Tuesday, December 28, 2010

State of the tablet: some newspapers continue to struggle with the concept that the tablet is a unique platform

As the new year approaches we all know that the conversation in mobile media will soon turn to the business affairs of companies like Apple, Google, Verizon, RIM and others as these companies make big dramatic announcements soon about new tablets, old products on new carriers, and the like. Just about every media tech writer likes to watch Steve Jobs strut on stage to announce "one more thing". This next year won't be different.
But for New Media teams at newspapers and magazines, 2011 will be a whole new ballgame.

2010 started with the big announcements from the tech giants and a few publications immediately shot out of their chairs and started work on tablet editions or Android apps. The rest waited: waited all year long, or else slowly began work on their own new electronic "products".

"Products" is put in quotes here because this is one of the big issues facing print publishers: will they create new electronic media products for these new platforms, or will they simply try to port over their existing products? It's the battle of "replica" versus "native" -- and while many publishers don't get the difference, readers do.

It is estimated that Apple will ship close to 16 million iPads in 2010. The US launch of their first tablet was in early April, with the iPad being launched in many European countries at the end of May -- that means 16 million represents about two-thirds of a full year of sales. Estimates for 2011 are in the 40 to 60 million range worldwide.

Then there are the new Android or BlackBerry platform tablets projected to be launched in 2011. All-in-all, 2011 is shaping up to be the year in which tablets go from being an early adopter device to a mainstream device. (If the crowds at the Apple Store were an indication of this I think I'd bet heavily on mainstream adoption of the tablet.)

Of course, this does not mean publishers are, in general, ready for the move to tablets. Even those who launched iPad apps this winter appear to be a bit confused.

Take these two new tablet editions of metro newspapers from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The publishers of these newspapers have looked at Apple's new platform and have come up with very different ideas of what a tablet edition should be.

The AJC has, for the most part, adopted the New York Times model of iPad app: the app uses RSS feeds to populate native layouts for easy reading on the iPad.

But where is this copy actually coming from? I still can't figure it out. A look at the business section shows that the first story is about luxury condo sales -- but it is five days old! Hitting the refresh button on the top of the page produces few changes.
Nonetheless, the app looks and feels like it belongs on a tablet.

Now look at the new iPad app at left from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"Free for a limited time. An exact replica of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, accessible online," the app description says (and by the way, that is the entire description right there. I guess there was simply not much to say about the app.)

Apple does not have a retail store in Milwaukee, choosing to open two stores in the suburbs and one in Madison, so maybe the publisher of the paper, Elizabeth Brenner, has never actually seen an iPad -- who knows, I certainly wasn't going to call to ask "whose brilliant idea was this?"

At right is a screenshot of the "Pages" navigation. No word on whether the second edition of Apple's iPad will come with a complimentary magnifying glass.

The AJC and MJS apps share one thing in common: they have both punted for now on their pricing strategies.

The MJS app is completely free at this point: free to download, and with no subscription requirement within the app. This means that if the tablet edition was an attractive product a reader could choose to dump their print editions and go with their free option -- the circulation manager, though, need not worry.

The paper has a mobile app developed through DoApp Inc., one of the better mobile app vendors. But readers have complained of some technical issues, as well as the limited Green Bay Packers coverage -- very important in that neck of the woods. The paper decided earlier this year to launch a paid app through Spreed called Packer Insider 2010 as an alternative. Ironically, they would have been better off asking Spreed to launch them an iPad app as their app for The Globe and Mail, while not perfect, would certainly have been better than this replica edition.

As for the AJC, they, too, are offering their app and content for free (for now). But the AJC is requiring readers to register with their site to gain access. Why more publishers aren't doing this is beyond me. If you offer someone something for free like an app registering seems fair.

The problem, though, comes after the 30 days of free access -- what will the price be after the introductory period runs out. Right now the paper charges $17.99 a month for home delivery, will this be the price? Or will they create a new price structure. The publisher still has a couple of weeks to answer that question.

Here is the demo video from the AJC: