Thursday, April 7, 2011

NYTs updates iPad app; but is it a dead app now?

In April of last year, when the first generation of iPads were on those UPS trucks being delivered, the first New York Times tablet edition hit the App Store. NYT Editors' Choice was one of the most anticipated apps for prospective owners of the Apple tablet, a reason by itself for buying the new device. On that launch day I rushed online a look at the first newspaper tablet edition, even calling it a "Review" -- I don't do that anymore.

That first look proved pretty accurate, if you ask me. I said it looked gorgeous -- "but even Talking New Media looks great on an iPad!" I said that Saturday.

Then I wrote: "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."

I was right about the "paid" part. In May, the Times announced that it would launch its metered paywall in early 2011. What became obvious later was that the first iPad was not thought through, it wasn't part of any real strategy but a compromised product that allowed the Times to claim it was leading the way, when it reality it was just going along for the ride.
Many iPad owners hated the app: it had limited content, it had little interactivity. But others were thrilled to be able to read the NYT on their tablets and not get their fingers dirty (just their displays).

One of those that hated the app, apparently, was Apple CEO Steve Jobs. According to reports, he wanted the NYT to be there at launch (they were) and he wanted a real product, something with limited content that looked awfully close to an RSS reader (which it is, after all).

Gawker's report, posted only one month after the first iPad launched, said that "some" NYT executives wanted to charge $20 to $30 per month for the iPad app. No doubt this was the view of the circulation folk who wanted to protect the print product.

Steve Jobs demos the NYT app, January 2010. Photo source: Gawker.

(This is one reason why I think the position of Circulation Director at newspapers need to change. There needs to be an audience development director position that sits over circulation, responsible for building readership across platforms. This person would promote readership not only to increase circulation revenue, but understand that audience also drives advertising, and that there is also money to be made from online readership, as well. You would think this would be the position of "publisher" but newspaper publishers appear to have very limited backgrounds -- they are print people in a multi-platform world.)

In the end, the iPad's launch was highly inconvenient. The Times had been moving towards a metered paywall strategy and along comes this new device that might change things. Rather than deal with the new reality, it appears that the original NYT iPad was a "punt". Eventually, the bad reviews inside the App Store were embarrassing enough to force the hands of executives and the app slowly added content over time. But the plan was still the same: built the online paywall and fit in the apps around the strategy.

Today the NYT has issued an update to its iPad app, a minor tweaking of the app that now allows readers to see article images even they are offline and other enhancements and bug fixes. But will it matter.

Even before the update, the latest reader comments inside the App Store were universally negative. Complaints were both about the app itself (usually revolving around stability issues) or about the new paywall ("From free to $250/yr? Nah.")

The New York Times, at least for now, appears out of the iPad app game. At $240 per year for web and iPad access, I would think that the number target of this level of pricing would be a print customer located in the NYC area -- someone who doesn't want a print edition anymore and is willing to substitute their $5.85 per week cost for one that grants them access on their favorite reading device.

In other words, the pricing strategy may result in the opposite results intended: threatening local print circulation among young, tech savvy readers, while driving away those readers located elsewhere in the nation who might have bought a subscription to a Times product if it were priced more reasonably.

We will see what happens over the next six months, but my guess is this: the NYT will be able to sell web/mobile subscriptions to its most loyal readers, while those that had started reading the Times thanks to their iPad app will simply move on, reading the NYT via search results and links.

Postscript: as this post was going live I received back to back alerts from the NYT iPad app: first about Cathleen Black, then about the earthquake off the coast of Japan (I attributed that piece of news to the BBC because I read it first there). In the end, this may be the reason not to delete this app off my iPad -- notifications.

Also, Folio: has found a page with discounted rates here but I'm not sure they have actually found a live offer open to any customer (at least one of the "buy" links led to a dead page). It could be a test page or an offer open to select readers. We'll see soon enough if the NYT starts offering steep discounts based on the results they have achieved with their original pricing.