Q&A: The Weather Network

How Canada

Being Canada’s national 24-hour provider of weather information and forecasting to anywhere from tiny towns to major metropolitan cities, The Weather Network Inc., headquartered in Oakville, Ont., relies on more than just a team of meteorologists in this digital age. Mark Thompson, The Weather Network’s vice-president and general manager for application services, talks about how the company tackles an ever-shifting mobile landscape and how its development strategy takes it to market

ComputerWorld Canada: How has today’s digital age changed the business of weather forecasting and the audience you target?

Mark Thompson: What we’ve found, with the ease of access, is that our users are using it more often. First thing you do in the morning, is you roll over and you pick up your phone, because we all sleep with our phones beside us, and you’ll check e-mail, a social network and weather. With a lot of these digital products, we’re able to reach our customers and they’re able to connect with us in many more places and many more times of the day, as opposed to being restricted to turning on the TV channel in the morning. Now, I’ve got my mobile phone. When I get to the office, I’ve got my desktop application on my computer screen. Now, with tablets, it’s expanded even more. As we see technologies expand, those are the types of things we are aware of and we are planning for. Interactive television is the next evolution of television, so how does that work in relation to our tablets or our mobile phones? And, even beyond that, you have the interactive television applications that are used through the carriers or the cable providers. And there are the ones that are native on the devices.

CWC: How are you adapting your application services strategy to keep up with the ever-changing mobile market?

MT: When we’re developing for each of the platforms, the first thing we have to do is look at the opportunity. We’ll take it up to the 10,000-foot level and go, okay, mobile phones or tablets, is that somewhere we want to be? We tend to go out there and try something even though it’s not proven. We just recently built, with a security system that Rogers is implementing in homes, a weather application built onto the touch screen. So, on your way out the door, you can set your alarm and check the weather. The second (decision) is which of the devices in that space to focus on. Mobile phones are a classic example. There are so many operating systems, you can’t be everywhere. Or, you can (be everywhere); you just can’t do it as well. We don’t take a “build once, use many” philosophy. We look at an iPad user and see how they are different from a PlayBook user. We actually design the app and the content that goes in the app differently. There’s a lot more rich, detail content on our tablets than there is on our mobile phones. We want to try and get consistency so that when you see an application regardless of whether it’s on TV, on tablet, on computer, you go, ah, it’s a weather network app. And, intuitively, you know where to go to get your hourly or 14-day forecast. In the past, because we tend to be a bit of a pioneer on each of the devices, we’ve had to ask ourselves what fits and how does this work. But now that it’s a little more mature, we’re changing our strategy to make sure we have a consistent look and feel.

CWC: The Weather Network boasts a unique application development process behind the success of its application services strategy. How has an almost entirely internal process helped you go to market?

MT: We’re a technology company. We’re staffed, from an organizational structure perspective, to build and have something internally. Back in the early days of mobile, we had the same guys who were developing our desktop apps and then they were developing some mobile apps. Last year, we made a conscious decision to have developers internally a 100 per cent focused on this because it moves way too fast and there are way too many opportunities for us to not have dedicated (people). Right now, I have two developers dedicated to BlackBerry, two dedicated to iOS and two dedicated to Android. And, on top of that, we’ve got a bunch of mobile designers who support the development group. We don’t not outsource, if that makes sense. It is open. As we look at other platforms where we need to expand and do something faster, then absolutely we will look at doing something externally. But the key for us, is we needed to do it first so we could better direct who we outsource it to … Despite having our internal resources, we’re very conscious of the fact that we don’t know everything so we need some expertise to ensure the products are the best that they can be.

By developing internally, we’ve been able to get down the road and ask, what if we tried this? Or, a developer could come back to us and say, while I was in here and doing this, I discovered we could do this. And we can very quickly change the scope and add things in. When you outsource, changing scope is a very dangerous thing to do because not only is it cost but it’s time.

Even physically within our building, our mobile team is in with the business unit. Despite the development group does not report directly into me, we’re physically located so we can see and talk to each other. When iPad came out, we made the conscious decision to wait and not be the first app out there. We wanted to see what others were doing and, more importantly, what the tablet was capable of. We were later to the game but the end result was a much better app.

CWC: How do you anticipate The Weather Network will adapt its application services strategy to new technologies moving forward?

MT: It changes annually. Within my group, we have a focus on emerging technologies. We go to the shows, we do a lot of reading, we listen to the rumours, we spend an awful lot of time just assessing the opportunities … Where we’re struggling is, a lot of the apps we develop are smart phone apps, but what’s going to happen with the not-quite-smart phones but better-than-feature phones? It’s these app-type phones. They don’t have the same type of horsepower, so our current smart phone apps aren’t going to work. But, how big is that market going to be and is that somewhere we should be focused on? As with operating systems, BlackBerry was our very first platform for mobile. We’ve been supporting every operating system when they upgrade and every device and so forth. We’ve had over 11 million downloads of our BlackBerry application. But, then the question becomes, what’s the future and how is QNX going to fit in there? Then, you see Microsoft and Nokia … and where does Symbian and MeeGo fit in? It is constantly changing.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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