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The Strategy Behind The New NPR Mobile Web Site

by Demian Perry
Dec 8, 2009

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Demian Perry

This morning, David Kaplan of Paid Content noted that today's re-launch of the NPR mobile site is "part of a larger strategy designed to ensure that its member stations don't get lost in the listener transition from over-the-air to digital." Kaplan got that right. While we're excited by the new features at NPR Mobile, we're even more excited by the seismic change in our mobile strategy that it represents.

But first, I want to gloat a little bit about the new features. Today is the first time our mobile Web audience has ever been able to:

  • stream live signals from nearly every public radio station in the country, from Anchorage to Bangor

  • listen to hundreds of public radio programs (not just the handful we offered before)

  • hear full-quality audio over the Blackberry

It's a big day for public radio fans everywhere.

Although these changes are valuable, the most important benefit of the new mobile site will come in the weeks ahead, as we take advantage of the control and flexibility of our new platform. Unlike our previous site, which was developed and hosted by a third-party provider, our new mobile Web site is hosted entirely by NPR, and we have made a commitment to carry on future development in-house.

And that is no small challenge. Remember the browser wars? Back in the late 90s, before software manufacturers embraced the Web standards we enjoy today, Web developers had to create a different Web site for every web browsing program. With the emergence of the mobile Web, browser wars are back in a big way. Now that there are hundreds of mobile devices, each with its own browser and software limitations, developers are faced with a complex dilemma. Do we build something mediocre that works everywhere, or do we push the limits of the technology by building for only the best devices?

To answer that question, NPR turned to Conmio, a mobile software company based in Finland. Conmio began by considering how we could build upon the success of our existing mobile Web site, which was launched in 2007 by Crisp Wireless and won the 2009 Webby for best mobile news site. But Conmio also pushed us to expand the feature set and content offerings of our mobile Web site.

The result is a site that works on even the most basic feature phones, but also offers advanced features for a select group of devices, such as iPhones and Androids. The mobile site also extends our content offerings to encompass all the full text stories and audio in our archive, including Car Talk, All Things Considered, and many music segments previously unavailable over mobile. None of this would have been possible without some big help from Conmio's head of Technology, Lauri Piispanen.

We will still lean on Conmio from time to time, new features will be built and coded by our Java team, with all mobile development led by NPR's own Joanne Garlow. When mobile was an experiment, we looked outside our building for expertise in this technology. As mobile becomes the future of radio, we need to understand the technology ourselves.

In a few weeks, we'll begin tweaking the mobile Web site, but before we do that, we need to know how you're using it. Are you listening to a playlist on your morning jog? Are you selecting your local station and listening to live coverage in the car? Maybe you're using it to pipe your favorite music station over your home speaker system. If you're not doing these things, give it a try. And if you are, let us know what works and (more important) what doesn't.

For more on today's mobile Web site launch, check out NPR's press release, as well as some of the related coverage by mocoNews and TechCrunch. And coming soon: details on our forthcoming NPR News Android app.

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