Commentary

Should IPad Apps Re-Contextualize?

Was I the only one a bit puzzled by the release this week of Apple's "Guided Tour" videos for the iPad? The topics covered, from iBooks to email, photos to YouTube, have a glaring omission: the App Store. Huh?

Perhaps there just weren't enough iPad apps ready for their video close-up. Or maybe, as some reports suggest, Apple has been focusing its attention more on its m-commerce relationships with film, TV and book companies than with the app development community or the print world that is salivating over the prospects of the new device.

Of course, I am not sure that many of those print companies are in fact ready for the iPad. As one app developer told me the other day, most of those cool demos of tablet-ized newspapers and magazines you saw floating around the Web recently were done in Flash. Now some of those companies are coming to him and asking if they can do that same thing for real on the iPad.

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Don't expect to be dazzled right away, some of these developers say. They have also told me that the print media types have dollar signs in their eyes over this platform. Many of the publishers seem to think that the iPhone apps veered too quickly to a free model, and many of them want to establish a higher-priced bar earlier here. OK, but they'd better be ready to deliver more value than many of them already have on the iPhone.

In fact, design concepts and templates that are perfectly serviceable on the iPhone are not going to scale well to the iPad, I suspect. Many newspaper and other content brands make do with a simple templated news feed in their iPhone apps. What seems like a nice, efficient way to access your trusted media provider on your phone could look cheesy and cheap when projected onto the larger, more visually immersive palate of a tablet. The iPad certainly gives a media brand the opportunity to impress and immerse us, but there is also the greater risk of underwhelming the user here.

Some of the basic apps I like and use the most, like Fluent News or McSweeney's, are just going to look awful blown up to lap size. That is one big honkin' RSS feed at this scale.

I also notice that much of the hype around "branded apps" that we heard surrounding the iPhone App Store launch is absent. Maybe I am missing it, but I am not hearing many advertisers gush over how they will be able to leverage the platform to reach out directly to consumers. After all, flicking open a Virtual Zippo lighter on this scale could hurt someone.

I understand that the Armani Exchange is offering a version of its Web site that will be optimized for the iPad browser, and I wonder if some brads will engage the platform by returning to the Web-based app model at first. While the mobile phone offers brands the opportunity to develop utilities and services that appeal to an on-the-go context, I am not sure that the iPad carries that same "mobile" sensibility as the iPhone. Just look at the way Apple itself is pitching it in the Guided Tours. The settings are as often in the home as on the go.

Developers and brands will have to rethink context. The obvious winner in this new equation will be TV. I remain unconvinced that the iPad will prove a credible portable PC that people will grab instead of their laptop as they go out the door. But as an in-home mobile multimedia screen, I think it does have game-changer written all over it.

I hope the elves at CNN, TMC, E! and all the major networks are working overtime at getting out robust iPad apps that can simulcast material complementing on-air programming in real time. I know that tandem Web/TV programming has been done before to mixed effect, but the form factor and portability (rather than "mobility") of this device begs for a second-screen role. Considering all of the twists and turns "interactive TV" has gone through since it was conceived decades ago, it seems to me that individual tablet-sized devices make for a much better back channel than a set-top box or widgets on a connected TV.

The biggest drawback to ITV concepts has been who controls the remote. Most ITV concepts are trying to merge the technologies of a personalized medium (the PC) with the decades-old rituals of a social medium (TV). In a living room tablet model, everyone gets a second screen.

I haven't a clue how any of us will incorporate the iPad into daily use, or even if more than a fat niche of us will. The fact that almost all of the Guided Tour videos take place on a couch suggests Apple has done some research and found the iPad may look and feel to some like an oversized iPhone/iPod Touch, but it is unlikely users will treat it that way.

The context in which these apps work will be up in the air for developers until we see how habits shake out. But it does make me wonder if we will start drawing distinctions between "mobile media and advertising" and "portable media and advertising."

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