With the digital media landscape in upheaval, NBC News takes nothing for granted. Early to mobile apps, it continually seeks the Next Big Thing with which to create “special experiences” for consumers. Its latest find: Notification Hubs in Windows Azure, with which it cost-effectively pushes millions of breaking-news notifications within minutes. Consumers love the app (4.5 out of 5 stars), and NBC shaved months off time-to-market.
“The market for digital news is ferocious.”
Andrew Locke doesn’t mince words. Locke, Vice President of Mobile and Devices for NBC News, deals with that ferocity on a daily basis, from competitors including other traditional media organizations (TV and print) that have moved to the web, news organizations existing solely as websites, and app-only competitors.
NBC News has done well in this increasingly competitive market because of its unique assets, according to Locke, which include strong broadcast and cablecast brands; properties such as Today, Meet the Press, and NBC Nightly News; and a spectrum of expertise (rather than a single focus on, say, politics).
The company was early to the mobile market, producing phone apps starting in 2008. Its strategy includes “being on every platform that has meaningful traction with our audience,” Locke says. The strategy also includes a very specific target audience: “dedicated news consumers, especially big fans of our existing brands,” says Locke. Casual news consumers will get to the NBC News website on their own, often through social media. But for its core audience, NBC News wants to create what Locke calls “a special experience based on the best features that each platform has to offer to our news fans.”
NBC News wants to get its apps, with their “special experiences,” on as many types of devices as possible. It saw cloud computing as an important way to do this, because back-end functionality could be created once, and exposed to all compatible devices connecting to the cloud.
But the company didn’t, as yet, have its apps in the cloud.
NBC News already had apps for Windows Phone 7, but the releases of the Windows 8 operating system and Windows Phone 8, in addition to the availability of Windows Azure, the Microsoft cloud-computing platform, presented the company with new opportunities to deliver a “special experience” to its core audience.
One of those opportunities was a new way to push notifications. Push notifications are a traditional, even vital, part of mobile apps, and NBC News already used them. But NBC wanted the fastest push notifications possible, to deliver breaking news ahead of the competition. It wanted a cross-platform solution that would eliminate the need to write time-consuming code, and to repeat that task for each mobile platform. It wanted a solution that could manage itself and scale to millions of users without incurring high latency. It wanted all this at a practical cost. What it wanted was Windows Azure Notification Hubs.
The company first considered running a push notification system on Amazon Web Services but balked at the complicated workflow that would have been required, according to Adam Wyss, Senior Software Engineer at NBC News. Instead, Wyss and his colleagues used Windows Azure Notification Hubs. With the development work they needed already available in Notification Hubs and the Windows Azure worker role, the NBC News team established its notification capability and pushed out client software in two days.
On the client side, NBC News uses toast notifications and plans to adopt Windows Phone Live Tiles, which will display notifications of news stories in near real time. The notifications will appear directly on the start screen, where they can have more screen real estate than a toast notification, without being intrusive.
The company also uses Windows Azure to process NBC News-specific lock screens that users can choose for their mobile devices. And it adopted Windows Phone voice integration to give users another way to navigate easily through the app.
NBC News used Windows Azure and Windows Phone to create a highly compelling app, bring it to market quickly, and use its notification technology across all major platforms.
Creates “Special Experience” for Core Audience
NBC News succeeded in its goal to create another “special experience” for its core audience.
“We want breaking news alerts to reach our millions of users as fast as possible,” says Locke. “That’s why we use Windows Azure. We want a strong, highly rated NBC News app to be the leading choice for digital news.”
Users apparently agree that the NBC News app is a success. It’s rated 4.5 stars out of 5.
Speeds Time-to-Market from Months to Days
By choosing Windows-based technologies, NBC News gained the streamlined development experience it wanted. Wyss estimates that if his team had written a highly automated notification system itself, the process would have taken months, instead of just two days.
“Windows Azure gives us a fast, easy development environment,” says Wyss. “Turnaround through Windows Azure is faster than we could achieve inside our existing infrastructure. That’s more cost effective, of course, but the even greater benefit is faster time-to-market. None of our competitors are standing still, and our ability to shave months off time-to-market is an important competitive advantage.”
Provides Support Across Operating Systems
NBC News developers saved even more time, while expanding the reach of the notification technology, by taking advantage of its cross-platform support. A single Notification Hub can support both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 without additional coding—in addition to support for iOS and Android.
“We were extremely productive by using the Windows Azure Notification Hubs,” says Wyss. “There was only one hub to create, and now we have only one hub to maintain for all these platforms. Our choice of Windows Azure is proving very successful.”