The key thing I see about many mainstream publishing apps for iPad is that they are in some ways replicating responses publishers had early on to the Web years ago. Most publishers pooh-poohed the Web at first and stuck initially with putting their content on subscription platforms such as Compuserve or AOL and offering either no content or limited content on their Web sites. By the time that many publishers began to take Web publishing seriously, competitors had sprung up that were able to adapt to the new medium in ways that responded to audiences' needs quite well. Like these early Web efforts, it appears that the most promising apps for news and magazines are those that are integrating the lessons of the Web and other media most effectively for tablet audiences, instead of focusing on how to migrate old assumptions to a new medium. Some key examples of provocative iPad magazine apps include:
- TRVL - Available only on the iPad, TRVL offers lush photography and stories about exotic travel destinations via a free app, with each issue being in essence a single article on a particular destination. The layout of the magazine is slick, sophisticated and bound to attract premium advertisers looking for upscale audiences. The content is also decked out with social media "hooks" that make it easy for readers to share its great photos with people on the Web.
- Flipboard - Also an iPad exclusive so far, Flipboard is a free app that aggregates content favorites from your social media network and your own social media and mainstream sources in an application that forms them into a beautiful and easy-to-use tablet publication. Like TRVL, Flipboard in turn makes it easy to tell your social contacts on the Web about great content that you're reading. What's fascinating about Flipboard is that news article from mainstream sources as well as social media sources are all formatted similarly in the Flipboard app - and they all look equally well-formatted and engaging.
- The Rachel Maddow Show - This MSNBC news show has built a free iPad app that sets the bar for TV news media in the tablet medium in many ways. It does a great job of making it easy not only to sit back and view an entire episode's news stories but also to flip through all of the available segments to find the items that interest you most. Also importantly, when you pull up an individual episode it includes links to Web content related to the show which you can view beneath the video as it plays. Often the links are to sources other than MSNBC reports.
All of these are great examples of rich, immersive content experiences that are likely to be highly satisfying tablet experiences. Yet, interestingly, none of these are being delivered by major magazine or newspaper publishers. Also importantly, these apps are powerful in large part because they have both adapted to the unique strengths of the touch-screen tablet medium while not forgetting the power of the Web that feeds that medium. Key lessons from the Web that cannot be left behind on tablet apps include:
- Good content is where you find it. The agnostic aggregation made possible by Web technologies on millions of Web sites isn't going away just because of a few hundred thousand apps, most of which rely on that aggregation. People will be attracted to whatever tools enable them to enjoy the content that matters most to them. Agnostic content aggregation may include the efforts of curators, but when it's our trusted social networks who select the stuff that we read, the concept of selling a collection of editorially selected content in which only a fraction of it will be relevant to us on a given day will remain a challenge.
- Each medium defines its own immersion. On the Web, immersion can be defined often in "lean-forward" mode, where people are enabled to scan huge amounts of information and experiences efficiently and to create content. To some degree mobile phones are a "lean-forward" medium also, though enabling content creation in different ways, often through data collection and photo sharing. Tablets are called often a "lean-back" medium, on which we can focus on specific pieces of content more effectively. This is true, but it's dangerous to equate a tablet's leanback experience with a magazine or newspaper. Unlike those media, the Web is integral to the enjoyment of a tablet - and to both the content selection and the ways in which we choose to spend our time using a tablet. On the Web, we tend to surf from article to article from different news sources. It appears that while tablets are more able to help us focus on specific pieces of content, it's probably unrealistic to think that people are likely to use a single app from a single publisher exclusively for their immersion. The TRVL magazine model of packaging individual articles very well is a good indication of how much attention people are likely to give a particular topic from a particular publisher before they decide to move on to the next thing, either on an aggregator app like Flipboard or switching to another app. Don't think in terms of people spending 30 or 40 minutes with your "apped" content - think in terms of timeframes somewhat longer than Web content, typically no more than eight or ten minutes at a shot.
- Your cool isn't that much cooler. Yes, major publishers do have deep resources to slick up their tablet publications and huge staffs that can feed content through these platforms. But is it enough to warrant a premium price for your content alone? Unless you build your publication from a loyal social media community on out, I'd say that in most cases the answer will be no for tablet apps priced to traditional newsstand or subscription pricing levels. People appreciate cool-looking content, but the tools to make content look cool are so affordable now that it will be rare that your cool is going to out-cool some startup or social media-based publisher who can do pretty darn well also. What's cool are people and relationships and the access that they provide. Think in terms of unique, events-oriented content such as exclusive live interviews or conference access or social media discussions that other people lacking your professional social network can't replicate easily.
The iPad is an exciting medium for publishers, and I do feel confident that there are opportunities for premium news and magazine content development on this platform and on emerging Android-based tablets and increasingly sophisticated ebook readers. But the best of these opportunities will not come from those who try to apply old pricing and packaging models to a device that has its own Web-defined capabilities, content sources and access expectations. Most publishers ultimately are looking at apps as little more than digital rights management protection for premium pricing. With native Web-based apps becoming more sophisticated rapidly and more easily adapted to premium pricing and tablet use, publishers should use the current era of apps as a great period in which they can prepare for a more sophisticated era of Web publishing that will continue to keep competitive pressures on traditional publishers to outperform scrappy challengers.