging way to interact with content, applications and the web. Those of us who deliver such content, however, were left trying to determine how consumers would actually use the device. One immediately obvious thing is how easy it is to use the iPad for just casually browsing the web, checking your email, etc. It's far more comfortable to crash on the sofa with an iPad than with a laptop, and a far superior experience to surfing on a phone.

The other device generally switched on during such couch-surfing is the television, and it should probably come as no surprise that a major trend is for TV viewers to be increasingly engaged with something else on another device at the same time. Known as 'dual-screening,' this can encompass browsing websites, shopping, chatting with friends on Instant Messenger or spending time on Facebook. US figures from In-Stat suggest that more than 66 million people were using a PC and watching TV simultaneously last year. Devices such as the iPad will only escalate this trend. And the forthcoming avalanche of lower-cost Android tablets from the likes of Samsung, HTC and Toshiba will enable people for whom an iPad would be a luxury purchase, if affordable at all, to enter the world of the tablet device and such 'casual computing.'

The Holy Grail is, of course, a situation where the online activity viewers are engaged in is directly related to the television programme they are watching. The BBC did this particularly well with its game for The Apprentice - viewers could predict who would be fired and change their choice as the episode progressed. Better still if the digital activity can affect the broadcast itself in some way. Even if all they are doing is using Facebook or Twitter, much of that conversation relates to the programme viewers are watching at the time. They are no longer mere 'viewers,' they have become active participants.

Recently, of course, Apple relaunched Apple TV and Google TV was demonstrated at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Germany. How do these platforms affect online and TV consumption of programming? Well, it's early days yet, but we ought to be looking forward to content being easily transferable from device to device, enabling it to be watched and experienced within the viewer's location. For example, a TV episode can be watched on the train via a tablet or smartphone, and then seamlessly continued on the TV in the home at the end of the journey. TV is becoming an integrated part of the general consumption of media, rather than a distinct and separate experience - and smartphone and tablet content is at the heart of this transformation.

So how is all this content produced? Well, with the focus so much on the iPad, developers create applications using Apple's ObjC language (up to now, pretty much the only solution worth pursuing). With Android ownership already catching up fast and set to gather further market share with the forthcoming tablet releases, however, it is an audience that simply cannot be ignored. We are also set for the imminent launch of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7, adding to the market fragmentation. Android apps are developed in Java and Windows Phone 7 apps in Silverlight. We face a situation where apps need to be developed several times, dramatically increasing the cost of development. Or do we?

One thing Apple has done is to rapidly escalate the proliferation of HTML5 skills with its banishment of Flash. As it happens, apps can be developed using HTML and JavaScript - they run in the browser of the phone or tablet device, but are indistinguishable from apps written natively (in ObjC for iPhone and iPad, or Java for Android). Web apps, as they are known, have their icons on the homescreen and are purchased from the app store/marketplace just as native apps are. Web apps cannot access device features such as photo library, contacts and device motion, but for the most part it is possible to develop apps that can run perfectly well on the different platforms, with a few alterations.

A recent survey shows that most people believe they will be watching all TV via the internet or digital TV recorder within five years. And they will be doing that using smartphones, tablets, internet-ready TVs, laptops and products such as Boxee, Plex and both Apple and Google TV. We need to be able to deliver our content to all of these devices with minimal redevelopment, and we need to enable each of them to work together in an integrated way, not as separate experiences.

With such integration across different devices and media, television programming itself will need to adapt. We should not be left wondering how we are going to keep enabling arbitrary digital interaction with existing programming formats - we should be creating new formats fully integrated with different platforms and channels for a new audience of active participants.


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