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?  

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5 comments about "IPad Pits Apps Against Web".
  1. Mark Roth , April 8, 2010 at 1:06 p.m.

    what did you think of AP's iPad application? was it better than a website and worth the time and energy of an app?

  2. Steven Carter , April 8, 2010 at 4:09 p.m.

    I agree that multiple new ways of consuming a magazine could be kind of confusing for the average consumer. But I also think iPad users could likely be more sophisticated than the the average consumer.

    I think for each person there will be a killer app that changes the experience for them with the iPad. It is great for consuming video and iBooks app will give my Kindle DX a run for its money everywhere except battery life.

    For me, an early killer app is the official Formula 1 application that allows me to follow the cars in an F1 race "live" via actual in-car telemetry at each circuit. It is an amazing application and really make my race viewing experience better than my old experience of just watching the race on TV. I can't wait to see what other applications get built to transform how I consume media and manage my life.

  3. Jeffrey Rohrs from ExactTarget , April 8, 2010 at 4:34 p.m.

    Couldn't agree more about web surfing pushing aside apps on the iPad--at least when it comes to content websites. On the iPhone, the publisher's incentive to create an app is far greater since they're trying to squeeze more into a smaller space (see the Huffington Post's iPhone app as a good example).

    On the iPad, however, where's the publisher's incentive to run Apple's gauntlet to get an app approved--and one that might provide far less in the way of analytics than a website.

    Again, using Huffington Post as an example, I get a very rich experience when surfing their site on Safari via my iPad. I see the same advertising as PC/Mac visitors, and the publisher didn't have to do anything extra to make that happen.

    Less work and advertising? Publishers would be wise to forgo iPad apps and focus on making their sites HTML5 friendly for video & other content. iPhone apps remain a necessity--again, because of the smaller environment.

  4. Martin Wilson from CloudAspect ltd. , April 10, 2010 at 1:48 a.m.

    Excellent point regarding learning new interface per app. The ubiquity of the web is the reason for it's ubiquity. Eventually the best (iApp) interface features will become part of the web experience - how long this takes will depend on whether and how long Apple can hold on to the uniqueness/patentability of the App experience.

  5. Patrick Aievoli from theCampusCenter.com, LLC , April 11, 2010 at 2:16 p.m.

    could not agree more also. this is a Web device. Plain and simple. The Apps are great but they are no replacement for a full service site. Apps should basically be what they are a shortcut to get something done a mini application. However this device is all about the Web experience. We are just waiting for it to become immersed in the academic world.