Let’s call a spade a spade: the news industry’s push to retake control of the news reading experience from the Wild Wild Web via elegantly designed but hardly functional iPad apps is a flop.
Almost every app I’ve downloaded from news organizations lays unused, while my news consumption on the iPad via news websites and aggregators like Flipboard is steadily on the rise.
That’s because, contrary to The Web is Dead cant, the iPad is leading a resurgence of the open Web on non-PC devices.
Part of the problem is definitional and existential. An app, short for application, implies something you can do something with. But news content isn’t about doing. It’s about consumption. The best apps centralize everything about a certain function or behavior you do online — Facebook for social, Twitter (well) for Twitter, Foursquare for location, Mint for personal finance, Nike+ or Runkeeper for fitness, Flipboard or Reeder for news reading. Even if the function is highly specific and hard to differentiate to the layperson, virtually all the apps on my home screen are dominant in a specific vertical.
This is inherently difficult for a news app to achieve, no matter how much credibility the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal might bring to the table. The Times will not dominate all news reading — even (and you might say, especially) for an informed devotee on the Upper West Side in the same way that Facebook will dominate their social experience online. To get the same sort of coverage that the Facebook or Twitter apps give me in their verticals, I have to download and install (at least) a screenful of newspaper apps from every major outlet in the country. Why do that when Flipboard gives me the stuff that matters in one place?
Moreover, the Web experience on a tablet is just better — better than it is on the PC, in my view.
The standard width on most websites today — in the 900-950 pixel range, is a relic of the 1024×768 default display size of the early 2000s. The default width scaled upwards from 600ish in the ’90s to 800 early in the last decade and but stopped growing even though no PC on the market today (except possibly for the flatlining netbooks) still ships with a 1024 pixel wide display. This has led to increasing amounts of wasted real estate on the screen, with huge areas given over for background images.
The consequence of this is that the metaphor of the web “page” is hopelessly broken. Most pages in real life are oriented in portrait mode. But your monitor is perpetually oriented in landscape. When I had the opportunity to hook up an external display that could swivel into portrait mode, I found the experience much more satisfying for reading news and blogs. Why? More of the content was viewable, less need for scrolling, and no wasted pixels. We can also think of the general problem the design community faces in deciding what goes above and below “the fold.” Less of a problem if “the fold” is effectively nonexistent.
We didn’t start thinking again about viewing web “pages” how they were meant to be viewed until the iPhone and the iPad, which default to portrait mode and are used that way probably 90% of the time.
Incidentally, guess what the screen size is on the iPad? 1024×768 — what today’s websites were designed for!
In the tablet setting, reading long-form content with a lot of scrolling is actually ideal. I wouldn’t change a thing about NYTimes.com or Politico.com on the iPad.
And I don’t mean their apps, which I never use. I mean their websites.
And it’s not just that news sites on the iPad have upside. It’s that the apps have downside. I always assume that the experience in an app is somehow crippled. The tradeoffs I may accept on the iPhone because of its tiny screen size I will not accept on the iPad. Either they won’t give me all the articles, I won’t be able to share the piece on Facebook and Twitter, deep links from sites like Twitter (where I read most of my news anyway) will take me directly to the web, and it’ll lack other functionality like comments. I also find a lot of articles on sites like Politico by scanning the sidebar on individual article pages, which I won’t have in the news app.
And with a few exceptions, they’re horrendously designed. They try to mimic the print medium in digital form, with boxy blocks of articles designed to mimic a front page, and the difficult-to-read multicolumn format shoehorned into the article pages. These design choices show the true impetus behind the news apps: thumbing their noses at the web and reimposing the dominance of print — when the two are in fact totally different.
I haven’t even touched the fact that the news sites eventually want me to pay for this crippled experience on the iPad when the (superior) web product remains free.
It’s not just news sites either. There’s a reason Facebook is still not developing an app for the iPad, despite the phenomenal success of the iPhone app, and that’s because, at a screen resolution designed to handle the default width of most websites, even its famously jam-packed layout works on the iPad. I tried installing Friendly just to see if I’d like the app experience better and haven’t opened it since. As other apps have discovered, taking the iPhone app experience that works and just doubling the size isn’t optimal. Facebook isn’t fully functional on the iPad, but I know that with the site, I at least have the best shot at getting the full Facebook experience.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t innovative news apps out there, just not the kind that solve the problems of the news industry. In fact, the really good apps like Flipboard exacerbate the traditional news industry’s downward spiral by aggregating the best bits of content from all sources. It’s still early and I trust that someone will find a clever way to innovate in the year ahead, but so far, I echo Mathew Ingram’s assessment that the iPad app ecosystem looks more like a desolate wasteland for publishers than it does their savior.