How publishers face the platform glut
It's part of Wired magazine's mission to take risks with new technology - after all, this is the magazine that wasn't afraid to exclaim last August that the "Web Is Dead." And so, a full year before the iPad officially existed, senior management at Wired's monthly tech meeting were trying to figure out how to make their magazine work with the next new thing.
That lead time - and some serious effort - made Wired the first major media presence on Apple's new tablet, and the app sold well. It looked just like the print product and offered a number of interactive extras - maybe too many. "There was a tendency, like the early days of the Web, to 'put a video on there because we have a video,' " says Mark McClusky, special projects editor at Wired. These days, the planning for each iPad issue parallels the print process from the very first steps.
"At pitch meetings, we're asking, 'What does this look like on the tablet?', but not just the visual elements," McClusky says. "The trick is to figure out how you can use it to tell stories differently, and the most satisfying ways to take advantage of these tools to get information across."
As Wired went, so goes the world. Most publishers are facing similar problems: The iPad takes up most of their attention, because that's where the interest and money are, but a new host of tablets and mobile platforms are coming online - not to mention that the Web itself is increasing in capabilities and openness as new technologies arrive. This leads to a big question: How can publishers like Wired make the work they've already put into digital properties - in particular their huge investment on the Web - pay off on other devices?
Choose your devices and know them well
Wired's app is crafted so that it could run on the Web or any computer desktop; the iPad happens to be where Wired wants to work at the moment. The app is put together with Adobe InDesign desktop-publishing software, which is also used for the print magazine. Designers can float easily between tablet work and straight-ahead page design. To add an interactive element to an existing visual - like letting readers trigger the fire extinguisher that gets the ingredient-by-ingredient treatment in the magazine and see its foamy spray - doesn't require a whole-page rewrite.
And the app runs on Adobe Integrated Runtime, or AIR, which allows developers to work in Flash and incorporate basic Web elements for results that run across desktops and mobile devices. While Wired's app remains iPad-only for the moment, AIR is supported on Android and potentially other platforms.
But the iPad is the best of what's available right now, and it's where eyeballs and credit card numbers are headed. Of the estimated 6.4 million tablets shipped in the first quarter of 2011, seventy-four percent were iPads. Among tablet-owning consumers surveyed by Nielsen, 82 percent own iPads, and 9 percent have other devices, mostly running variants of Android.
The average price of an iPad app was just under $5 in November 2010, about $1 more than the average iPhone app, according to Distimo, a research firm specializing in app stores. But among the top 100 iPad-specific apps, the average was $5.80; for the top 100 iPhone apps, it was only $2.14. It seems that, for apps on their "in-between" tablet devices, people seem willing to pay somewhere between what they'd spend on impulse smartphone purchases and what they'd spend on dedicated desktop software. And more than just screen size is appealing.
"It's just a hugely engaging platform," McClusky says. "People spend a huge amount of time interacting with our content on the iPad... There's a sort of immersiveness to the content experience on the iPad that perhaps other digital platforms haven't shown yet." It's understandable, then, why the iPad is such a popular proving ground, while digital subscriptions and Web paywalls are still being hammered out. But the iPad's market dominance has a lot of inherent advantages that may gradually recede.
The earliest Android tablets were unofficial tablet projects, and the later official releases were unwieldy and tied to cellular contracts. Thinner, more retail-friendly models are now on their way. At first, too, popular app and game developers stuck to Apple's platform, but 58 percent of the Apple ecosystem's 50 most-popular publishers have since moved their wares into non-Apple platforms.
Amazon is rumored to be developing its own tablet devices; the latest rumor suggests both standard-size and much-larger offerings with serious processors - and understandably big marketing behind each. Meanwhile, Amazon's Kindle readers get cheaper nearly every quarter, and the Kindle reading-app itself is running on iPads, Android devices, and nearly everything that's remotely a computer.
BlackBerry's maker is in the tablet game, too, and Barnes & Noble's NOOK e-book reader just picked up some tablet-like powers. Windows will be late to the game with its supposedly tablet-intensive Windows 8 release, but Microsoft is always at least a force in the enterprise/corporate market, if not in consumer devices.
Build one app from scratch, or start small everywhere?
As these alternate platforms evolve, they may develop the same kind of reader engagement and enticement as the iPad. If they do, publishers will face the same conundrum again: write once and publish everywhere you can quickly, or make an engaging app for the few platforms they know?
News Corp.'s The Daily arrived on the iPad in February with much fanfare, being the first new publication entirely dedicated to delivering news via tablet, and powered by Apple's new subscription model. It was written to take specific advantage of the iPad's hardware and capabilities, and it required more than four months of 70- to 80-hour workweeks by its software-development team - to say nothing of the usual pre-publication efforts by writers, photographers, layout teams and editors.
