What I learned from a failed iPad app

About a year ago, I thought I’d build a small news app that played a series of videos from youtube- a news channel for people without cable. Fortunately, in the mean time, someone built this. There are several interesting possibilities from this – to see news that is not normally available in your country, and to customize news to fit your interests. For example, I included RIT’s feed (my alma mater) and through this I discovered that Al Jazeera covers news from countries I hear about often but in mostly hypothetical terms.

I pulled data from the official youtube feeds of about 50 news agencies, applied some heuristics based on length, licensing, and subject, and played the output. All this work is done on a web server ahead of time on a regular basis, as it is time-consuming. I consider this a failure because I never finished it, but ran into several large, interesting problems that seem worth sharing.

Youtube’s HTML5 video does not seem to be quite there- often a video would load part way and lag, when the Flash version did not. My guess is that less popular videos need to be converted into a different format on the fly. This could be addressed by pre-caching videos on my web-server.

If the contracts you must sign to use Apple’s ecosystem weren’t enough to make your head spin, Youtube’s API returns several flags which you must follow to limit which videos are shown. One indicates a video won’t work in HTML5, another indicates videos are not allowed to be “embedded” (played outside youtube.com). Additional restrictions prevent so-called mobile devices from playing content from specific publishers – e.g. the New York Times and Reuters do this. Unfortunately the language a video is in is not well-defined, which means you must stick to publishers that use only languages you know.

I suspect that publishers like this restriction – there may be technical issues for youtube that limit the display of advertising on embedded HTML5 videos. Youtube’s terms of service understandably prevent a third party putting ads next to a video, removing one possible model for recurring revenue (a necessity given the headaches of supporting a web server long-term).

Since working on this project, I’ve made one of my employer’s products support iPad, and found that some of the local web shops have added iOS offerings to their existing mix of web design, CMS systems, etc. As a final note, my father in law, who barely types, loves coming to our house and using an iPad to watch news clips, so this is definitely an area of wide interest.