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May 13, 2010, 11 a.m.

Why the biggest competitor to iPad news apps may be a familiar icon

Once we got done making jokes about the name, one of the more amusing aspects of the iPad’s launch was how many people made up their minds about the product’s worthiness and market fate without the benefit of using one for very long, if at all. The iPad was a closed computing system that was an insult to people’s intelligence, a walled garden appealing to publishers’ retrograde tendencies, a perfect-for-Grandma gift combining an e-reader with a good digital picture frame, and a brilliant new device that would free us from the twin annoyances of peering at smartphones and gazing at desktop monitors. As well as most every other point on that curve. (The New York Times’s David Pogue cleverly squared the circle by running two reviews in one.)

I was as guilty of this as anybody else. Annoyed with the techie grousing about the lack of multitasking, cameras and HDMI ports, I pointed out what I thought such critics were missing: Techies weren’t the intended audience for Apple’s new device. The iPad, I predicted, would let people do at least three things a lot better than current devices: watch a movie, read a book, and casually surf the Web. And those improvements alone would be enough to make it Apple’s new device a hit, since (a) a lot of people like doing those things, and (b) our enchantment with being able to do those things on a smartphone or computer has blinded us to the fact that we can’t do them very well. It’s amazing to be able to watch a movie on a phone or use the web in bed; it would be a lot more amazing if you didn’t have to peer at a screen the size of a deck of cards or leave your legs sweating beneath a laptop’s heat and weight.

After swearing I’d wait for version 2.0 of the iPad, I wound up buying one, and waiting eagerly for it to arrive. (As always seems to happen, the case and the dock arrived first and sat around for a forlorn, purposeless few days.) So after a couple of weeks of using it, how closely does the device fit my preconceptions? Pretty well, for the most part — but with one exception. The thing is, that exception has made me think about apps and publishers’ hopes for them very differently.

Not a bigger iPhone

I initially treated the iPad like an iPhone that couldn’t make a call — which, thanks to AT&T, is also an excellent description of my actual iPhone. I spent a couple of hours looking for iPad equivalents of my iPhone apps, downloading iPhone apps that didn’t have iPad versions yet, transferring photos and music, and futzing with settings. Then I downloaded a handful of news apps for the iPad — WSJ, New York Times Editors’ Choice, USA Today, AP News, and BBC News. And then I found a comfortable spot on the couch and played around.

As I’d suspected, reading a book and watching video was very different than on my iPhone, laptop, or desktop. Ebooks were finally an intimate experience like reading physical books. Videos felt big and bright. Games were a joy — gathering my impressions was delayed by my son’s love of Flight Control HD and Sparkle HD. Battery life is impressive — I had to train myself to always keep tabs on my iPhone’s battery indicator, but the iPad does fine if it’s plugged in every few days. Using the iPad is generally a comfortable, pleasurable experience — a good design scaled-up to a useful size — and using mine quickly became part of my daily routine.

What I hadn’t considered was the browser. We’re used to subconsciously pausing to twiddle our thumbs after visiting a web page, because we’re waiting for it to load. But web browsing on the iPad is startlingly fast. And the type in particular looks great. I’d figured I’d spend some time using my iPad to lazily surf when I didn’t feel like getting up and using a laptop. But I found myself doing that more than anything else.

An unexpected competitor for apps

Which brings us to the first round of news apps. As others have noted, some are good and some aren’t — though all deserve to be assessed as the early-stage experiments they are. I think USA Today did the best job bringing its aesthetic to the Web — I like the clever navigational trick of using its section banner to switch between News, Money, Sports, and Life. (But where’s Technology?) The Times’ photos look beautiful, and the navigation feels intuitive, but the content is so paltry that the entire app feels like a demo for something still in the works. As a Wall Street Journal veteran, I appreciated WSJ’s wink to tradition by billing the app as the paper’s six-star edition, but the navigation borders on incomprehensible.

Some of the confusion is to be expected — it will take a while for standards to emerge that utilize the iPad’s new vocabulary of swiping, pinching and expanding views. And apps will get richer and deeper.

But I keep coming back to the browser.

After about a week of using the iPad, I started deleting apps, because the websites themselves were perfectly adequate. This is the reverse experience of the iPhone. On the iPhone, the browser was used only in emergencies, and apps ruled. On the iPad, at least for now, the opposite is true — the browser is superb, and renders many apps superfluous.

That complicates things for news organizations. Many have already put too much faith in the idea that being able to charge for apps will reinvigorate their financial prospects. Now, they have to confront the reality that their apps may compete with their own websites — and right now the apps don’t win that competition.

Yesterday morning, like most everybody else, I sat down to read James Fallows’ Atlantic cover story on Google and the news industry. When I saw it was six screens long, I sighed. Then I reminded myself, and reached for my iPad. As I walked to the couch, I looked for an app from The Atlantic, mostly out of duty. There wasn’t one. It didn’t matter.

POSTED     May 13, 2010, 11 a.m.
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