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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.

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  • Chris Meadows

    You might want to try out InstaPaper if you haven’t already. It’s the only app that’s better than the web browser for reading long articles, plus you can send articles directly into it from Twitter or a number of RSS apps.

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  • Bud Parr

    I think Chris’s mention of Instapaper (which is a terrific app) speaks to something about the Web vs the potential for apps is that the reading experience on Websites is absolutely horrible. Reading on a device like the iPad helps, but it can and should be vastly improved.

    Skimming (as opposed to actually reading) shouldn’t be the norm if publishers improved the reader’s experience.

  • Brian

    I hate to fuel any flame war, but if the iPad had Flash on it, you wouldn’t need a ton of custom apps either.

    No offense, but I just don’t see the purpose of having a custom app for a website that is perfectly fine inside a browser. The only shortcoming with browser experience in the iPad is the lack of Flash, Silverlight and even Java.

    I don’t buy the excuses either. It Flash could be set to “click to activate” and thus eliminating downloading and playing of content you are not interested in (sort of a built-in ad blocker!)

  • D.B. Hebbard

    As an iPad owner I would agree with the author that the browser is often a better choice when reading news on the iPad than apps. But wouldn’t you agree that this is really the result of news organizations (and the vendors that support them) failing to realize that tablets are as unique a platform as print or the web — each medium needs to be understood on its own.

    This week Vanity Fair, a Condé Nast property, released its iPad app and it is essentially two publications in one: the landscape mode is an almost exact replica of the print product, while the portrait mode is something a bit different, with design variations and more embedded rich media. Their app makes some important progress in taking advantage of the tablet format.

    We are still waiting, however, for the first news apps that can truly be called “designed for the iPad” — but they will come, either from a traditional media company, or from a new company that is launched because they see an opportunity.

    (One thing designers should consider is that the iPad is a better long form news device than is the web. It is capable for easier navigation, embedded media, and better layouts. Short news reads may always be better consumed “online” — no matter what device is used.)

  • Jason Fry

    Thanks for the comments, everybody!

    D.B., I agree with you that we’re in the very early stages of iPad news apps. As news organizations and their audiences explore the device and what it can do, we’ll see much better ones. And that’s good news for everybody.

    What surprised me, though, was what a better experience using the browser on an iPad is compared with using a browser on a laptop or desktop. The iPad’s speed, coupled with the form factor and the whole “lean back” experience, all make for a big improvement. News organizations’ iPad apps will have to compete with not only their own free sites, but also their own free sites as experienced on an iPad. That’s a competitor I hadn’t thought about, and that they likely missed too.

  • Tim Barkow

    As far as I can tell, iPad orientation is available via javascript in the browser (as is location), so some of the core benefits of iPad apps can be easily duplicated within the browser. I think it’s a smart organization that focuses on retooling its websites to serve multiple platforms (mobile/HTML5/etc.) — not build an app.

    Right now, it’s difficult to argue that iPad/iPhone app development isn’t driven the same way Flash is — execs like the shiny, shiny. You can argue it’s R&D, but now that the ship is sinking, isn’t it time to make some money? If not now, when?

    Plus, the addition of more versions of a product, each with different price points and restrictions, is going to generate serious friction with consumers soon, which should lead to the emergence of bundled subscription plans, which will eat into the ROI for these new apps. Less revenue generated, but same support & development costs.

    It’s a dangerous game when media companies start believing they can be software companies.

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  • William Pollak

    Having spent a few minutes figuring out and making intuitive the navigational capabilities and moves of the Wall Street Journal’s app I emerge with a conclusion 180 degrees from yours. Within the app you can jump within and between sections and articles swiftly and with much more prior information about article content than is possible with the web sites, not apps, of the NY Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and other papers I peruse. I write this to encourage you to invest a few minutes in mastering the WSJ app, to discourage the WSJ from dropping its app, and, most of all, to encourage other papers to match or improve on the superb model the WSJ created. Really, invest a few minutes in the WSJ and likely reap a benefit that more than compensates for the time taken.

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  • Bud Parr

    I wasn’t being very clear in my first comment, so apologies for coming back around so late.

    I disagree with you that the browser is going to be dominant over apps. If only because Website owners have yet to create anything that comes close to the user experience in apps (which, admittedly, still have a ways to go themselves).

    The speed, ease of use, and logic of news apps like USA Today and the NPR app give me a sense that the ‘old media’ publishers are on to something.

    I think that experience *can* be replicated on Websites and therefore the browser may eventually rule, but at the moment, with legacy browsers like IE creating an environment where sites would have to have two separate versions to embrace the advanced, app-like, features of HTML5, we’re stuck in the middle.

    I also think that the entire aesthetic of an app, where the user is captive for the moment, is a better one than the Web where sites can’t help but to get every piece of information, link, add, archived article on the page for fear that the reader will miss it.

    If anything, iPad apps should be showing those of us who influence or build Websites that there’s a better way.

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