The Masters Tournament app was available as a free version for the iPhone/iPod Touch and a $1.99 version for the iPad. The user expectations go up dramatically in my book when you start charging for an app. I’m willing to forgive much more in a free app than a version that costs money.
Note that the app was published by Augusta National, Inc., not broadcaster CBS.
This is probably the most basic feature expected by users, so it is important to get it right. The leaderboard was updated every 30 seconds to provide the most important information for anyone wanting all the action on the go. The brief text updates on current action were also very helpful. There were some bugs and interface issues – more on that below – but must of the time I could get the information I wanted.
The idea of simulcasting the final round was great even if the video stream had trouble meeting demand. As a user, it’s a great option to have available if you can’t be in front of a TV (HDTV was made for golf, I think). This was a true simulcast complete with the same national commercials. It ran about one to two minutes behind my TV signal.
I do wonder how local affiliates felt. On the one hand, the iPad simulcast quality couldn’t compare with HDTV, so you’re most likely to use it when you couldn’t watch a local affiliate anyway. On the other hand, local stations are always wary of national simulcasts that potentially take away eyeballs.
- Amount of video content
There was a large amount of video clips available, such as interviews with players.
- Video clips on demand by hole and player
The iPad app’s leaderboard featured options to jump to certain holes by player.
- Multiple live video streams
Both the iPhone and iPad versions featured multiple streams, letting you jump around in the heat of the action. It would be nice to eventually see 18 live streams to watch every fairway and green.
- Live stream links when leaders could be seen
It helped a lot to know when the leaders could be seen in the live streams, especially when they were not featured on TV.
- Features on holes and landmarks
Gorgeous pictures and aerial flyovers helped visualize the complete fairway during play.
Other nice features:
- Supported multitasking so I could exit the app and return where I left off.
- Interesting full screen video mode with top and bottom controls
- Classy video intro as the iPad app loaded, which also helped me tell the app was meant for use in horizontal view. Running it the first time might suffice because it did get to feel a little old as I jumped in and out of the app.
Features in the rough:
- Video quality and performance
Live streams on the iPhone over 3G on AT&T worked well, but I had problems in the iPad version over wi-fi via Charter cable at home late Sunday afternoon during the final holes. The streams just kept stopping. Once, the video stopped and the audio continued. I had to restart the app to solve it. Funny thing about golf… sometimes it takes a minute to tell the stream is stuck when you’re just looking at grass. It might help to have a pulsing “live” indicator to clearly show when the stream is working and when it has stopped. (Sometimes the video went to a flag image when the stream cut out, but often the video just froze.)
The iPad full screen video looked pixellated, like it was just a scaled up version of the video playing in the smaller window on the main screen. The issue was really visible on some of the fairways and ripples on the water hazard. You could tell this wasn’t HDTV or Netflix streaming quality.
Users online complained of similar issues with the video stream stopping. One said an Apple tech couldn’t help, which brings up the issue of providing technical support for a paid application during a big event like the final round. It doesn’t help a user if you get back to them a day later. They paid $1.99 for the experience and expect an answer immediately.
- Twists and turns
Using the iPhone app required making odd twists and turns. Usually, users want to control whether they use an app in horizontal or vertical (a.k.a. landscape or portrait) orientation. Developers force users into a certain view when necessary, but it’s always nice to make all features available in both views when you can. The Masters iPhone app tried to cram a lot of functionality in the leaderboard by telling the user – in very small print on an already small screen – to rotate from vertical to horizontal view to access full leader board details. Only then could you access the hole-by-hole scores and tap on players to see their own score cards and access videos of their play on certain holes. But if you tapped on a player before rotating to horizontal view, you got a totally different experience. It was difficult to tell how to navigate my way back out of the rabbit hole one I drilled down off the app’s fairway of menus.
- Buggy behavior
Both the iPhone and iPad versions had several bugs while I used them. If you turned the iPhone version at the wrong time, the scrolling ticker started running vertically.
In the iPad version, the leaderboard started acting oddly after selecting some favorite players. I couldn’t see how to find scores on the other players and then the white background stopped appearing sometimes on the leaderboard. I had to restart the app to get back to normal.
I also encountered occasional crashes even though my iPad (original version) was up to date with the latest iOS release.
- Busy leaderboard with a lot of functionality
Besides the twisting and turning on the iPhone I mentioned, the full leaderboard had a lot to absorb – almost too much. There were the expected marks for things like eagles and bogies. Then you had to use the legend at the bottom to figure out how some of the scores had green to denote video was available for the player on a certain hole. Given that the color green was used throughout the golf app, there might be a way to make the video presence more intuitive.
The only in-app ads I noticed were very subtle logos rotating share of voice for sponsors IBM, ExxonMobil, and AT&T in the top of the screen.
Under the hood
Looking behind the scenes at transactions between the apps and the Internet, I could see Akamai was serving video. That makes the video stream problems surprising since Akamai can handle giant loads of traffic.
The apps sent analytic data to Omniture at the domain metrics.masters.com. This included data such as when I started the app, when I changed video channels and when I switched views in the leaderboard.
I noticed calls for a geocheck.js script that suggested the app may have had the ability to limit use to the United States, something important when broadcast rights come into play.
What users said
The paid iPad app average rating for the current version is 2/5 stars with 259 ratings. That includes 42 five-star ratings and 136 one-star ratings. A lot of the reviews are pretty harsh and reflect the problems I also experienced with the video stream stopping and general bugginess. I checked the name on one of the glowing, five-star reviews and found it matched the name of someone from a company that worked on the app.
The free iPhone app fared better with an average rating for the current version of 3/5 stars from 286 ratings. The split between lovers and haters was more even than on the iPad with 102 five-star reviews and 119 one-star reviews. There were multiple comments saying the app, especially video performance, was better in 2010, which is not something you want to hear.
I did not get to try the free Android version of the app, but its rating in the Android Market is 3.5/5 stars. Some people loved it; some complained of video problems. There were also some complaints about the radio service, which I found was off-air in the iPhone version Sunday afternoon even though the broadcast schedule in the app said it should have been on.
The main draws for users of both apps seemed to be video and the leaderboard.
Free vs. Paid: Which was the best value?
The question of user value comes down to two factors for me: TV substitution and access to both an iPad and 3G or wi-fi.
First, did I need a TV substitute? If I were going to be travelling, sitting at another sporting event, tied up at church during the final round, or just didn’t own a TV, that might be the case. The CBS simulcast made the iPad version attractive.
Second, if I did need a TV substitute, would I have an iPad in a location that could receive data? No 3G on my iPad or no available wi-fi would mean the simulcast is not a benefit and should not be a factor in my purchasing decision.
I had a TV to watch the last couple of hours of the Masters final round, so the free iPhone app felt like the best value. People away from home and TV access would find the simulcast alone worth the $1.99 price for the app. Think of it as pay-per-view with some extra features tacked on. I’m not considering the video problems in my purchasing decision because users should reasonably be able to expect that an app promising live streams will indeed have streams that work. I’ll assume for now the issues will be addressed by next year.
Next year, perhaps they should consider offering one version of the app for free and offer simulcast coverage with other exclusive features as an in-app purchase. That would set up a larger installed user base before the final round and perhaps tempt more people to make an impulse buy to access what they can’t see. They could even charge $1.99 per round or $4.99 for a tournament package. Apple takes a cut either way.