This weekend I’ve been catching up on season two of Downton Abbey (I’ve only just started, so don’t spoil it!). I watched season one on my big screen TV via a Roku box and Netflix, but season two is not available on Netflix or Amazon, so the Roku box was not an option. I remembered that PBS has an iOS app and was happy to discover that I could play season two episodes through the app. I also have an Apple TV connected to the big screen in my living room which meant I could use AirPlay to send the show from my iPhone or iPad to the TV. Problem solved!
I found season two, episode one in the PBS app and streamed it from my iPhone to my Apple TV. Right away I noticed that the quality of the picture was much worse than I had seen with the Roku and wondered if I’d get a better picture through the iPad. On the surface, it didn’t seem like that should make any difference. If it’s the same show, same app, same OS, so the picture should be the same too. But it turned out that, when streamed from the iPad, the picture quality was significantly better. What was going on?
While I don’t know for certain, I’m fairly sure that PBS sends a smaller file to the iPhone than it does to the iPad. Why? The phone has a small screen, so all the extra data required for high resolution video is unnecessary. Phone users are “on-the-go” and often have slow connections, so a small file will download faster and start playing sooner. In other words, the PBS app has been designed for the “mobile context”. But the mobile context is a myth (be sure to check out Josh Clark’s excellent presentation on the topic). It falls apart as soon as I stream media from my phone to my big screen TV. In my living room I have a wi-fi connection and I don’t care about file size, I just want the best quality media experience I can get.
We can no longer presume that the content accessed through mobile devices will also be viewed on them. With AirPlay, mobile device experiences can just as easily become 10 foot lean-back experiences, negating all your assumptions about display size and bandwidth. Responsive meda strategies will need to get more sophisticated to take this into account.