Hopefully by now you have had a chance to try out the Official Ole Miss App ~ iPad Edition. This project came about from a partnership between the University of Mississippi (UM) and Mercury Intermedia, a company located just four hours away in Brentwood, Tennessee. Mercury Intermedia is the current world leader for mobile news app development, having built applications for USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, etc. Last summer, UM and Mercury sketched out a design for what a killer university news app might look like, entered into a contractual agreement, and began work. Over thirty UM employees have been involved in the project from many different areas including IT, University Communications, Athletics, the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, the Student Media Center, Student Affairs, Alumni Affairs, Human Resources, and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.
Why the iPad?
UM was one of the first universities to have a mobile-friendly Web presence. That is, when you visit www.olemiss.edu with a Web browser on a mobile device, you are redirected to an interface that has been designed to work well on a small screen. Campus webmaster, Robby Seitz, makes this magic happen and has developed quite an expertise over the last two years. Frank Mathew, Chris Reichley, and Errol Sayre have also been actively involved in our mobility efforts. We have not committed to offering any general-purpose native apps yet due to the resources that would be required to program and maintain code for each mobile platform.
The exception is the iPad. Earlier this year we conducted a mobility survey to try to understand trends and expectations. There were slightly more than 1700 respondents with representation from students (66%), employees (27%), alumni (11%), and others. We were surprised to find that 40% of the survey respondents reported that they currently used an iPad. Of the respondents who did not currently use an iPad, 32% reported that they intended to purchase one in the next year. More than half (54%) of all respondents reported that they expected to spend more time using a mobile device than a Web browser in the future.
The data collected in the mobility survey indicated a groundswell of enthusiasm for the iPad that would continue into the foreseeable future. Our insights about the iPad phenomenon were validated when Apple CEO, Tim Cook, announced that they had sold 55 million iPads in only 1 and ¾ years vs. 22 years for the Mac[i], making it, in all likelihood, their most important product ever. The appeal and utility of the iPad across so many demographics further confirmed its value in a university setting.
For all of these reasons, it seemed clear that if we were going to commit to supporting a native app then the platform to start with should be the iPad. It did not take long to realize that a partnership with Mercury Intermedia would propel our mobility efforts forward by leveraging Mercury’s deep and extensive expertise as well as its leadership position in the mobile news industry. Thus, we embarked on a project with Mercury to develop a killer university news app for Apple’s iPad.
The design includes five sections: Top News, Alumni & Friends, Athletics, Faculty & Staff, and Students. Included among the various features are news stories, photo and video galleries, Twitter feeds, announcements, blogs, events, scores, and weather reports. A campus map and directory will be added soon after the initial deployment. The app even includes a feed from Rebel Radio, i.e., you can listen to Rebel Radio in real time from your iPad. My favorite section is the photo gallery featuring the work of UM’s outstanding staff photographers, including Robert Jordan, Kevin Bain, and Nathan Latil. I love looking at photographs of UM sports, cultural, and student events, and the experience of viewing them on an iPad is vastly different from a TV or computer.
Mercury designed the app to perform well in both landscape and portrait modes. Mercury also designed the app to take advantage of iPad 3 features such as Retina display that will significantly enhance the appearance of the app’s photography. In working on the layout and organization, Mercury’s award-winning chief creative officer, Rusty Mitchell, helped us balance our academic tendencies toward detail and completeness with the need for a clean, simple interface suitable for a tablet. According to Mitchell (personal communication, March 14, 2012), “Mercury adheres to a philosophy that Apple has followed for years. Design is not how something looks, but how it works. We obsess down to the pixel to ensure the apps we create are visually engaging, but our primary goal is to create an enjoyable experience where the interface of the application disappears.”
Content as “Feeds”
The app consists of more than forty separate multi-media feeds that are cached in Mercury’s M3 system, battle-tested software that today serves over 40 billion stories and notifications to 45 million mobile devices worldwide. Hosted on the UM campus, our instance of the M3 system is configured to poll the feeds at regular intervals with the frequency of polling determined by the feed type.
Individual devices running the app get content from the M3 system rather than from the feeds directly. Most of the feeds are provided either through a local WordPress installation or as customer data in UM’s SAP system delivered as ODATA feeds using SAP’s Netweaver Gateway product.
This approach yields several important benefits. First and foremost, this architecture allows for deployments of future versions of the app on other mobile platforms. The bulk of the effort goes into setting up the feeds. Mercury has developed application programming interfaces (APIs) that give access to the feeds within M3 from the native programming environments of the major mobile platforms. Second, this architecture manages the load to the back-end data sources and allows for content even when specific feeds may be offline. Third, this architecture provides a design framework that allows for constantly changing content.
Our longstanding relationship with SAP AG and our new relationship with Mercury Intermedia made this project possible. Much of the data is stored in our SAP ERP system and then exposed to the app as REST-based Web services using SAP’s Netweaver Gateway product. Our existing SAP infrastructure allowed us to adapt quickly in filling data gaps. By partnering with a recognized world leader in mobility—Mercury Intermedia—we were able to surge forward at a speed that would not have been possible on our own. We hope to work with Mercury Intermedia in the future on versions of the news app for other mobile platforms such as the Android and iPhone. Looking to the long term, we hope to merge our more functional apps that act on data in our SAP ERP system with the news app by providing a way to authenticate and access task-oriented services. For now, we are very pleased with this first effort and look to a bright future with many more mobility enhancements.
Please send any suggestions or feedback about the app to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathy Gates, Chief Information Officer