Call this the first Post-PC U.S. presidential election.
Sure, in 2008 we had iPhones and Android was celebrating its first birthday, but the smartphone revolution was just beginning and the iPad was still a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye.
Online TV Has Come A Long Way
We've come a long way. But as radically as mobile devices are changing our relationship with media, the experience still has a long way to go before it matches the power and convenience of plain old TV.
In 2008, I had a presidential-debate-watching party at my house. As somebody who has never seen the appeal of shelling out hundreds of dollars to a giant corporation for content in which I'm mostly disinterested, I needed a way to get the debate onto my HDTV without subscribing to cable or fidgeting with rabbit ears. Fortunately, CNN.com was streaming the debates between John McCain and Barack Obama for free. I hooked up my MacBook to the back of my TV, fired up CNN.com and got as close as I could to full-screening the video player. The picture wasn't great, but it worked.
This year, the debate live-streaming options were practically limitless. YouTube, Hulu, PBS, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, CNN and a list of networks and cable channels all offered their own streams, some of them with interactive, social media-fueled components and other bells and whistles. Most of these streams were geared toward desktop browsers, but plenty of outlets crafted their debate-night strategies with our second and third screens in mind. Apple has sold 100 million iPads and competing tablets are popping up constantly. The markets for smart TVs and streaming set top boxes is maturing more slowly, but technologies like Apple's AirPlay and Google TV's equivalent hint at an interesting future. It's amazing how much TV has evolved in the last four years.
Mobile TV Still Has A Long Way To Go
Still, as I learned when I sat down to stream the third debate earlier this week, the experience remains far behind the old-fashioned way of watching things on screens.
Armed with my iPad and an Apple TV, I sat down on my couch to watch Barack Obama and Mitt Romney argue about foreign policy. At first, it felt flawless. I just AirPlayed my tablet to the TV, launched the CNN iPad app and started watching.
But the good times didn't last. A few minutes in, the stream went black.
I checked Twitter and I wasn't the only one. Others were complaining about issues with CNN's lifestream, and @CNNMobile tweeted at me and confirmed that they were having issues with mobile streaming. I switched to the Al Jazeera app, but couldn't get the audio to play (which some people say is the best way to watch a presidential debate). I checked Hulu and the Huffington Post on the iPad, both of which were streaming the debate on their websites, but neither app had a readily-tappable link to the lifestream.
At this point, I could have searched the App Store for another news app that was likely to be streaming the debate. But I wasn't about to start hunting for apps, only able to make educated guesses about who would be streaming to the iPad and then waiting for downloads. The fragile magic of democracy was unfolding in real-time on television screens everywhere and I wasn't going to miss another minute!
Finally, I turned to the browser. NBC was live-streaming the debate on the Web in what was thankfully an iPad-friendly format. I full-screened it, leaned back and watched.
Ultimately, the Web came through and worked like a charm. And if I had lined up a stronger arsenal of apps (or owned an XBox 360, or AirPlayed my MacBook to the TV, or used the WSJ Live app on Apple TV, etc.), I might have been able to avoid the hiccups.
Still, I couldn't help but picture my mother. What would she do if she were in my position?
People in the technology industry might be accustomed to hunting for livestreams to tune into a live television event. My mother? She sees no reason to fiddle with such nonsense. With traditional TV, you just sit down, turn it on and watch. Internet TV doesn't yet come close to matching that unquestioned ease of use.
So what will watching the debates look like in 2016, when Mitt Romney is debating Joe Biden? Who knows, but given the progress in the last four years, streaming the debates to the Web and mobile devices should be smooth as butter, but getting it to work on your Google Glasses might have a few hiccups.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.