Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: New York Times iPad app has the feel of a temporary solution; limited content, no multimedia

The New York Times probably felt an obligation to have an app ready to go on Day One of the iPad era. Steve Jobs, after all, used their web site to demonstrate online browsing with the iPad during his product introduction. And sure enough the Times did not disappoint, getting their Editor's Choice app approved and online well before April 3rd.
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There is no question that the Times app is gorgeous to look at -- but even Talking New Media looks great on an iPad! The glossy scene displays rich colors; the text is sharp and easy to read; and the whites are white, the blacks black (news photographers are going to absolutely love the way their images look).

But the Times app gives you the impression that this is an interim solution. By posting a free app that gives readers access to some content, they may be paving the way for a paid app, or a paid subscription app. In many ways, this limited content approach mirrors the Times news reader for the iPhone.

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Three pages from the Time's Editor's Choice iPad app.
At left: a feature page; middle: the second page of the feature
with an ad from Chase; right: the technology page.

The Times iPad app is not just an RSS reader. The developers of this app didn't take short cuts by just giving iPad users pages of plain text, clearly some thought was behind their decisions. The pages are well design, though a little boxy.

It is what is missing that is interesting: no video, no multimedia of any kind. I know that the developers were probably rushed, but it is surprising that the Times did not go further.
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iPad users can watch full screen video from the Times web site, even without Flash.  →

Sadly, the Times app pales in comparison to the way the NYT web site looks in Safari on the iPad. Readers on the iPad can view Times videos because they have taken into account the iPad's lack of Flash. A quick move and the video is full screen as seen on the right.

While I did not expect that the Times would create a whole new product for the iPad the way some magazine and book publishers were imagining their iPad apps, I did think that the Times would see the world's first tablet as a multimedia device and realize that the first app would have to contain multimedia, as well.

Perfect content for the Time's app might have been videos from Mark Bittman, who writes their Minimalist food column and who often creates video to accompany the column. This content, that can be archived and tailored for the iPad app without rush, would have fit perfectly with the way iPad users are expected to use their devices. The Times also has their own YouTube Channel which contains 5 "shows", as well as almost 1900 uploaded video -- wouldn't this be perfect?

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Left: the Opinion page; Right: a column

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that for many developers, their initials apps are often like beta tests. When I touched the Times app for the first time, what happened? It crashed. Oops. But after that everything was fine -- if a little boring.  There is plenty of time now for the Times to make revisions to this app and, more importantly, begin to differentiate their app content from their web content. A tablet application is, after all, a separate product from a print newspapers, a web site, or a smart phone reader.

One reason the paper may have gone in this direction is that with their metered paywall coming online some time this year, they may have wanted a free option for the iPad. But the metered approach would still give web readers access to some free content -- about as much as what is available with the iPad app.

I think, though, that the developers of this first NYT iPad app will decide to introduce updates that expand and enhance their iPad offerings. But for now, the Times has done it: they've gotten there first and demonstrated they are serious about the format. I'll probably stick to viewing the NYT web site on the built-in Safari browser, though -- at least until this app is enhanced, or is replaced with a whole new approach to tablet publishing.