Why we build players. A personal view.

Blog post  •  Nov 15, 2012 18:42 GMT

A whole heap of trouble?  The mediaPacker beauty parade



Andrew Nugée, London.  For as long as I have been providing handheld media services, people have told me that it is madness to invest in player design and stock.  I am sympathetic to this – after all, I was the first of them, a decade ago.  “Look”, I said then, “surely Sony – or Hitachi – can build better players cheaper than you can?”  Nowadays it’s Apple and Samsung, of course.  “You can’t possibly build at scale, like they can.  And it’s such a high capex cost – such a risk burden on the business.”

“Why not do a deal with Apple, buy players when you need them, or lease them from Samsung?  And what if they go wrong?  Wouldn’t you rather have a warranty from Apple than have to deal with the problem solo?”  For the last couple of years, another argument has been forcefully appended (often with the slight exasperation, and a glint in the eye):  “It’s all going to apps in any case.  You should publish to personal devices and be done with all this equipment hassle.”

It makes a tonne of sense, this line of argument.  And still, over a decade later, we resolutely build players, charging racks, even headsets.  We planned a couple of thousand mediaPackers in year one, and ended up building over 10,000.  So there’s a conundrum.  Here’s the conversation I might have with my alter ego:

Why not publish to apps – let the visitor spend the money on the device?

We love apps, and publish most of what we do as apps as well, but our client sites – from the Taj Mahal to Dr Johnson’s House, most certainly still need players.  Smartphone penetration has beaten everyone’s expectations, and still grows linearly in the US, but even in the US only a half of the population has smartphones (ie those that can play an app).  And, to paraphrase a colleague I overheard once in California: a site that excludes immediately one half of its audience is really über-bad karma.  The site would be saying that there’s nothing for my parents, or your ten-year old because, well, they aren’t cool enough to have an iPhone?

But even those who do have a smartphone – will they use it?  Not if they are concerned about their battery failing before they get back to the hotel; not if they fret it might cost them a roaming charge to download the app; not if it means spending time logging onto a museum wifi network and contending for bandwidth, not if their phone is already filled to the brim with music, …

OK – I can see you might need players.  So, just buy iPod touches, surely?

Let me tell you a true story.  A couple of years ago, we bought Toshiba players to provide to our clients.  They were blue and beautiful.  The build-quality and screen resolution  – for the time – were outstanding.  We lovingly designed wonderful content to play on the device, and charging racks to recharge them overnight.  Problem solved.  They even came with a warranty package, so we didn’t need to worry if the player was killed off on-site.

When they broke, since if we repaired the player we would invalidate the warranty, we sent them back to Toshiba for repair under the warranty.  “Tell you what”, they replied, “better still: we’ll give you our latest model, the upgrade”.  Only the upgrade of course did not fit in the charging rack – so we had to build another.  And the chipset, firmware  and form factor had been upgraded, so it was no longer able to play the content we’d built.  Worst of all, our client now had some beautiful blue players and some rather natty silver ones alongside eachother; which looked – and was – harder to manage logistically, and visually was a mess.

Hmmm; but is control of the platform a sufficiently strong reason to commit all this expense?

Well, let’s see.  If you buy iPods, say, you need to protect them, because as consumer devices, they are not designed for the rough and tumble of a repeated, short-term rental environment.   That means a case.  But you need to be sure of the case, because either you need to take the case off, when you charge overnight, or you need to design the charger to charge the iPod even with the case on.  But did I say charge?  You need to buy a charger as well, of course.  And you should probably make sure you have a large enough supply of iPods to tide you over when Apple changes the design – roughly annually.  That means carrying a reasonable stock.

But I thought avoiding stock was one of the reasons not to build your own players?

It was.  But consumer-focussed manufacturers march to a different beat; they are (rightly) focussed on Christmas, and the emerging demand in BRIC markets – and even the entire cultural sector demand hardly registers on their radar.

But I’m still not convinced.  What I hate about the plethora of devices built by you service providers is that they are all different, and once I sign up, I feel locked in.  At least if I build apps for iPods, I am not dependent on you to make changes.

You have a great point.  We are as sensitive to the advantages of inter-operability in visitor interpretation as we are in the rest of our lives.  So, we created imagineear on the basis that the players had to be open platform, in order to avoid this problem entirely.  We even run a marketing program called ‘Tour in a Day’ because it’s that quick and easy that all our clients, even those with no experience, can do it themselves, by combining files they know like jpeg pictures, and mp3 sound files.  There is no proprietary black box; it’s all totally transparent.  And really simple.

Well, that helps, but what about the apps point?  I still have to build an app to reach my wider audiences, so I am still paying twice over, aren’t I?

I think you just said Thank You to Andy Rubin who persuaded Larry Page that google should buy android and free the code to roam in the wild.  Let me explain.   Apple runs a closed shop, so I cannot build an apple device.  I can’t even change the battery.   But I can build a device running android, and protect and control every aspect of the hardware and software.  If I do so, I can make sure it is designed from the outset to be robust for a repeated rental environment, without needing an additional case.  And I can design future-proofed charging racks, that won’t have to change when Samsung brings out a new form factor for Christmas.  But the best part is the control android gives me over the creative content.

What do you mean?

On our new android player, our clients can still build their own tours, as they have done on the mediaPacker, because we still have complete flexibility in the tour design.   Better yet, we have been able to make sure that content built for the new android player is 100% forwards and backwards compatible with the mediaPacker.  If you build content for one, it plays immediately on the other.  Best of all, you can turn the content at the touch of a screen button into a regular android app, and make it available to your aunt in Brazil.

So it sounds like you are building such a player?

We just did.  It will launch Q1 next year, but I can give you a sneak preview here.  It’s a 5” android 4.0 (ice-cream sandwich)  device, that we designed in Holland and built in Foxconn-town Shenzhen.  It’s why our Tech Director, Eric, now has nightmares about Beijing Ducks.

And do you have a name for your new player?

Yes, though we didn’t spend the children’s inheritance on the branding agency …

It’s called the MPtouch™


The excellent Evan Duffy trio cover version of Skyfall on my HTC Desire and the MPtouch 

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