IPad Pits Apps Against Web
Nearly a week into playing with and demoing the iPad to others, my biggest surprise is how the larger Web experience tends to push the app experience more to the side. I find myself feeling a bit constrained by the current selection and attractiveness of the apps themselves, and am spending much of the time in the Safari browser.
On the iPhone, the line between app and even the mobile Web was easier to establish because the apps were so much more versatile than a typical WAP destination and much more compact than the full Web sites. But when I crank up the NYTimes Editor's Edition app on the iPad, I am feeling more hampered by the limited content than served by its triaging function. Likewise with both USAToday and WSJ. If the apps are expanding the canvas of content that far in the app. then the distance between it and the Web site feels much smaller.
Which is not to say that the platform obviates apps. But my first impression is that it raises the bar on developing larger-scale branded media apps that add real value. The news apps generally aren't impressing me as distinct enough from the Web. My guess is that personalization is the best way to differentiate.
NPR's app is a great first stab at this. The radio brand transforms its content into three rivers of items (news, arts & life, music) but it also lets you add any of them to a personal playlist. So the user can triage and assemble an NPR experience. This is the kind of functionality that would keep me returning to the app rather than going to the site. There is a value to eliminating typical Web clutter, which the other news apps also do. But there is an even greater value in personalization.
Some iPad apps really are convincing me they can be more efficient than Web sites, especially when they involve larger utilitarian databases of content. The IMDb movie database is much more browsable in app form than the newsier and much busier experience at the site. IMDB boils down the content to about a dozen main menu items -- but leaves much of the screen to images that touch off long data drills for entertainment hogs like me. The same is true for Epicurious, which makes the recipe site into a convincing recipe box that seems like a kitchen companion.
My partner woke me up to the realities of this scenario. "I already bring my laptop into the kitchen when I am using an online recipe. Do you want me to get oil fingerprints on your precious iPad when I need to scroll?" she asks.
Okay, moving on.
IPad map interfaces seem to impress everyone who see them. The Zagat app lets you geo-locate and tap your way across the "Z" pins on the map to bring up descriptions and reviews of local eateries. Everyone I have shown this to seems to think that it is a great way to decide where to eat.
The Zillow real estate app has the same effect. You can literally tap your way through an overhead map of the houses in your neighborhood and their sale values. Technically, all of this can be done on respective Web sites, but the combination of the screen scale, touch screen, and handheld portability really activates the idea of using the map as an information interface. This is one place where virtualizing and enhancing a print experience in a large handheld format makes immediate sense.
The same cannot be said yet of the magazine experience that so many publishers are counting on. There is a wide range of experimentation going on here. Bonnier is the farthest out there with its re-imagining of the magazine format in the Popular Science issue. It redesigns magazine navigation across two axes, so you flip laterally across major content sections and then swipe vertically to drill into specific article content. The images are enormous, and the background image can change as you scroll the text. This is visually impressive but also disorienting.
You get a little less lost in Conde Nast's GQ issue. You also traverse laterally across major articles but the vertical scroll through the text occurs in the bottom half of the screen and retains more of the magazine look and feel. Rodale's Men's Health actually lets you extract the text from the digital facsimile issue on the iPad so that you can read it more comfortably.
The basic problem here is obvious. No one wants to learn a different interface with every magazine brand. As my stepfather said when he saw all of this, "I already know how to read a magazine. I just pick it up." I am not sure we want our periodicals to have to come with instructions.
Gaming on the iPad is another story I will save for later. So far I am underwhelmed by the experiences I have had, but I have not given enough genres a fair shake yet. In this regard, iPad games don't really have to compete with the Web.
But almost all of the other app genres do go head-to-head with Web experiences. The platform creates a challenge some publishers may not have expected. What point are you trying make with an app, anyway?