When It Comes to Video, Why Is the iPhone a Second-Class Citizen?

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Comcast’s Xfinity TV app for iOS has been updated to allow iPhone and iPod touch users to get in on the on-demand streaming video action. Before the update arrived late Wednesday, streaming was restricted to iPad devices. The update is a welcome one, but I can’t help but wonder why the iPhone always gets treated like a second-class citizen when it comes to streaming video.

Time Warner Cable and Cablevision have yet to introduce iPhone versions of their streaming video iPad apps, and even Netflix’s iPad client predated the arrival of the iPhone version by around five months. The ABC Player tfor iPad remains restricted to that platform, and here in Toronto, where major networks CityTV  and Global both offer iPad apps, only Global also offers an iPhone version of the same content-streaming software — and its introduction only happened recently, months after the iPad app went live. There are many other examples of iPad-specific video apps without iPhone counterparts, too, like HGTV.

In some ways, it makes sense. Due to its size, the iPad is a better video consumption device than the iPhone, even when one considers the iPhone 4’s Retina Display. Given the choice, I’d much rather watch video on my iPad than on my iPhone. But while I have the luxury of being able to choose, many users don’t. Estimates for active iPhones and iPod touches are somewhere between 50 and 80 million, while there are only probably about 19 million iPads active worldwide, and that’s a generous estimate based solely on reported sales. Catering only to the iPad means video apps are conceivably only reaching about one-quarter of the potential iOS audience. While the iPhone may not be as good as the iPad for mobile viewing, it’s still an attractive option to owners of that device.

Creating a universal or iPhone-specific version of an app is definitely a non-trivial undertaking, but it also isn’t an endeavor that could account for many months of delay between the release of an iPad and iPhone version on its own. There seems to be a consensus among video content providers that the iPad is for video, and the iPhone isn’t (or only sort of it, at a later date).

Even though I have both an iPhone and an iPad, it’s a priority arrangement that doesn’t make much sense to me. I am far more likely to have my iPhone when I’m on the train or otherwise mobile, and that makes it my preferred video device in many instances. It’s frustrating to know that often, the content I’d like to view is available for another, slightly larger device with the same operating system, but not for the one I have with me.

Maybe, in the case of cable companies, de-prioritizing the iPhone makes sense because the apps they create keep content in the home. But by that logic, even providing an iPad app could be considered pointless, since there are better viewing options available (i.e. the TV), and yet the apps are doing very well. In households without iPads, an iPhone app would probably do equally well.

The iPad is newer, more exciting, and arguably better suited to video than either the iPhone or the iPod touch, but for the vast majority of iPhone owners who don’t have an option, platform limits for iOS video apps are a considerable drag. Content providers would do well to consider a reversal of the current paradigm and target the largest audience first, if they want to stand out from the crowd.

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