Something significant is happening on that shiny glossy Apple iPad tablet for anyone who loves the news. There’s certainly buzz about it being a technological force that can change the course of journalism as we know it. Others think that even thinking that way is pretentious, if not terribly naïve.
The turmoil is great fun to watch.
With an estimated 14 million iPads already in users' hands and some 28 million more expected for sale this year, iPad readers are an audience worth reckoning with. And they seem to love news: a recent study by the University of Missouri noted that 85 percent of iPad users responding to their survey said they follow breaking news on their iPad; nearly half spend an hour or more reading news on an average day.
Rupert Murdoch’s soon to be launched “The Daily,” developed specifically for the iPad and its millions of present and future owners, has allegedly hired 100 reporters and reportedly has the hands-on cooperation of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Other new and revised apps are coming almost daily to the Apple iTunes store. (While there is no good way to estimate the number of iPad news apps, the AppCraver site has a reasonably good list for your perusal.)
There are those who find the “new iPad journalism” just a rehashing of old formats gimmicked up for the new medium. Flipping pages, emulating print and newspapers layouts, pictures that slide around the page, images pasted on a revolving globe, et. al, are fun at first glance, but whether they will wear well is open to question. Even the new Virgin PROJECT magazine, launched last month, has gotten low design marks from some. Others think that all the old-style papers trying to translate their services to the iPad are already DOA.
Then there's the discussion about whether this mating of technology and news is cheapening or degrading the news itself. But that is another story altogether.
Even as the talk about news is specific to the iPad tablet, virtually every consumer technology company is preparing some tablet counter-solution, the results of which will be seen at this week’s upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. More tablets in the hands of more people can only add to the changes in news reporting and presentation. (Crosscut will be covering the show for our readers.)
So, what’s missing? How innovative is news presented on the iPad? At what point does style and design overwhelm or even interfere with the news content? How good is the iPad itself as the device that is leading us to the new news Valhalla?
Starting with the device itself, the first-generation iPad is still too heavy for my tastes at 1.5 lbs as a truly portable reader that can replace a print newspaper or magazine (a new, lighter version is rumored to be released early this year following CES). Unless you jailbreak the device, you can't view websites with Flash animation, and it lacks the ability to accommodate a mouse. The touchscreen gets messy quickly with oily fingerprints.
Saving or clipping stories for future reading on the iPad isn’t intuitive. Apps like Instapaper, Dropbox and Evernote help, or you can always use email, but if you’re not attuned to using these kinds of techno solutions, it’s annoying. And Apple’s paterfamilias approach, in which every app must be scrutinized by the Apple iTunes store, may stifle some innovation. Multitasking — reading multiple sites, watching live video, carrying on a live video, audio or text chat, etc. — is okay but not great on the iPad.
So much for what’s bad. What’s good, however, is really exciting.
The iPad itself is the closest device yet developed that combines the portability and presentation qualities of analog print journalism with 21st Century technology.
Designers have a wealth of tools that can well change the way we cover and present news: text, photos, professional and cell phone video, animation, email, instant search, GPS, text highlighting, social networking, bookmarking/hyperlinking, augmented reality, virtual reality, and the ability to deliver, receive and comment on content instantly, wirelessly, anywhere on the planet.
iPad news apps are barely scratching the surface of using those tools. Mostly developers are using visual tricks — flipping and scrolling pages, video and audio insertions, and/or ribbons of video strung together in a slideshow that you can scroll through with your finger. In the meantime, GPS and augmented reality tech could be telling more about the location, the people — a treasure trove of info about the place and the people where the news is taking place. Multiple live, video and audio feeds from the public could all be telling the story in real time, side by side with professional coverage. Virtual reality could instantly take you inside the structure or place while the news is happening. So much more is possible.
And absorbing all this and more on the iPad — combining a pleasing form factor, the Internet, multimedia and the gobs of new and developing technology — can only hint at the promise of how news will be generated and read by our children and our children’s children.
