In just five years, media-rich smartphones and tablets have provided an indispensible "second screen" for many people. And we're just getting started.
On a June night this summer, some 42,298 people settled in, pulled out their various personal electronic devices at one point or another and recorded a piece of baseball history. Matt Cain, the plucky stalwart of the San Francisco Giants pitching staff, tossed the 22nd perfect game ever. (In other words, not one opposing batter reached base at any time.) Fifty years ago, fans would've taken in the news via transistor radio or the next morning's newspaper. This time around, there were tweets, Instagram pictures, Facebook updates, texts, iMessages and YouTube videos to commemorate the milestone.
"The game was in hand. You knew the Giants were going to win, but was he going to walk someone?" Bryan Srabian has been one of the Giants' resident experts on social media for three years now. He's seen the team win a World Series and host an All-Star Game, but nothing quite compares with what he saw the night Matt Cain was perfect. "Everyone was wondering, ‘Is there going to be an error?' It was as tense as I've seen and as loud as I've ever witnessed."
The traffic spike that Srabian saw that evening and over the ensuing days was a far cry from even a few years ago. Back then, you'd be excoriated by your surrounding seatmates for pulling out a cellphone during a game. (Tablets didn't really exist then.) These days, though, iPhones, iPads, Android phones, BlackBerries and their ilk have not only become accepted at the ballpark but also expected. That's where we pull up the radio stream. It's how we check the latest stats for our fantasy teams. It's the way we let friends and family know that we just witnessed one of the rarest feats in sports history.
"Years ago, we had stations inside the stadium that would ‘beam' the starting lineups to your PalmPilot," Srabian says. Now, fans just want to feel involved, feel invested in the game. "Technology is bringing people closer, but it's also enhancing that experience. The more information you have, the more informed fan you'll be, and we're just scratching the surface."
This is no fad. It's a representation of what The New York Times' Brian X. Chen notably dubbed the "always on" mindset, where we feel an insatiable need to be connected. It's been a swift evolution. The iPhone is barely five years old, the iPad not even three. The Android OS offers consumers dozens of high-end options. We're only 20 years removed from the invention of the text message as we know it, and mobile innovation has brought new ways to be engaged with one another that fantastical pulp magazines from the ‘30s could scarcely have predicted.
"There's been such a cultural shift," says comScore vice president Joan FitzGerald. "It used to be perceived as rude to bring out your cellphone at these special events, but is not at all seen that way now because consumers are actually enriching their experience. And they're also able to enrich their neighbors' experience as well, because they can share."
Media companies are banking on the idea that these "second screen" adopters —younger, more adaptable and hungry for content — will drive the next wave of user engagement. Looking back at how we got here, they're probably right.
A New Reality
Few Silicon Valley executives have watched the evolution of mobile engagement more closely than Evan Doll. As an engineer at Apple for six years, including a stint on the original iPhone development team, Doll left the company in 2009 to cofound Flipboard with business partner Mike McCue because he saw the shift in user activity that the iPhone had brought about. Gone was the static past when people took what was given them. They wanted more content, and they wanted it their way. Services such as Twitter and Facebook gave them a voice. Mobile devices such as the iPhone were a bullhorn.
"Think about how different the world was before the iPhone and Twitter," Doll says. "The Web and the browser of the 1990s weren't designed for this. Pinching to zoom on a Web page is an attempt to squeeze an old world into a new reality."
With Flipboard, Doll and McCue envisioned the ultimate customizable magazine for the iPad. Want to pull stories from the Web, tweets, Instagram pics and Facebook updates, then navigate them all through an easy-to-use interface, all for free? That's Flipboard, which launched in mid-2010 to much acclaim, both from users and the Valley. (Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and actor Ashton Kutcher are two of its more recognizable investors.) And in just two years, Flipboard has become a model for how users can slice the mobile Web into whatever personalized chunks they desire.
"The fact that people carry these devices around all the time has meant a degree of emotional connection that simply didn't exist in the past," Doll says. "People grab their iPhones off their nightstand first thing in the morning. They fall asleep in bed with their iPads. We've heard anecdotes from our users about reading Flipboard in the bathtub, on the treadmill, on the beach.
"I don't even know if ‘second screen' is the right way to describe it anymore. For a lot of people, in a lot of cases, it's their first screen."
That's part of the dilemma that larger media companies are only starting to address. Some, such as Major League Baseball (MLB), have offered more options to mobile users while trying to maintain TV as the premium first choice. Mobile users can get unlimited radio streams for $15 a season. To add PC or Mac functionality, it'll cost you an extra $5. For full video, however, you've got to shell out $125 to watch it on your iPad, PlayStation 3 and the like. For access to more than 2,000 games every season, that's not a bad deal.
But even then, you're prohibited from watching games being broadcast in your local market. It's how baseball keeps you tethered to the first screen and makes the second one a complement rather than a replacement. More traditional media companies, such as the TV networks, would do well to emulate some part of that concept so they don't get left behind on the dial. To a certain extent, they already have, at least with services such as Hulu Plus, which charges a subscription fee, still shows commercials and imposes limits (dictated by the networks themselves) on exactly what's offered and for how long. Similar to MLB, DIRECTV and HBO offer slick, content-rich apps that offer an enhanced mobile viewing experience, but only if you're a subscriber.
"When it comes to the economics of the media world, in some ways, the TV business is still the biggest business and they make sure it's available in the highest quality form," FitzGerald says. "But media brands are trying to reach consumers wherever they're willing to consume the content."
