Thursday, July 22, 2010

ABC Digital releases second iPad app, this one for the news division; app gets cute with interface

Anyone who needed evidence that iPad owners were hungry for news and publication apps needed only look at the number of tablet owners who eagerly downloaded ABC Digital's first iPad app. The ABC Player has consistently been on the top apps list since its release in May, and though the app has received a fair amount of critical reviews for being buggy, the app has been updated once to add stability.
Yesterday ABC Digital released its second iPad app, this one for the news division. The ABC News for iPad app already has 113 ratings after less than a day (only a small number of people bother to rate apps), most of them very positive.

The app's interface is too cute by half (a strange saying, isn't it?). The app opens to a globe shaped interface that allows users to find stories by swiping and turning the globe. It's cute, it's well designed, it's imaginative, and it's simply a silly gimmick.
On the upper right hand corner is a button that converts the layout to a more traditional web/print look with video content along the right hand side of the screen when the iPad is in landscape mode, along the bottom of the screen when in portrait.

*Update: I forget to add something here about the use of video in the app. The ABC News app uses the usual strategy of opening a new window to display the video. Very few new apps have used the FT's idea of opening a smaller window so that the reader can quickly see the video, and if desired shut the window to continue reading. Here, as in most apps, the video content is treated like would would a movie or TV show. I think this may work for Netflix but is a mistake in an app meant to bring the reader news. End of update.*

The app appears to be well designed and stable -- two things that are probably more important than adding gimmicks -- but suffers from only one thing: the weakness of ABC's news division. Looking at the actual stories here one is struck by how some of the same stories are repeated, as if the news division could not come up with more content. Not surprisingly, the Shirley Sherrod story dominates, with four of the 16 videos on the subject.

The fear would be that ABC Digital would use this news app as simply a tool to promote its TV personalities and shows like Good Morning America, Nightline and 20/20 which are displayed prominently on the home page.

A Browse button is one the top left hand side and clicking it pulls up some categories of news, as well as those television shows again. Pressing the International category brings up only seven stories along the left. In the middle are five heads that read "United", "Shirley Sherrod", "California: Marijuana", "Lindsay Lohan", and "Glenn Beck". These show up no matter what category of news you select, meaning this is what ABC News (or at least, those behind this app) think are the most important things going on in the world -- oh my.

Several different medium rectangle ads appear in the app. I saw ads for Jeep and Truvia sweetener. Looking at the ABC News website I did not find these same ads so it is possible these ads were sold strictly for the app.

We are still at a time where simply moving forward with creating an iPad app should be applauded. None of ABC's main competitors are on the iPad yet which is a bit crazy -- though I suspect we'll see a few by the end of summer. Additionally, it is clear that this is a well developed app that will not embarrass the company by crashing or otherwise badly performing.

The weakness of the app is solely due to the weakness of ABC News itself. To improve this app, the editors responsible should realize that a tablet app should not duplicate another medium. That is, tablet publishing is a separate format distinct from television or print. Therefore, the ABC News app should be free to create something new. To do this ABC could add content from its wire services, local outlets, through aggregation, etc.

The major media players love to create these promotional videos for their apps. Here is a good one for the ABC News app: