Is it enough to say that all of these apps really are just akin to Web browser bookmarks? Do I just dip into each at various rates in the same way I do on a Web browser? Are any of these news sources able to distinguish themselves within the limitations that even the broader application canvas allows on a phone? I am sure there are rigorous market researchers hot on the trail of these questions, all armed with focus group samples and panel extrapolation algorithms. But until we start seeing the results of such studies, you are stuck with me, my iPhone and decidedly unscientific impressions.
First, I am noticing that I don't need an app to stay wedded to a brand. I consult my browser link to CNN's mobile site at least as often as I open the applications for other media brands. In fact, it seems to me that the mobile Web imposes on CNN an editorial discipline that many of the news apps are lacking. I default to it in part because CNN is my first Web news source anyway, but the mobile site triages the top stories more effectively. I am starting to see a lot of content bloat in apps as publishers pursue the mistaken idea that I want all of their content on my phone.
Apps like WSJ, NYTimes, CNNMoney, Time, etc. are so eager to pile on the "value" that the end user has to wait for the content to update and/or cache and then often traverse interfaces that are a bit too clever. Time.com and WSJ are cases in point. Both are admirable attempts to make much of their massive Web sites portable and manageable. But that doesn't mean they are necessarily mobile. I have to think twice before I open either because I know I am in for a deep dive. In the case of CNNMoney, I know I will have to wait almost 20 seconds for the data to update. Portability is not mobility.
The information icons I find myself drawn to habitually are the ones that have pre-targeted the content effectively. IGN.com has a very narrowly focused app that gives me the latest video game reviews in seconds. Daily Beast's Web app site focuses only on one feature, the Cheat Sheet, which aggregates must-see news. Wired magazine has an app dedicated to product reviews. People.com wisely brands its app not as People.com but as a "People Celebrity Tracker." This app only has three tabs for news photos and an encyclopedia of celebrities that the user can customize. In the cases of IGN and Wired, these are not brands that I consult habitually online, but they have found their way into my deck because they are not just portable brands but they offer targeted content that maps against my mobile needs.
Compared to the other news apps on my phone, it seems to me that each of these more targeted providers has taken the daring but necessary step of serving my needs rather than their branding fantasies. I am sure there are media brands I would like to dwell in for extended periods by hopping across their many news categories. And sometimes I do drill around the Times and FT. But generally my mobile habits and situations favor content that comes to me rather than makes me go to it.
And even when I do lean back a bit more and browse the troves of material some of the more dense news apps offer, it is tough to distinguish among the brands. By the time I hit the third or fourth app, the headlines are pretty much the same. It is too early to know how these brands distinguish themselves on mobile, but it is interesting to reflect on the early attempts.
All Things D relies on its personalities. The people (Walt, Kara, Peter) are the brands.
Both FT and USAToday stand out visually. FT uses that signature beige background and pushes its charting effectively.
While I find the rest of its interface too overwhelming, Time Mobile has the cool new "image flow" feature, which turns a typical scroll of headline into an illustrated "cover flow" experience with illustrations and headlines.
USAToday still has the TV console look and feel, as well as the rainbow menu and strong visuals.
Times, WSJ, and many others look disarmingly similar. In some ways the depth of the content actually works against their branding effort because it limits the design possibilities. When you are piling on that much content, then you have to resign yourself to long scrolls and a lot of tabs and lateral scrolling menus.
The lack of differentiation is clearest when you use some of the mobile aggregators. Fluent News assembles links to the mobile Web versions of the major news providers. The difference among the links is minor.
Now, to be sure, the commoditization of news content is not new. The search-driven Web already managed to get us far down that path. I wonder if mobile makes brand differentiation even harder, especially if the content provider is determined to pour so much content into the mobile mix.
As I ponder my own mobile habits now a year into the mobile app era, it seems to me that apps create as many problems as they seemed to solve when it comes to delivering content on phones. On one hand, the app ecosystem makes brands more visible. We now have an alerting system that keeps the brands top of mind. And developers have much more latitude in crafting unique interfaces and integrating multimedia.
At the same time, apps are inviting overdevelopment and may even be giving publishers too large a canvas that lets them sidestep the essential question: What is my mobile value proposition to the consumer?