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the second screen


A few months ago I started writing a blog post that is probably never gonna get finished and so this is my attempt to rewrite it while it’s relevant and force myself to finish.

When I graduated college, my parents gifted me an iPad and I was super excited. I’d wanted an iPad since it launched but I didn’t really know what I’d use it for other than the fact that I just love technology and cool toys. (Small tangent: The model they got me was the 3rd generation version and it was also the last one to use the 30 pin connector. It was actually replaced nine months later when Apple launched the iPhone 5 and the Lightning port and I’m still bitter than Apple made it obsolete so fast.) Anyways, I was so stoked to have an iPad but I had no idea what to do with it.

I tried to write blogs and essays on it, but it felt weird. Trying to type on a large virtual keyboard just wasn’t satisfying. I tried again, writing with a Bluetooth keyboard in this weird origami-style case that propped everything up, but that just also felt weird. I tried drawing with it, but I’m not much of an artist, especially when it comes to drawing with my finger. I also tried watching a fair amount of TV on it, including The Newsroom and the first season of Game of Thrones using the HBO Go app. It was fine, but I had other devices better suited for that.

Overall, I was pretty underwhelmed by my iPad. It felt like there was supposed to be something more than just big iPhone apps and watching TV. Because the truth was, I didn’t even like the big iPhone apps. I wanted something that was better than what I might even get on my phone and maybe that killer iPad app wasn’t even available as an iPhone app.

There was one kind of app in particular that kind of got me excited: second-screen apps. The idea is that while you’re watching live television you open an app that is connected to what you’re watching and it gives you a separate but connected and interesting layer on which to look at your TV watching experience. For example, there might be a game or trivia or a Q&A happening while you’re watching a show or stats and alternate camera angles while watching sports. However, the second-screen apps that popped up barely scratched the surface of what was theoretically possible. They tried to be incrementally better versions of existing things (live TV guide, entertainment reviews, social feeds) just fine tuned for monetization.

My first attempt at writing this went deep into the mistakes that were made by the apps that went after this, and rather than go in depth here's a summary:

  • Browsing another social platform is more work, and the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.
  • Your TV already had a guide that worked just fine.
  • Social-graph entertainment recommendations are trash. The likes and preferences of my Facebook friends vary GREATLY and cannot predict what I will like.
  • TV viewers want fewer ads, not more. There is not a person alive who would say, “I sure wish I could access some targeted advertainment content from GE while watching The Voice.”
  • No matter what these social TV apps tried, Twitter and Facebook had more conversations happening on their platforms.
  • But, perhaps the worst crime of all, was this: most synchronized second-screen content was lame, phoned-in and distracting. Trivia that was either far too easy or far too hard, Q&As that only had a few answers to questions that felt super screened or even planted, and “exclusive” content that wasn’t remotely interesting (a set photo, trailer for the next episode, wallpaper downloads). By the nature of it being optional, it was often worthless. If the content was valuable enough, it’d be on the first screen.

I say all that because I really just want hit the nail on the head with a giant hammer. Here goes: you can build cool shit, but you need to solve a problem.

Social TV apps were a solution in search of a problem. These startups were able to convince VCs that people were already using their phones, laptops and tablets in front of their TVs — so why not serve up ads on those devices related to the content shown on the TV screen? But that wasn’t a problem users experienced - it was just an opportunity to exploit users's desire to connect with fellow fans and their favorite shows. Targeted advertising is not, and will never be, a feature users care about, so building your product to suit your monetization strategy instead of your users is how to fail fast.

So why did I want to hurry up and write this now? Well, it is the eve of another major Apple announcement. Tomorrow we night finally know what Apple’s plans for virtual reality/augmented reality are, and people are going to think they should start building apps/experiences for this new device the way that they did for the iPad and for the Apple Watch.

I have two responses to that.

  1. First mover advantage for apps is bullshit. The market is unforgiving to underbaked ideas so spend time getting it right.
  2. Build a user-focused product. If you build a product that is valuable to your business but not the users, they won’t use it.

This sounds so basic, so why did second screen apps get it so wrong? The short answer is that the world was in the middle of a digital transformation. People were increasingly more likely to get entertainment through a digital means, and that meant that there was suddenly a giant pot of money if you could use some kind of attribution technology to demonstrate return on ad spend. These second-screen app people thought this was wonderful. They could marry the traditional advertising technology to the digital. Except one problem: interactive advertising does not solve a user problem and so it was a huge fucking flop.

The peak of this kind of thinking was around the time of Apple’s “there’s an app for that” campaign. An article on Vox asks the right question, “do we really need an app for everything?” The answer is of course not.

Yet someone is going to do this again if they buy into the hype cycle of AR and ship before they have an effective product with a complete UX that fulfills a need for a user. The hype cycle isn’t inherently bad. The hype cycle is basically a natural phenomenon. What’s bad is trying to shoehorn poorly thought out ideas and even worse monetization strategies into a product users definitely don't and won't value.