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As news from Haiti comes first to many of us via our mobile devices, it calls attention to the feature and interface arms race that currently is going on in mobile news. In the app space especially we have providers like CNN, Guardian, and Time magazine making relatively late entries, but with very interesting ideas.
One mobile developer told me recently that the news providers know they are entering a cluttered market, so another me-too scroll of headlines just won't do. Mobile represents an opportunity for news to reverse the polarity of Web history and distinguish rather than commoditize brands. As with marketing, content on the mobile platform has the chance not only to "extend" itself into another medium but to confront its functionality in people's lives. I know it's becoming a tiresome mantra of mine, but I think mobile gives publishers the chance to do something few of them embraced on the Web: repackage content as more of a service that people value and can distinguish from competition.
There is money to be made here. The Guardian announced yesterday that its new $3.99 app had been downloaded almost 70,000 times in its first month. Here is a good example of rethinking news presentation for a mobile format. Guardian really embraces the multimedia possibilities on a smart phone by bringing its audio programming to the surface in the top-level menu. The in-car mobile user can just pop the phone in a cup holder and let the app become a stream of interviews and news stories. In many sections the usual headline scroll is accompanied by a lateral scroll of thumbnails that drop you into the image galleries. The really cool innovation here is a pop-up window on every story that can cross-link you to related subjects. Having this quick ability to drill into subjects is invaluable to the mobile user, who is more ready than we think to immerse himself in mobile content that's really of interest.
Time magazine may not have had to contend with other news weeklies in the app store, but they were colliding with brands like AP Mobile and USA Today that were more identified with breaking stories. That publisher's decision to go with an image-based index of major stories and headlines was a good one. Time's app is just a bit more colorful and enjoyable an entry point to the news. This is an approach the main Web site probably would not dare do as a default mode, but is possible and compelling on mobile.
The potential for brand advertisers in an image-centric content presentation are obvious as well. A lot of the recent news apps are trying to stuff enormous amounts of content into a small frame, and so we get top-line lateral menus through sections, and bottom menus of key functions and features cluttering the experience. These elements are still in the Time app, but the large lateral scroll of images and headlines in the main window clarifies and simplifies the experience.
As a branding vehicle for Time Warner, the design emphasizes the publisher's magazine legacy, and particularly its history of great imagery in pubs like Sports Illustrated and Life. One of the interesting things about a new medium is the way in which it can leap-frog backwards to retrieve and revive strengths from long-ago media. TV in the early fifties got much of its creative energy from vaudeville, not just radio and film. There may actually be good news in mobile for print.
Speaking of visual appeal, NBC has rolled out a fascinating interface for its affiliate TV stations. My NBC Philadelphia app presents the news as a wonder wall of different-sized images that pop up news stories or "So Philly" comments submitted by users. Again, the experience brings a fun factor to news triaging. This highly visual presentation of information can eliminate the siloing of content from community and even from advertising. In this app the ads are tiles. The purple Y! of the Yahoo ad floats among the stories and comments. Arguably, these tiles could use an "ad" label, but it does give the sponsor a different way to be a part of the experience.
To their credit, someone over at Time Warner must be thinking hard about mobile, because Time's sister brand CNN remains the most impressive TV news presence on mobile. It simply does a great job of getting key facts to users faster than just about any other news source. The stories all have bulleted top-line summaries so you can laterally scroll through the top news stories and grab the key details of the breaking news very efficiently. Users have complained that there should be a continuous ability to drop into the live TV feed. Now, the live stream only becomes available when CNN decides there is a breaking story. I am sure there are cable re-usage issues at work here somewhere, but the goal obviously is to have the TV experience always available.
What really interests me about what CNN and some of these others have done is their focus on usability and communicativeness. We really are seeing content providers winnow down their own properties to essentials. The Web was about infinite content inventory, and it gave us both editorial and advertising overkill that eventually became commoditized. Mobile has to be about the right content presented in the most efficient way. There is a call to discipline here that may well get us away from that dubious term "content provider" -- and more towards understanding publishing as a real service, a tool for everyday life, a brand with an identity and (wait for the mobile tie-in) a distinct voice.