The delay has been caused by iPhone compatibility issues, service limitations, "now playing" information display, and sound quality issues. All these have created problems we've had to research and solve. We've finally come up with an acceptable solution and will start the final phase of programming as soon as we finish testing it. Sorry, still no hard estimate on a release date, but sooner than later.
LONG ANSWER (Non-technical)
If you're an iPhone user, you are something of an early adopter and computer connoisseur. Nevertheless, the full story is a lot more technical than most will care for, so I'll do a separate post for that shortly.
When we started researching what it would take to develop a Hearts of Space iPhone app in summer 2009, we were pretty uninformed about the state of mobile media delivery. So we looked for an experienced software developer and found a company we knew from the radio business that had branched out into iPhone app development.
They had a standard template that allowed them to develop a working app in about a month for the majority of their radio station clients who run a single live "webcast." The cost was reasonable, they had experience, it looked good.We knew going in that our ultimate goal of offering the entire HOS Archive on the iPhone was a lot more complicated than just a single live webcast, so we spent several weeks analyzing the problem of adapting what we offer on full size computers to the less powerful iPhone.
At the same time we surveyed about fifty iPhone-equipped subscribers to find out what they wanted. We found that ease of use and continuous music (vs. trying to navigate over a thousand choices in the archive on a tiny screen) were most important to our users.
So we decided to limit our initial iPhone service to just This Week's Show, The Radio Channel webcast, and a short list of free streams for new users. Free Sunday programs would be included.
This combination would cost more to build than a single channel "radio" app, but it would deliver the audio and interface quality our users have come to expect from HOS. The advantages of keeping it simple were that the app could be free, and we were told we could have something ready to release by the end of 2009. So in September we signed a contract with the developer and proceeded with the project.A few weeks into it, we hit an unexpected snag. The developer had not understood the implications of the fact that each HOS program is a 59 minute long file — rather than the "song-by-song files in a playlist" they were used to.
On the web our custom Flash player and server combo handle the long files easily, but Flash is famously not supported on the iPhone. (The iPhone had not been released when we started to develop our Flash service, so that limitation was not apparent. Apple is pushing its own media format to replace Flash.)
We were quite surprised to find that the iPhone has very limited support for industry standard streaming formats and methods. Only MP3, a newer audio format called AAC, and a few irrelevant ones will work, and then only if delivered with with one of two standard "protocols" (Internet delivery methods) plus a new one designed by Apple that's not really in use yet. I won't bore you with the details, but it's like saying you can have any flavor you want as long as it's vanilla or chocolate. Our service was some kind of exotic fruit.Long story short — our large, long files were causing problems. The iPhone wanted music sent to it song by song, and we were setup to deliver an entire show in one piece. Not only that, the "now playing" information — so you can glance at the player and see the name of the artist, the track and the album — would not be displayed, just the name of the program. Not having this information would be like a giant step back to 2003 on the iPhone.
We wanted to do better, so we set out to fully understand the problem, then look for other solutions. That process has now consumed three months (including delays for various holidays), and has involved dozens of conference calls, multiple test setups, and several consultations with mobile media experts and service providers.
Why was this necessary? The entire area of delivering audio and video to mobile devices is burning hot and changing fast. Formats and protocols that were common even two years ago have been abandoned or superceded. It's a fast-moving target, the very definition of a dynamic environment.
Worse, we want to serve iPhone users now, but right behind them are all the other mobile platforms — Blackberry, Android, Windows, Palm and more. We want to create a solution that works for everyone.
FINALLY, A SOLUTION
The good news is that this week we finally settled on a technical setup that will provide service to iPhones in an app, and will work on most other mobiles using the built-in web browser and media player. For those phones we will be developing a mobile version of our web site later this year.
We will be offering a new "iPHONE PLAN" at a special price, and adding iPhone access to our AAA web service plan at no extra charge. The app will provide free access to the current week's show on Sundays, plus a short list of free demo content. AAA and iPHONE plan subscribers will be able to access 3 different (non-interactive) webcasts with full 'now playing' information, as well as the weekly show on-demand, and the free demo content.
We'll put off full Archive navigation, personal playlists, favorites and the rest of the features we offer on the web until we have a little more experience and are sure about where the new mobile formats and standards are going.
We will resume active programming work on the iPhone app as soon as we have completed a final round of tests this week to confirm the new setup.
Considering what we've been through so far, I would not be so foolish as to specify a completion date here;-) but I can say we are way more impatient to get this done than you are, and will be pushing ahead as fast as we can.
Thanks for your patience. Like all good things, we hope it will be worth waiting for.
:: Stephen Hill, Producer