The impossibility of tablet-native journalism

Felix Salmon, Reuters:

I think that The Daily has taught us all an important lesson — which is that tablets in general, and the iPad in particular, are actually much less powerful and revolutionary than many of us had hoped. Specifically, far from being able to offer richer content than can be found on the web, they actually find themselves crippled in unexpected ways.

Felix asked me for counter-examples to prove that iPad news apps aren’t all “glorified PDF readers”, but I couldn’t fit my thoughts in a tweet, so here they are:

Every issue of a new publication has to be downloaded in full before it can be opened; this takes a surprisingly long time, even over a pretty fast wifi connection. That’s one reason why web apps can be superior to native apps: no one would dream of forcing people to download a whole website before they could view a single page.

Take a look at NYTimes for iPad, which downloads news on a per-section basis, caching additional multimedia over wifi afterwards.

Even Adobe Publishing Suite, which I abhor and which powers many of the “glorified PDF reader” apps Salmon refers to, was updated almost two years ago to allow for concurrent issue downloads, and now includes progressive page loads rather than forcing an entire issue download before one can read.

Look at any publication you’re reading in an iPad app, and search for a story. Oh, wait — you can’t: search is basically impossible within iPad apps, which at heart are little more than heavy PDF files, weighed down with multimedia bells and whistles. Navigation is always difficult and unintuitive, and pages are never remotely as dynamic as what we’ve become used to on the web.

Take a look at Bloomberg Businessweek+, which allows full-text search across all downloaded issues, as well as a more intuitive navigation than plenty of web sites I’ve used.

Read to the end of a story, and then see how many headlines you can click on: which stories are you being given the choice to read next? The answer is probably none, and again the reason for that is built deep into the architecture of the iPad, and of other tablets too.

Both of the above apps include this functionality. And with all due respect, claiming that a feature as specific and CMS-dependent as linking to related stories at the end of a news article is somehow hindered by limitations “built deep into the architecture” of the iPad and other tablets is laughable to anyone with a cursory knowledge of how software is built, regardless of what platform it’s on. (Felix: I could go into the technical details of why this is ridiculous, but I’d rather not bore you or my readers. Let’s get lunch sometime if you’re curious.)

The web, for instance, doesn’t need to traffic in discrete “issues” — if you subscribe to the New York Times, you can read any story you like, going back decades. Whereas if you subscribe to a publication on a tablet, you can read only one issue at a time.

Amazingly enough, the New York Times has a native iPad app, mentioned above, which does exactly this. Magazines, on the other hand, work as issues. While one can make an argument for or against the virtues of an issue-based publication cycle in a post-PC world, that’s a different essay.

I’m reminded, here, a bit of Apple’s iOS Maps debacle.

Yes, Maps. They suck now, but they were better before, when they used the same Google server infrastructure as their web-based counterparts. This has nothing to do with the client implementation being native or web-based.

No iPad publication is remotely as innovative or as fun to read as, say, BuzzFeed, because BuzzFeed has coders who can do very clever things with their chosen platform, and iPad publications don’t.

I love BuzzFeed, and I write for it fairly often, but I fail to see how the company’s web team has made the reading experience on the web appreciably more “fun”. The content does that, for me, but I can get that in Pocket.

I would suggest The Atavist, or the iPad version of Our Choice as examples of tablet publications that are finding new — if still imperfect — ways to engage readers through touch.

Perspective, which lets authors create stories with data tailored for the iPad, and Tapestry, a platform for reading “tap essays” like Robin Sloan’s Fish are also interesting new upstarts in the space.

If you’re publishing on the iPad, you’re basically a designer rather than a coder, and you’re far more limited in what you can do.

No, you’re not, unless you can’t find a coder willing to work with you. Use Adobe Publishing Suite, and yes, you will have no control over the code. But that’s a far cry from some mythical limitation on publishing apps which prevents them from deviating from the horrible implementations we’ve seen thus far.

This kind of thing, for instance, works OK in Safari for iPad, but you won’t find it in a downloaded publication.

Nope, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done with a bit of work (quite possibly less work than it took to make the cross-platform HTML version).

As far as news and journalism are concerned, the verdict is in: tablets aren’t a new medium which will support a whole new class of publications — there’s almost nothing you can do well on a tablet that you can’t just put on a website and ask people to read in a browser. Publications of the future will put their content online, and will go to great lengths to ensure that it looks fantastic when viewed on a tablet. But the tablet is basically just one of many ways to see material which exists on the internet; it’s not a place to put stuff which can’t be found anywhere else.

Salmon appears to be taking out his rage at the current crop of iPad publications from companies like Condé Nast and News Corp. on the entire tablet publishing ecosystem. But there’s much, much more to publishing on the iPad than just blindly reproducing antiquated print metaphors, and there are plenty of developers out there doing amazing things with the medium.

Publishing for a single platform, whether print, web, or the iPad, is a foolish move, and I think we knew that before The Daily was excised from News Corp.’s balance sheet. But to write tablet publishing off entirely due to one poorly-planned app from a massive traditional publisher would be terribly short-sighted.

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