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Holiday Sales Encourage App-etizing Strategies

Consumer electronics gear promises to once again be a hot gift item this holiday season. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that tech-related items were purchased by about 35% of the 131 million Americans who shopped between Thanksgiving and the end of Cyber Monday.

For programmers and operators though, the biggest question will be how those sales will impact their app and digital strategies in 2014. Here are five trends top digital executives are watching:

The Shifting Tablet Market. The CEA says tablets were by far the most popular item during the early holiday sales period. But within the tablet market, the growing popularity of relatively inexpensive Android tablets is particularly important for app developers. “People are finally creating really interesting tablets at a price point that consumers are going to have a hard time resisting,” says David Wertheimer, president of digital at Fox Broadcasting.

Hefty tablet sales will significantly expand usage but will also increase programming costs, as programmers will have to pay more attention to the highly fragmented Android market and develop apps that work well on a variety of screen sizes.

Mobile First. Growing use of mobile devices has prompted a number of programmers including CNN, MTV and the Weather Channel to redesign their sites to make them more mobile friendly. “With the trend toward mobile devices, we’re now focusing on apps to super-serve that mobile behavior and create compelling secondscreen experiences,” explains Colin Helms, senior VP of connected content for MTV.

Aiming for Gaming. With the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 game consoles flying off retail shelves, a number of programmers— including Fox, ESPN, Univision and Hulu—have already launched apps on Xbox One, in part because the consoles open up a number of opportunities for improved search using voice and motion controls, secondscreen capabilities and interactivity. “We are very closely watching how the next generation consoles are working to bridge the world of games with entertainment,” says Martin Clayton, VP of connected content for CMT.

Can’t We Just Get Along? Major tech companies are also slowly responding to consumer demand for devices that work well with mobile phones, tablets and TVs from different manufacturers. “You are starting to see the seeds of getting the devices to talk to each other, which is a major change from even two years ago,” says Marc DeBevoise, executive VP and general manager of entertainment, sports and news at CBS Interactive.

Paul Gagnon, director of North America TV research at research firm DisplaySearch, expects TV will end 2013 down 3% to 4% from last year. But he says about one-quarter of all American homes will have a connected TV by year-end, a development that will also boost second-screen app development as these televisions start to work more closely with other mobile devices.

Unique Experiences. The proliferation of devices complicates app development, but it also opens up new opportunities to create and experiment with content that is uniquely suited for each type of device, says Leslie Grandy, senior VP of product and development at Discovery. “One of the most exciting developments is thinking about how we can create new types of programming,” she says, pointing to Animal Planet’s popular live online streams of kittens, puppies and other animals. “It gives us a chance to think about next-generation TV.”

Call For More Response in Design

The growing popularity of video on mobile devices is pushing more programmers to put emphasis on mobile websites and responsive web design that aims to improve the way sites work on a wide array of devices. “We are definitely moving toward responsive design as a way to make the site more platformagnostic,” says Colin Helms, senior VP of connected content for MTV.

Over time, the shift to mobile could also encourage programmers to devote more resources to the mobile web, says Leslie Grandy, senior VP of product and development at Discovery. “We are spending a lot of time thinking about how we can create once and easily publish on multiple platforms,” she says.

Security issues and piracy, however, will continue to make apps important for CBS and other programmers that offer long-form content, cautions Marc DeBevoise, executive VP and general manager of entertainment, sports and news at CBS Interactive.