Tuesday, May 31, 2011

San Francisco Chronicle releases first tablet edition; native app is a good start despite a few bugs

The San Francisco Chronicle has released its first tablet edition, an iPad app that will eventually require users to sign up for a subscription, though for now readers can enjoy their first 30 days free of charge to try out the app.
As I have pointed out here, Hearst Newspapers (my old employer) have been very slow at launching innovative mobile application, and nonexistent when it comes to the iPad. This app, therefore, San Francisco Chronicle for iPad, is smart step in the right direction.

Although this app has many design faults, the app, nonetheless, does at least two things very much right: one, it has a business model; and two, it avoids the replica editions of far too many other newspaper properties.

While the app offers readers 30 days free to preview the app, there are two levels of in-app subscriptions: $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year. The app description clearly points out that readers can not cancel these charges once they have pressed "buy", unlike their home delivered copies.

The circulation folk must be aware that any decent iPad alternative to the print newspaper will be serious competition for home delivery. Currently the Chronicle will charge you $9.75 per week for home delivery, while home delivery for the Contra Costa Times, for instance, is considerably less.

As for app design, the iPad edition is definitely a better choice than either the Verve Wireless app for the cross Bay rival properties owned by MediaNews Group, Bay Area News for iPad, or the replica editions being pitched by companies like Tecnavia.
"We designed the San Francisco Chronicle for iPad to make it easier for readers to engage with the content that matters most to them," Ward Bushee, executive vice president and editor of The Chronicle said in their newspaper's own story on the app. "This will complement our already strong presence in print with more multimedia and breaking news features, but still retain a similar look and feel of the printed newspaper."

The app offers both portrait and landscape modes, though the app has some bugs that makes it act differently in different modes. For instance, the story about yesterday's Giants win over the Cardinals has a picture of Andres Torres hitting his grand slam. In the corner of the portrait view is a little box with an "11", signifying that there are 11 pictures with the story. Tapping that "11" takes you to a photo gallery from the game. In landscape mode, however, the "11" is still there, because I can see it when the page loads, but it disappears when the page finishes loading. It is still there, though, because tapping the corner of the picture will still take you to the photo gallery.

Strangely, swiping to the next story I can see that the photo gallery symbol shows up – a very strange little app defect.

Another strange thing is that most of the stories are contained on one screen, in order to continue reading the story one must swipe to the next page. But looking through the sports section, called The Sporting Green as the section long ago was once printed on green paper, I see that not all stories act the same. The story about the Warrior's draft, for instance, requires you to scroll.

Left: the subscription page; Middle: the in-app story that explains the app's navigation; Right: the cover flow-like navigation feature.

Another bug involves swiping to the next story: as you swipe the stories appear to go from one to the other consistent with the side navigation bar, one story follows the other. But I noticed that when you get to the story about the resignation of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel it did not go automatically to the next story that was related. Why? My guess is that the app has an unfortunate design where it wants to go to the next unread story rather than going from one story to the next. The result is that one jumps around unexpectedly, a case of the developer thinking they are doing the reader a service when in fact they are taking command of the app in expected ways.

All these little bugs or design flaws can be easily corrected. The design element that might disappoint readers the most are the unexpected pop up ads.

The app features banner ads throughout the app, located along the bottom of the page in both portrait and landscape. But occasionally the reader encounters a full screen ad which pops up unexpectedly. This is sure to annoy more than a few readers.

Other than that, however, this is a good first effort. The app allows you to adjust the font size, download copy for offline reading (very important since Bay Area residents take mass transit), and the app has two ways the go from section to section (a cover flow-like navigation, plus a simple pop up menu located at the bottom of each page).