Saturday, March 21, 2009

March Madness, baby!

Every spring here in the US, the NCAA hosts its college basketball tournaments, and every year some many-digit number of dollars of productivity is lost as employees (and bosses) try to keep track of how their brackets are doing. The effect is particularly pronounced in the first round, a glorious orgy of 32 games, roughly in batches of four, spanning a Thursday and Friday in late March. The games go from about noon to midnight on the East Coast, and thus pretty much through the workday on the Pacific side.

What does this have to do with the web? Every year there's a bit more Madness online. This year, CBS is streaming every game for "free" on, using Silverlight. The quality is good (not that anyone at my place of work would have checked, of course), but "free" means you get a commercial at the beginning, an obnoxious animated ad off to the side, and the usual further commercials during what used to be the "TV time outs" and are now the "media time outs."

There's also the "boss button" that throws up an imitation spreadsheet. This must be just for laughs. If it actually fools your boss, you obviously need hoops to liven up what must otherwise be a stunningly dull workday.

All of this has been in place for a while, but each year's version is a little slicker and a little smoother as the media players get better and the net becomes better able to handle large loads of streaming video.

Can't watch the video? Well, you could always stream audio, or just check an automatically updating scoreboard. Playing the office pool? You can do that online, too. The site will do the busywork of keeping score. Some will even show updated scores of games in progress. Nice.

Frivolity? Sure (unless the Jayhawks are playing). But it's also a nice test case and driver for the technology. You have everything from streaming media down to nice UIs for showing scores and tracking brackets, all aimed at a mass market that, collectively, is very picky about usability. If your site is clunky, millions of sports fans that should rightfully have been your customers will find one that isn't.

Just the sort of testbed for improving the infrastructure to pave the way for ... um, well, March 2010 comes to mind ...

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