Those of us who grew up in the print era were weaned on news "brands." The Internet changed the equation by introducing RSS (really simple syndication) feeds that allowed for swift headline delivery and updates around the clock. Having instant access to many news brands reduced dependence on any single news source.
The iPad seems to be a third wave: an emphasis on individual "interests" or "verticals." Pick a subject and let specialized search and categorization engines grab virtually everything you want or need to know about a given subject from the news brands, news aggregators, bloggers and social network comments, and present it in a highly readable form. The technology itself isn’t all that new, but the presentation format is readable, fun, and you don’t have to be a geek to get into it.
So what are some of the good apps? Try these on for size. (Note: Some of these sites are exclusively on the iPad; others have counterparts as Android apps and/or Internet sites.) iPad apps are all available from Apple’s iTunes store; some are free, some upgradable to premium ad-free editions and others are paid only. All of them allow you to share your selections with your social contacts via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.
Skygrid is among the most interesting new news sites (the Wall Street Journal agrees). It’s one of the “interests” sites: having you name any subject —the latest Seattle tunnel news update, for example, or Justin Bieber’s haircut—as well as listing preconfigured “hot” topics. I found it fascinating that car manufacturer Audi used Skygrid to show live images from three Audi cars participating in the famed 24-hour Le Mans race from France.
Flipboard, named by the Apple iTunes store as the 2010 App of the Year, calls itself a “personalized social magazine.” It lets you select up to nine media sources—newspapers, magazines or social media—republishes content from those sites, and presents it with animated pages that flip open and present stories and pictures that looks magazine-like. Even a Facebook or a Tweet can get the Flipboard treatment. In one Macbook reviewer’s eyes, Flipboard “creates a Web media experience that is far greater than the sum of its parts.”
Early Edition grabs your site selections from your Google Reader account — Google Reader being probably the most widely used RSS aggregator — and turns them into an instant newspaper. It also lets you set up information categories so you can easily organize your favorite RSS feed.
Pulse is a collector of sites of your choosing, and turns them into a panning slide show. You can add your website, scan all the sites, or look at one site and see all the stories collected in that side. It's pretty to look at, if not especially innovative.
Esquire Magazine’s opening page of its iPad-only October issue began with a full-screen life-sized video clip of the head of actor Javier Bardem welcoming readers to the new magazine. It was a stunning visual, and an indication of how designers can use the iPad format for dramatic effect.
Newsy bills itself as “multisource video news analysis.” It takes the different approach of presenting video clips featuring Newsy’s own news readers who wrap up stories from multiple sources. On a story breaking last Monday from California, a controversial pardon from outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newsy used sources from the L.A .Times, L.A. Weekly, TV station KTXL and cable channel HLN for its named news sources.
Reeder and River of News are both slick repurposings of the Google Reader. That’s all they do, but I found their visual presentations and integration with other Internet capabilities such as You Tube to be pleasing to the eye.
F.L.U.D. has highly techno-stylized content, but I found it more confusing and its metaphor harder to understand than the other apps mentioned. Still, check it out.
Newspapers, quite simply, gives you access to the free online news of over 4,000 big and small papers across the world.
In the old-school news department, I like the New York Times app. It gives us nothing that hasn’t been available previously on the Internet or iPad before, but it’s a good, solid translation of the print version to the iPad screen. The Huffington Post, however, decided to abandon its website format for an iPad-ized app. For wire services, I tried the Associated Press site, with its “floating” stream of stories but I prefer the Reuters Top News app; The presentation is cleaner and more accessible.
And finally, there’s the ABC News app and I quote: “your world in your hands.” Sigh. What do you make of a news site that uses a 3D-like globe that revolves omni-directionally with features photos of the day’s leading news pasted on its revolving surface? On Monday, for example, we saw Lindsay Lohan released from rehab, “did Michael Jackson kill himself?”, sailors backing a raunchy Navy captain's racy video, etc. You click on the picture, read the story, return back to the globe and twirl, twirl, twirl until you find a story you like. Here’s another one: did plastic surgery cost woman her life? (There’s also a standardized print interface.)
Innovation? Gimmickry? I dunno. We report, you decide.
But it is fun to watch.