Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Short takes: TBD.com launches modest iPhone apps to match website; PageSuite produces "replica" editions for UK publishers; the publisher-developer relationship

The DC area start-up launched by Allbritton Communications has launched its first mobile apps, moving quickly into the space shortly after its website launched. The free apps mirror their website in that the apps are simple and clean, don't contain much of interest, but do not offend.
The mobile app does not use maps to handle the local traffic instead goes for a text version that has a second window that reports on traffic incidents. I suppose this works, but the quick and easy way Google Maps shows slow traffic has its merits. If you casually looking to see traffic conditions ahead of a trip out the door, the text method might be preferred. But if you were in your car and wanted to see a quick view of traffic then maps are better -- Google Maps also will show you where you are right now so you can see what's ahead. Both methods work, though the map method is "more native" to smartphones.
I'm not terribly enthusiastic about TBD.com though I am thrilled to see a start-up in the space. The editorial staff already looks newspaper-like with 39 people already listed under editorial -- though to be fair, this includes the TV team, as well.

In comparison, the ad team lists three names.

I have to assume TBD.com and its mobile apps for iPhone and Android are targeting the plus-60 crowd as the app features their weather blogs -- "yessiree, it sure is hot today" -- very exciting stuff -- and the website has fonts so large you can read the site from the kitchen.

Advice when using this app: don't forget to put your teeth in just in case someone calls and wants to use FaceTime.

As Frank Burns from M*A*S*H* might say about app developers "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting one!" There seems to be more and more third party app developers out there waiting to sell to publishers.
A new one to me is PageSuite Limited which has a number of iPhone apps in iTunes for UK publishers and has now launched its second iPad app, this one for Kent newspapers called Kent News for iPad.

PageSuite calls their apps "scrollable replica editions" which tells you all you need to know about their goals -- exact copies of the print editions with a few iPad features thrown in to assist reading. These would include multi-touch controls which greatly improve the reading experience.

I would prefer creating an iPad-native layout and feeding in the content using RSS feeds, but this does work, and for those looking to duplicate the newspaper reading experience this is probably the right solution.

Strangely, this app is free, while PageSuite's other iPad app for the Daily Express will set you back $7.99 (£4.99). What's the business model?

There are not many reviews inside the U.S. iTunes store, but the UK store has a large number of complaints concerning these apps crashing. This didn't occur on my iPad, though the app did seem to take forever to launch. Unfortunately, these user complaints appear to extend to the company's iPhone apps, as well. The mobile app for The Scotsman, for instance, has a number of crash complaints.

If it seems as if I've posted a number of negative app comments recently (and today) it is simply because I am reflecting not only my own views but also those of users within iTunes. When choosing a developer, especially one that has been working with other publishers it is important to get references. Those references can be obtained by making a few calls, but they are also there for the whole world to see within iTunes.

Of course, just like forums of computer users, those that post often are experiencing problems and want to complain about them. For instance, no goes up on the Apple discussion board to say their Mac booted up as normal this morning. Likewise, who has anything to say about a mobile news app that launches quickly then delivers you the headlines?
Nonetheless, there are a lot of bad news apps out there -- as well as a number of pretty mediocre ones. The good news is that apps can be updated, redesigned and relaunched. The bad news is that a really bad app is likely to get deleted and the user lost forever.

The app above is a good example: the Globe and Mail's iPad app from Spreed which I looked at when it was launched in late July. My biggest complaint about the app was that the developer did not include the ability to use multi-touch gestures like pinch and zoom to make the reading experience better. Instead, Spreed offers the ability of the user to change font sizes -- nice but cumbersome.

The app was updated fairly quickly, fixing a number of bugs that readers complained about. This is a good sign, though as the screenshot shows, stories tend to take a long time to load.

Readers are patient, however, as evidenced by the most recent reviews: a few complaints, but they are happy to have access to their Globe and Mail.

So finding a developer that will respond quickly to reader complaints is essential. While I would prefer creating in-house capabilities (if we're talking about a larger media firm), but finding an outside developer that is willing to frequently update and improve your app is certainly a good alternative.