Friction-free audiences

Sometimes, application development is its own reward. But application distribution is harder, because you have to support people trying to use your application.

Last week MLB.tv started testing a new streaming video architecture for live baseball games. Comments in the forums are rather remarkable. I snipped out some while reading to give you a flavor.

(Background: MLB.TV has provided online viewing for years, and each season they try to improve the service. While their Gameday apps and many interface elements are delivered as SWF, their video production system (capture, editing, titling, compressing, streaming) has been Windows Media. Last year MLB.TV added support for Microsoft’s Silverlight browser plugin, in addition to the prior support for the standalone Windows Media Player. This year they’ve converted their entire video ecosystem over to Flash.)

These quotes come from the MLB.TV weblog and support forum. (I haven’t formally quoted each because most were pseudonymous, but if you wrote a quote and want it removed, just let me know and I will, thanks.) They’re quite positive, but are also representative of the whole.

“I must say, after being a sub since day 1 of mlb.tv, this is BY FAR the best player yet. Very fast, beautiful interface, perfect layout of multi viewing frames.”

“Loved it. Only problem that I saw was the scoreboard was too close to the center of the screen. It should have been more down to the bottom right corner. It got in the way too often. Fantasic picture and coverage. This is exactly what I paid my hard earned money for. Awsome. I can’t wait for the full player. Great job so far.”

“I had some concerns that Flash might be worse than Silverlight, but this is a definite improvement. This looks like its going to be great way to watch the season. Running on Firefox 3.0.7 on Vista 64-bit.”

“Are some occasional glitches, but looks fantastic! Great interface, outstanding quality image. A very welcome change after the 2008 Silverlight/Mosaic disaster!”

“I like the New MLB.com MLB.TV Beta Media player. It’s a nice layout and the video playback is smooth and not grany and jumpy like last year. I hope also the media player is going to be a standard on MLB.com’s main media player.”

“This is looking great! Thanks for all the improvements since last year. I’m having jumpy video problems too, but no worse than it’s been in other years.”

“Agree that the quality is a big step forward – even for non-premium users like me!”

“This looks as if it is going to be a great improvement on last year.”

“Today is my first chance to see the new player and I kind a like it. It works pretty fast, for instance it doesn’t even take a second for the control panel to vanish once you move the mouse out of the window. And although it is only 800k right now, the picture looks better than comparable sources on WMP which is a bit surprising to me.”

“All in all, you guys are doing a tremendous job this year. Even in BETA-stages, this product looks ridiculously cool.”

“I just tried again with IE 7 and it worked. Currently watching on my 50″ with svideo connection on a wireless network. Excellent quality, probably as good as you can get with svideo. very little stuttering, but some of the best streaming video I’ve seen.”

“Probably the best internet video I’ve seen.”

“Hey guys, the new player is incredible. I’m excited!”

The tenor of the forums is quite a bit nicer than last year. The biggest problems are the installation of MLB.com’s optional proxy manager NexDef, the expected streaming tweeks, the desire to work on one monitor while the same computer shows “fullscreen” on a second. But mostly, it just works — the developers can concentrate on new features, not try to fix old issues.

This isn’t a “sis-boom-bah, rah-Flash-rah” kind of affair. It shows a financial calculation which every business must perform.

What is the cost to your audience to hear your message, to use your service?

How many are excluded outright? How many are asked to install something new? How many are then asked to troubleshoot that installation? What are your support costs, your goodwill costs?

It’s true for video publishing, and it’s true for application publishing. How much does it cost your audience to use it?

At a hobbyist level, techblogs can argue about “which syntax is better” or “how many 3D polys” and so on. Those are important issues when you’re making something.

But when you’re trying to distribute something — to make something which is actually used by different people — then removing obstacles from your audience’s path becomes more important.

It’s much easier this year at MLB.TV. Consumer media playback is not an issue. There’s nothing to install for regular viewing, and fewer people are excluded. They can concentrate on actual development, and don’t have to do low-level support.

Audiences come easier when you remove obstacles from their participation. They seek friction-free use.