Patrick Hughes, a freelance developer from the Rochester, N.Y., area, worked many of those long weeks. He wrote code for The Daily's "carousel," where users can flip through stories and past issues, for the "hotspots" that appear via screen touches to reveal additional content, as well as for the crossword and sudoku components and other pieces. He was one of the developers summoned to Apple's headquarters shortly after the initial launch, as Apple executives, reportedly including Steve Jobs, were unhappy with the app's tendency to crash.
Hughes is proud of the work he and others from The Daily's development firm did in crafting a custom layout engine and delivery system from scratch. But if he had to advise another tablet newcomer, he'd likely suggest taking a breath before leaping in.
"I would start with something simple, then iterate on top of that," Hughes says. Looking back, he believes The Daily is "very much what News Corp. wanted, [but] I don't know if that's 100 percent what's needed to break in an entirely new digital publishing model."
Scott Schwarzhoff, vice president of marketing for Titanium maker Appcelerator, says his firm's media and publishing clients usually move through three distinct phases of development. "It's similar to how publishing on the Web evolved... You can almost map them and mark the turning points," he notes.
The first phase is just to get content onto device screens - in some way only slightly different and customized from getting it onto an established Web site. An outside firm is often hired; the app is usually for one or two platforms, and is, as Schwarzhoff puts it, "brochure-ware."
Next up is acceleration, where Schwarzhoff sees the majority of modern content apps. The buzzword is "engagement." The Apple and Android app for NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, for example, not only shows clips from previous shows and previews of what's next, but allows fans to, say, dress like a character from the perennial, ironic-touchstone show, Saved by the Bell, and upload them for use on the show. The acceleration phase is also when publishers start bringing the mobile strategy, and maybe the development, in-house.
Finally, brands want to innovate. They reforge their apps to provide companion viewing experiences, to provide in-app downloads and push notifications, and, though not as instantly impressive, to unify their look and feel across platforms - so they can head quickly into new markets. Most importantly, Schwarzhoff says, it's when firms start updating and upgrading their apps every two-to-four weeks, rather than two-to-four months.
But Titanium and other frameworks don't reach every phone or tablet, at least not yet. And smaller firms may never intend to reach the level of in-house app development, to say nothing of having the resources to plunge into the buzz-worthy. So how do you make sure your content has a shot on the crowded home screens of tablet owners?
Clean, simple, and (maybe) monetized
The simplest way to read an article on any screen, from tiny BlackBerry browsers to iMac Cinema Displays, is to click the printer-friendly or "single page" link offered on pretty much every article published on the Web. That streamlines the text and images to a single column, provides loads of white space - and strips out most of the ads. The popular Web and mobile app Instapaper does its own clean-up job on articles and saves them to a reading list. It's ideal for longer text that readers come across on their browsers at work, or on their phones during idle moments - it time-shifts reading, much like a DVR time-shifts TV watching.
In a similar way, apps like the increasingly popular Flipboard and Pulse pull links and similar stripped-down content from all the updates posted across a user's Facebook or Twitter networks - and also offer bundled packages of food, design and other topics.
Serious enthusiasts of longer works follow curated lists like longreads.com or longform.org. The Longform site, launched by journalist Max Linsky and editor Aaron Lammer, is developing its own iPad app to deliver its chin-stroking material directly to fans.
At the moment, the majority of Longform content is accessed through traditional computer browsers. But that bodes well for the iPad app Longform plans to offer for sale.
"We're hoping to be a gateway drug," Lammer says. "You read a few stories while you're at work, a few paragraphs each, and you might remember that you have an iPhone for the subway, or an iPad for your bed, where you can concentrate and enjoy the whole thing." Longreads and its brethren pull their print-friendly links from a wide field of Web content, often fed by eager readers and Twitter coincidences. Even with its links pointing to less-monetized, print-friendly pages, the response from publishers has been,"overwhelmingly positive."
"For a smaller publication, when we put something up, its sends them a lot of new, meaningful traffic," Linsky says. "For larger publications, this [model] is super new, and nobody's quite sure how it will play out... Publications have, however, changed the way they're doing things in response. New York [magazine] just redid its printer page, which used to be filled with cruft, and it's much nicer."
Nice, sure, but not necessarily profitable. For that, publishers might need what Jeff Jarvis, professor at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, described as a YouTube for publishers.
"I'm 'Mr. Let It Flow Freely,' but I was appalled when I finally saw Flipboard," Jarvis says. "If I were The New York Times, I wouldn't support Flipboard. You've got to carry business support with the content."
That support might look a lot like the way Avril Lavigne or an anesthesia-addled toddler makes its way across the Web. Articles, like videos, should carry with them analytics for creators - along with their own advertising and branding - but be highly spreadable and embedable, Jarvis says. "Why shouldn't there be a standard that lets Flipboard spread your content, but with your own reasonable monetization with it?"
For now, it's up to every publisher to decide where to meet their customers with a rich, unique experience; where they want a minimally flashy but useful app or Web presence to suffice; and which platforms have the most promise for the future. The hard part, as ever, is providing content worth experiencing.