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May 24, 2012, 2:59 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

NY Times updates iPhone/iPad apps for customized reading

The Times is also pushing more material to devices overnight, aiming to improve the user experience on launch and save readers some bandwidth on their data plans.

With today’s updates to its flagship iPad and iPhone apps, The New York Times is adapting to a world of always-on but slower-than-you’d-like data networks.

The new versions, just approved by Apple and in the App Store, feature two key improvements. First, it turns on automatic downloading of all the Times’ content overnight as you sleep — meaning you’ll be able to avoid the frustrating experience of launching the app only to have it spend precious seconds fetching the latest news from Times servers. (The previous version updated some top stories overnight, but not the full paper’s worth of content.)

And second, it lets you save a little bandwidth (a concern these days) by declaring entire sections uninteresting. Never read the Times’ Fashion & Style section? In the new version, you can tell the app never to download its stories. (The previous iPad app let you demote Fashion & Style in your list of sections, but its stories were still downloaded.)

The app also symbolically raises the standing of the paper’s many blogs, some of which seem to be evolving into something closer to independent verticals of their own. In the iPad version, readers will now be able to add the blogs they follow to the sections tab alongside things like Business Day, N.Y./Region and the rest. On the iPhone, a similar functionality replaces the section of the “Saved” tab where favorite blogs could be stored for quicker retrieval. Brands like Bits, Well, and DealBook will now be able to rank alongside Sunday Review and Sports.

Alex Hardiman, director of mobile products for the Times, said they’ve been studying user habits and feedback from readers on the app and — no surprise — people expect their favorite content to be ready and accessible whenever they want it. One of the big questions from readers, Hardiman said: “What can you do to get me to my favorite content types as quickly and efficiently as possibly?”

In this case, that means swapping some features on the iPad and iPhone apps. Blogs were available on the phone, but not on the tablet. On the iPad you could reorder the sections based on your preferences — not so on the iPhone. She said their analytics show people go to the blogs on the iPhone app when there’s breaking news, one of the largest surges in usage was through the Bits blog when Steve Jobs died.

“There is a certain segment of users who know exactly what they want to read,” she said. “They read Nick Bilton or Jenna Wortham and they want that exclusively.”

The new apps try to find a middle ground between people’s reading preferences and their desire to be frugal with their data plan. It’s a consideration that didn’t exist for print — the whole paper was delivered to your front door or bought in one package at the newsstand. You didn’t simply get sports, or business, and have to pay to go back for local news. Once you had the paper — all of it — there was no additional cost to go back for more news. Now, not only will unwanted sections get disabled and not add to your data usage, the Times will update sections based on your preference — so if U.S. news is ranked ahead of sports, that will get higher priority for updating.

Hardiman said the app can use between 1-20 megabytes depending on how many sections you use. But even with a reduced number of sections the data payload will change depending on how much multimedia content is in the app, the amount of content in any given section, and the last time the app was refreshed (i.e. more time means more new things to push to the app). “A lot of the time we try to ask ourselves when we’re trying to roll something out, how does this make it easier for readers,” Hardiman said. “If they can save 90 seconds in the morning, it’s worth doing.” Not to mention that overnight updates will happen over wifi, when data is still (generally) unlimited, as opposed to the cell networks you’d see once you’ve left your house.

Matt Bischoff, one of the lead iOS engineers for the Times, said the updated apps acknowledge the new routine some of us have: the person who starts the day reading off their phone and shifts to a tablet in the evening. In that scenario, it makes sense to have the NYT app, loaded with the day’s stories and blog posts, ready by the time you walk out of the house. That goes double for tablet users who rely on wifi and may not know where their next reliable connection will come from during the day.

The app, in some small way, marks a small shift toward newspapers’ cession of editorial control to readers. On the internet people fly in and out of sites and stories as they choose either through social feeds or search. The app experience was supposed to be a little different, recapturing a bit of that sense of order and control publishers have always enjoyed. Readers’ tastes are more personally tailored. On devices, where often the time constraints and tightening data plans can shape how we read, there’s an appetite for value, if not just efficiency.

Brian Murphy, the Times’ executive director of mobile technology, said it comes down to flexibility. App users and reader in general want choice and the ability to find what they want quickly. But it’s also flexibility for the Times. The paper produces an armada of content every day and cramming all of that into their apps is a little unwieldy. Sure there may be some readers who want to go through the entire app every day, just the same as their are people who go through the entire newspaper every day. The Times is betting that’s not the direction readers are heading. “The decision was to give folks control over what they would actually pull into their app,” Murphy said. “Select what you want and it doesn’t overwhelm the interface.”

POSTED     May 24, 2012, 2:59 p.m.
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