A story in yesterday's Financial Times suggests that European print publishers are not ready to rush onto the iPad as the Apple device launches in Europe this month. Digital Media Correspondent Tim Bradshaw says that early responses to U.S. newspapers and magazine on the iPad have been mixed. "Digital publishers, analysts and design experts say that the first publishers' apps are confusing to use or boringly faithful to the offline product, and are not being used as much as hoped." One analyst says the magazine apps in particular are dreadful. Others argue that the iPhone demonstrated there was no great first-mover advantage to being on the device out of the gate, so many content providers are happy to wait and see.
I can only agree in part with the general disappointment over early print ports to the iPad. The publications that have put special effort into adapting their content to the special properties of the device seem to have earned my persistent use. I am rather bored with the New York Times implementation, which really just curates a few sections of the newspaper/Web site and pastes select stories into a nondescript pair of screens for four main sections. There seems to be no acknowledgment that the user is engaging a visually rich touch screen. On the other extreme, there is AP News, which caters to the iPad touch interface with a set of animated and floating rectangular tiles for articles. Even the images are designed as a river of items in a scrapbook. Here I think the interface is serving the iPad's design features more than visually enhancing the way we organize and access information.
Both Wall Street Journal and USA Today actually leap farther forward while winking at the past. WSJ tries to recreate the two-tone look of its classic print front page and uses an off-white background to evoke pulp paper. And yet it has an embedded video on most front pages and maintains Web-like cross-navigation on most screens. I am especially fond of USA Today's highly touchable approach. Like WSJ, the paper nods to tradition by outlining the screen with the rough-cut edges of print, and yet the interior of the pan has the large section logo open up quick navigation to its four main sections. A generous slide show of daily images in news, sports and entertainment telescope out from the left border. And the main area of the screen scrolls through the articles for the day. Already I have gotten into the habit of checking the USA Today app nightly.
In the newspaper realm, Financial Times' new entry is the best attempt so far to bring the full contents of a typical Web site and newspaper into an app. In fact, as a great service to travelers, FT lets you download the full contents of the issue for offline convenience. Tapping the logo drops down section navigation that the user can customize. Like USA Today, cross-navigation to specific stories is available on article pages. And the interface uses vertical scrolling for top-line headline pages and horizontal scrolling to move through multi-page articles. This interface choice makes a kind of sense, but is curiously odds with the way some of the magazines are organizing digital pagination. The Conde Nast and Bonnier titles are using lateral swipes to move across magazine sections and the vertical axis to scroll article text.
Alas, one of my early fears about print media on the iPad is coming to pass: interface confusion. As it stands, every publisher has its own quirks, enough to make the user have to think twice before figuring out how to turn a page or find a menu. The one thing that print does have going for it on the iPad is that the screen is just gorgeous and renders ads, images and even text better than many of us expected. The impact of the static page is strong.
Although the FT article alluded to disappointment over frequency of use, I have been told by at least one magazine publisher that they are seeing levels of engagement with their digitized magazine products that is fully equal to print. While stats for the iPad version are too new for reliable metrics, the iPhone version of a leading magazine brand is experiencing close to 70 minutes of engagement by users, the same as the print magazine, and five times more time spent than with the brand's Web site. This is why some print publishers believe that these devices will help reset the relationship between their brands and readers after it was eroded (or at least shortened) by the Web.
In a recent discussion I had with several key designers of digital magazines for the iPad, they all agreed that their enthusiasm for this platform is deserved. In discussing larger-format digital devices, I was astonished how quickly they jumped on the low hang times at Internet sites and general diminution of brand relationships it has caused. My impression is that if the tablet format takes hold as well as some analysts are now projecting, then many publishers will have to think harder about how their Web, print and device platform investments interrelate. At the same time, of course, all of these publishers are equally (perhaps stupidly) aggressive about pricing. Many iPad users in the iTunes store rightfully decry the per-issue pricing that is multiples higher than print subscriptions to these titles.
Should print brands really wait and see how interfaces and usage patterns evolve on the iPad and subsequent tablets? Or should they dive in, fail fast, and iterate like hell to gain experience? I imagine we will see both approaches. But I suspect that the real value for the publishers already here is that they get to see how their particular readers want to engage with their media on these devices. It's not just about how all audiences behave generally on an iPad, Android tablet or smartphone. It's more about determining what your audience wants and needs from this device.