It’s time for a first assessment of a few iPad media applications. To sum up: a) most are disappointing; b) no need to worry. Instead of subjectively pointing fingers at hits and misses, let’s rise to a bird’s eye view and see if we can understand why some apps work and why others don’t. Then we’ll proceed to a wish list for the next round of new and revised apps.
No one expected competition to come straight from… Safari, the web browser that comes with the iPad. Last week, while planning this column, I asked friends in the industry how they use their tablet and which their preferred media apps are. Many of them mentioned Safari as one of their favorites. Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group e-mailed back : “You don’t need the apps! The Safari browser is a great way to navigate magazines and newspapers. As I wrote in that column, the PDF-type magazine apps feel like a huge step backwards – remember Zinio? I don’t like being locked in a walled garden within a walled garden. But I hold out hope for the next generation of apps [Slate is about to release its own, inspired by BBC and NPR]“.
Alan Mutter who writes the excellent Newsosaur blog, was finishing his own column (he’s more like a Friday guy) and said “[Safari] makes it possible to access a beautiful rendition of any site on the web, including those operated by publishers offering sub-par iPad apps”, he was referring explicitly to Time Magazine and the New York Times.
Marion Maneker, contributor to Slate’s business website The Big Money, responded fully in a post discussing his favorite apps but underlined the advantages of Safari: “Right now many newspapers are better read through the websites. It’s great to be able to save the site URL as its own app-tile on the iPad’s Home screen”.
Even Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian said in an interview, a couple of months ago, how he was surprised to see how well his site renders on the iPad. (That could be one of the reasons why 2ergo, the company that designed the excellent Guardian app for the iPhone, is not rushing to deliver for the iPad).
So, that’s the first idea: simply browsing the web through Safari appears to seriously challenge publishers’ efforts to create good applications.
That could explain why many apps appear stuck in two weird modes. The first one involves encapsulating the web experience into an app, and coming up with a design closer to the original paper. For the second mode, newspapers and magazines choose to replicate the carbon-based reading experience on the iPad with PDF-based reading applications. Not exactly a great leap forward either. But it is convenient: over the last weeks, I found myself buying more newspapers on my iPad than I did on newsstands.
It works fine as long as three conditions are met.
- The price has to be right. When a physical newspaper costs €1.30-1.50, it doesn’t make sense to demand €1.59 on-line for exactly the same content. Apple’s rigid pricing policy doesn’t help in the matter. In the Euro zone for instance, a newspaper will sport one of two prices: €0.79 or €1.59 (which translates into $0.99 and $1.99 in the US store). Many editors find this pricing either too low or too expensive, especially when, in a country like France, a 20% VAT applies on digitally delivered content – which undermines the profitability. Most of went for the €0.79 price, which is a good thing.
The price issue is especially critical critical for magazines. For glossies, the equation is pretty simple: for the same price, it must offer more. Otherwise, it’s a much better deal to pickup a copy at the newsstand. Except for foreign publications: Vanity Fair costs $4.95 in the US and £4.20 in the UK, versus €8 to €9 in Paris; this is a case where the iPad version of the magazine is a good bargain.
Wired is, as of today, the only magazine to take advantage of the iPad capability. Its June edition is a self-contained 527Mb application, fully loaded with videos and contents rearranged to fits Apple’s tablet. Wired’s designers have done a spectacular job by making two designs of the magazine : one for portrait mode, one for landscape mode; each time you switch, the layout changes, pictures resizes, etc. It is more an exercise of style than anything else, and definitely not applicable for a weekly magazine, let alone a daily. Interestingly, Wired’s iPad triggers extreme reactions, as some put it on the top five other in the top bottom….
- The reading experience has to be fluid and flawless. As I was reviewing several media apps for this column, it turned out many of them crashed (for instance when switching from portrait to landscape mode), and fluidity in browsing and zooming varies. In that matter, the iPad is unforgiving; because of its speed an precision the slightest clumsiness becomes lethal.
- Interface has to be obvious. An app that requires instructions to perform basic functions such as navigating between sections, saving stories, etc. needs an urgent redesign. It’s funny how designers tend to forget Apple’s main design lessons :
• less is best (features, buttons, etc)
• simplicity and slickness rule
• complexity buried under the hood.
But PDF-powered digital newspapers remain static experiences : they don’t take advantage important web features such as the ability to interact with contents, navigating by related stories, or simply searching contents.
Most people I quickly polled for this article express disappointment with the current state of media apps. New York Times technology correspondent John Markoff outlines “The general lack of interesting User Interfaces to take advantage of the iPad” (John preferred apps are BBC, the Financial Times, NPR). Can’t agree more. But there is no reason to worry. Developers had only few weeks, to come up with something. Chances are future iterations will be completely different from what we see today.
Let’s conclude with a quick wish list about media applications for the iPad:
1 / Programmable downloading. Publishers should keep in mind that the iPad is also an offline reading device. Applications should offer the possibility of downloading several layers of contents at once for later reading. In the same way we have push notification, we should be able to set our app to auto-download the issue of our favorite newspaper when it is available…
2 / More interaction. The next batch of apps will have to offer more on the interactive side. Although its virtual keyboard is not comparable to a physical one, many people will want to use their iPad to interact with medias; that feature should not be limited to the web, especially since large chunks of content will switch to apps in order to become paid-for.
3 / Recommendation-based navigation. The current iPhone Guardian app shows that its perfectly feasible to add tags that send to related stories. That should be done on the iPad apps. It’s a great way to increase the page views and also the value the long tail.
4 / Put more videos. They work great on the iPad. The best apps (and the most expensive to build), will take advantage of video.
5 / Try new formats. Long ones for instance. One of the best apps is the iBooks. It’s simple to use, efficient, and it doesn’t compete with the existing web. As I say in a previous Monday Note (see Profitable Long Form Journalism), the tablet is the vector of choice for long pieces. I would definitely pay for a 15,000 words essay by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo on Facebook privacy issues, or for a Tom Friedman piece about the flaws in the Chinese manufacturing system, or for a account of the BP disaster by the staff of the Wall Street Journal. Theses are unique value for which tablets are the medium of choice.
6 / Segmenting. Bookmarking habits lead to a greater segmentation of the reading process. We enter websites through sections as much as through the all-purpose home page. Therefore it could be a good idea to devote one application for each of the most popular entry points of a website.
Tablets will requires a new grammar and new marketing tactics. And a lot of test & learn. This is just the beginning.