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. More