They're doing it again.
One of the biggest longstanding criticisms of newspaper and magazine efforts on the Web has been that many of them seem too much like print publications pasted onto a computer screen. Text-heavy, constricted by old-fashioned layout conventions, generally unimaginative—these sites have failed miserably to take advantage of the advantages and differences offered by the new medium: interactivity, video, community, search, what have you.
And now comes a new digital medium, the iPad, and…yep, they're doing it again.
Some of the biggest names in publishing have made a big splash with the introduction of Apple's new tablet by releasing iPad apps for their publications. Alas, too many of them have fallen into that same old trap, trying to replicate a print experience on the iPad's screen.
The iPad turns out to be a great device for casually consuming all sorts of media—text, video, audio—and it's already seeing some creative multimedia informational (you know, media) apps from non-media sources, such as Major League Baseball's excellent At Bat 2010, Elements Collections' dazzling The Elements: A Visual Application and Atomic Antelope's wondrous Alice for the iPad children's book. These are apps that truly use the power of the iPad to present information in new, imaginative and attractive ways.
Not so the apps from the likes of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time and Men's Health. They're back to pasting newspapers and magazines onto the iPad's crisp, glossy screen, and in the end, these apps are distinctly inferior to these publishers' own Web sites. That's a real problem, especially because many publishers see the iPad as some sort of a savior for their business, a platform for which they can charge readers. Good luck with that, given the products so far.
The Journal, for instance, thinks it can charge $17 a month for access to its app, after an initial free trial. Are they kidding? I wouldn't use this piece of crap for free (I'm a big Journal fan, but I couldn't delete it from my iPad fast enough). It's hard to navigate, it's only updated once a day, it's full of bugs and it offers little in the way of interactivity. Ditto the New York Times Editors Choice app, which is free for now but is reputed to be a cornerstone of the paper's plans to charge for online access. The Times app is a painfully cutdown version of the paper, with truncated stories, missing sections and hopelessly retro newspaper-like navigation. Fail. It's not the Times' design that's great about the Times: It's the journalism. Why sacrifice that to pretty fonts and layout?
USA Today's app is a bit better, but again, it's missing comments or any other kind of interactivity, and even underscores its pasted-on-the-screen design by lamely imitating the serrated top edge of newsprint. Puh-leeze. (And USA Today plans to charge for its app, too.) The Time and Men's Health apps—like Sports Illustrated's mythical and highly overrated tablet demo—are way too much like magazines pasted on a screen. Boring. Oh, and they want you to pay $4.99 an issue. Not gonna happen.
Bottom line: All of these publications' Web sites are all far better than their apps—and on an iPad, hello, the Web is just a screen-touch away. Not surprisingly, these apps get fairly low user ratings in the iTunes app store. Customers know when they're getting shoddy products.
To be sure, there are some interesting, if still unspectacular, iPad efforts from some traditional publishers. Entertainment Weekly's app focuses on the magazine's popular weekly "Must List" of media recommendations—and attaches direct links to purchase the videos, music and books it touts. Craven, but useful. The Guardian's Eyewitness app is devoted solely to photography, presenting one great hi-res photo a day from around the world. Not flashy (and it really needs some community and interactivity), but simple and very good-looking.
Marvel comics' app brilliantly moves comic books onto the iPad screen—pasting them there, yes, but with a clever navigation scheme that allows readers to flip smoothly from scene to scene. Very cool. And Epicurious, Conde Nast's Bon Appetit- and Gourmet-based cooking app, presents clear navigation and a deep database of recipes. That's very handy as we begin to understand that the iPad is a really great device for casual computing around the house—indeed, Epicurious + iPad finally fulfills the longtime promise that a PC in the kitchen would be a great recipe reference.
We're still very early in the game for publishing on the iPad, of course—the device has only been on the market for two weeks. It'll be a while yet before software developers really get the hang of it and create apps that take full advantage of the new power and user experience the tablet computer (and its coming competitors) represents. But publishers looking to the iPad as a miracle cure for their business problems are going to have to do a whole lot better than just pasting their publications onto the tablet's screen. That didn't work on the Web, and it sure doesn't work on the iPad.