Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Boston Globe goes mobile with release of its own real estate app and first iPad app -- more on the way

With the release of its own iPhone real estate app, as well as its first paid app for the iPad, this is a good time to speak to Lisa DeSisto, general manager of Boston.com and chief advertising officer for The Boston Globe, about the paper's mobile strategy.

Released two weeks ago, the iPhone app Boston.com Real Estate got an update this morning, as the developers added iAd support. Similar to the New York Times' real estate app released earlier this year, this app delivers searchable home listings, allows users to browse listings by neighborhood, and helps buyers find homes nearby that are for sale, using the iPhone's location-aware technologies. The app also includes the real estate RSS feed, bringing in articles and slideshows
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"When the New York Times is your parent company you get access to a lot of their people and technology, so it made it easy for us to launch it here," says Lisa DeSisto.

Because this is the second iteration of this particular application, users will find the free app stable, easy to use, and quite functional. The original NYT app got it right the first time, so this one is just as useful.

"The business strategy behind the app is two-fold: the first one is about the realtors who have their listings on Boston.com -- hundreds of realtors have their listings on Boston.com -- so for us, this was just another distribution channel for them," DeSisto said in an interview yesterday afternoon.

Users will be able to find open homes near their present location, and preview homes in advance to see if they wish to actually visit them. The hope is that realtors will see this new app as a great marketing tool -- a way of making their listings work harder.

For home buyers, a mobile real estate device can be used 'on the road', of course. "You don't necessarily have to be tethered to your computer, you can do it on your phone," DeSisto said.


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Left: Listings found in a search for Boston homes; Middle: the app shows the found listings on a Google map; Right: the satellite view lets users see the neighborhood where the home for sale can be found.


The second part of the business strategy, DeSisto told me, is to sell display advertising -- "discrete display advertising, we don't want to overpower your search experience," DeSisto said, "because the primary reason for the app is to put the listings in front of people -- but for businesses who want to reach prospective home seekers (lending institutions, banks, mortgage brokers) it's a great place for them to advertise. So we're actively looking for sponsors for the app."

The app does not currently contain paid advertising, but the addition iAd support to the app does not change the company's ad strategy. “We intend to sell advertising/sponsorship directly," DeSisto said this morning in response to my inquiry, "but also will use networks to fill any inventory that is unsold.”

(As an aside: The app was that since the app uses Google Maps to plot the homes, and so offers a satellite view, as well as the map view. But pins that show the property do not offer a street view, that could be extremely helpful to the home buyer. For instance, putting in the address of the home used as an example above into Google maps shows the user the buildings next to the condo, as well as the rest of the neighborhood. Of course, the listing itself can contain many of these pictures -- just a thought.)



This real estate app is not the only app released recently by Boston.com, and the company has plans for much more.
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"We have a plan to introduce, I guess you could call them 'flagship apps', that would be focused more on news content. Then we also want to do some niche apps. So one of the paid apps that we just completed is for The Big Picture which is a photojournalistic blog."

The Big Picture from Boston.com was released on August 25 and costs the user $2.99. It is a revised version of the iPhone app that was originally released back in May, and originally priced at $1.99.

The application takes advantage of the iPad's display size to render the photographs attractively, and I think makes for a better reading experience than the popular web feature. For one thing, since the iPad is more of a leisure-time reading device than the web is, the user will be free to linger over the photographs. The captions are handled a bit differently, as well. On the web, the captions are placed under the photo in a more-or-less traditional way. Here a tap of the finger removes the caption so the photo can be enjoyed without text.



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Left: A photograph with caption; Right: then a tap of the finger removes the caption.


The application is somewhat similar to the Guardian's own photojournalism app, The Guardian Eyewitness. The Guardian app handles captions inventively and the app, while free, has a single-sponsor -- Canon. (You can read more about the Guardian's app here.)

The Big Picture, however, is more like a blog. Created by Alan Taylor, the blog/app organizes pictures around a central theme. In this way it is more like photoJ, the photojournalism app from The Mainichi Newspapers in Japan.

Interestingly, the question of "why pay" will be asked by some iPad users as the Internet version of The Big Picture remains free online while the app version will cost you $2.99 -- once again free access online may undercut a paid product.

But the iPad version, in my opinion, is a superior reading experience -- and even though you could use the iPad's Safari browser to access the online version for free, it is still not as easy to navigate and enjoy as the app version.

DeSisto appears to share my objections to replica edition apps believing that the media app has to fit the device.

"When you develop your products," DeSisto said, "they have to be developed for the device, so instead of just throwing it (the print product) onto mobile phones we said 'let's take advantage of the kinds of functionality and the kind of experience you have when you are in the mobile world'."

This approach will serve Boston.com well as they continue to release apps for both mobile phones and tablets. And consistent with the idea that content should follow the reader, the company will be releasing Android versions of their apps at some point, as well.

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