What these companies have going for them is that people are using their mobile devices less for what they were intended for and more for what's being offered now. British Telecom O2 found that of the 128 minutes we spend a day on our phones, making calls is No. 5 on the list according to amount of time spent. Surfing the Web, listening to music and playing games have all surpassed, in terms of popularity, the core functionality of a phone. (Emailing, texting and watching TV all followed up close behind.)
Srabian laughs when he thinks about all the technicians who've spent years outfitting AT&T Park with enough Wi-Fi nodes and cellular data points to accommodate tens of thousands of users simultaneously. "I have friends who think the NFL scrambles their phone when they can't access Wi-Fi or a data connection at a football game," he says. "Sometimes, there are just no access points around."
But this is where we are — if you're at a sporting event and having issues uploading your filtered upper deck views of the ballpark to Instagram, your first inclination might not actually be to blame a lack of infrastructure but rather some sort of conspiratorial move to keep your eyeballs on the field and not your phone. (Incidentally, the NFL says it's hoping to have leaguewide Wi-Fi in every stadium next season.)
But these sorts of mobile offerings have reached the point where it's become a part of how we normally engage in these communal gatherings. Whether it's sporting events, concerts, weddings or birthday parties, we expect to be connected.
The Young and the Restless
The question now becomes an obvious but critical one: How to reach these users spending less time in front of a TV and more with their face in their hands? That's what FitzGerald has been actively researching, and she co-authored a white paper in June with the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement (a group of media companies including NBC Universal, Disney, News Corp. and more) that strove to address that concern. Of course, these are all big corporations with a lot to lose if people are going to stop watching TV in lieu of another screen's content, but their insights may give us a clue as to where our culture is headed and whether the second-screen lifestyle is here to stay.
In surveying some 10,000 consumers over five weeks, FitzGerald found that most of the key demographic that content providers target were younger and more apt to use multiple screens and that 60 percent of all TV viewers access the Internet while watching. And the kind of programming whose viewers were most likely to be of the multiscreen variety? News channels, young-adult networks and sporting events. "One of the things they've done really well," FitzGerald points out, "is create content in the digital environment that people want to use that they can't get in the TV environment." In other words, consumers want something extra with their main course, and those that supply such content will reap the rewards.
Another wave of change will come with increased adoption of near-field communications (NFC) chips. More than anything, companies are excited for NFC in that it offers unprecedented ways for consumers to pay for their wares. It not only stores payment info but integrated chips mean you need only wave your device over a sensor and your transaction is recorded. It will offer the convenience of Square without the need for a white dongle, and Apple is widely expected to build NFC directly into its next iPhone iteration. The June unveiling of iOS 6's Passbook —essentially a digital wallet that stores this kind of info — was a less-than-subtle nod in this direction, and combining this with NFC capability means a new way for consumers to consume. If fans want to stay in their seats and order two hot dogs, a beer and six giant foam fingers, the just need to wave their iPhone over the payment sensor and they're good to go.
More important than convenience, such a move keeps people tethered to their devices, making any attempt at separation all that more painful. Not that it appears many folks want to disconnect. A recent study from Michigan State University finds that we're more likely to use wireless Internet when we're on vacation (40 percent of users) than at work (25 percent). Even if we want to get away, we really don't.
Tablets are truly what's driving this mobile movement. Apple's iPad, with some 62 percent tablet market share, is propelling a field that's forecasted to sell 119 million units this year, a 98 percent increase over 2011. In April, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi found that even with "very limited success outside of Apple with its iPad," many PC makers were waiting to make their move. Microsoft did just that with a much-hyped presentation of Surface, its dual-screen tablet in June. Gizmodo's Mat Honan declared it "far more impressive than any shipping Android tablet I've ever seen" and "a clear rival to the iPad."
Even Google Glass, the search engine giant's attempt at implanting virtual information into our own reality via special glasses, may hold great promise when it comes to users engaging with concerts or sporting events, whether it's bringing up song lyrics or displaying real-time statistics, respectively.
ComScore's FitzGerald sees the biggest growth trend coming as media companies become more comfortable with tablets and how they mesh with the viewing experience. "With the adoption of tablets, the quality of the experience is so compelling," she says. "There are so many capabilities that are naturally interactive with television."
As she says this, I glance over at my year-old iPad and something finally clicks. As a longtime TiVo user, I'd been waiting years for some kind of mobile app that could come close to the on-screen TiVo interface. When I got my iPad in spring of 2011, one of the first apps I downloaded was TiVo's. Suddenly, I could do everything my remote could do, only faster. I could search for shows on the fly, without having to look for a submenu and then type in letters using the directional pad arrows. These days, my iPad is my de facto TiVo remote. And if it can replace that, there's no telling what else tablets will eventually emulate.
"The ability to control your TV with your tablet opens a big opportunity," FitzGerald says. "We're going to see a quick evolution of making more content available using that dual-screen opportunity."
And that's the natural progression from here on. The growth hasn't slowed, and the inexorable evolution continues every day. Every global sporting event now sets new records for tweets-per-second, and Facebook shows little sign of slowing in its quest for world domination, thanks to more than 500 million active mobile users every month and to an unquenchable appetite for content. We need our fix wherever we are.
"Just as we look at computer interfaces of the past — from the command line to the GUI to the multitouch interface — it seems self-evident that form and function will change massively every 10 to 15 years," says Flipboard's Doll, casting his eye to our mobile future. "Our kids aren't going to think of back buttons and bookmarks on a beige box when they hear ‘the Web.'
"It's not going to stop changing."
Erik Malinowski is a freelance writer based in San Mateo, California. He is the night editor of Deadspin, managing editor of Longshot Magazine, and a frequent contributor to Wired, Macworld, and Salon. Follow him on Twitter @erikmal.
For more on how ever-shrinking devices are expanding the way we consume media, see the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of Say Magazine.