Much was said about the iPad’s potential as an eReader before it was released. Comparisons to the Kindle and Nook were inevitable. Now that it’s been available in the US for 2 months, I’ve been reading on it extensively. In that time, I’ve identified the factors that make a given format successful or not: feel, uniqueness, acquisition, navigation and communication. I want to explore these features across several formats. The first is newspapers, and in this article I’ll compare two: USA TODAY, and The New York Times. First, let me define the factors I’ve listed.
What’s the killer feature of any eReader? Communication. Forget page curls, full-screen photos, embedded video and audio clips. They’re nice and what many people expect from something as futuristic-sounding as an “eReader,” but it’s the successful transmission of concept and message from author to reader that’s important. Without that, nothing else matters.
How does a given format compare to its physical counterpart? Read a book, newspaper or magazine on the iPad and you inevitably compare it to a real book, newspaper or magazine. What’s the result of that comparison? The answer is in the combination of hardware and software.
The truth is you can’t yet just sit down and read, as each app has subtle (and sometimes blatant) differences in navigation. There’s some initial exploration and learning to be done. For example, WIRED navigates differently than USA TODAY, and Outdoor is different than both of them. Conversely, you can pickup any newspaper or magazine and get right to it, as we’ve been trained to use them since we were children.
Does the iPad “disappear” and leave me with the words alone, or am I keenly aware of the chunk of hardware I’m holding the entire time? Also, does the app affect this?
Uniqueness What makes an example of a given format unique, and does it serve the app? Flashy eye candy is certainly special, but not necessarily welcome.
Acquisiton How and when do I get new issues/content?
Still with me? Now let’s look at some apps.
USA TODAY for iPad is one of the marquee iPad apps that was available on launch day. Apple worked closely with the paper’s publishers, and had the app installed on demo units in Apple Stores on April 3rd. The national publication is known to millions of Americans, so we have a concept of what to expect from it. Let’s see how it meets my five functions, saving communication for last.
USA TODAY for iPad offers three types of navigation: between sections, between articles and between pages of an article. The first is clever by not immediately obvious. To move between the paper’s news, money, sports and life sections, tap the logo in the upper left-hand corner. This produces an overlay featuring color-coded logos that correspond to each section. Articles are listed in a scroll-able frame with features from each section — color-coded to match — scroll across the top of the page. When an article is selected it goes full-screen and displays two columns while the iPad is in portrait orientation, and three while in landscape.
When we read text (in the West at least), we track from left to right and top to bottom. When the end of a page is reached, we turn to the next one and repeat the process. Physical papers make it immediately obvious if an article continues on another page [1. The iPad app has a distinct advantage here. Specifically, there’s no more disruptive flipping through pages after reading “Continued on C18” for example. Just keep swiping to read your article, no matter how long it is.] The USA TODAY app provides subtle and effective prompts at the bottom of the screen. In the lower left displays the number of pages per article (“pg 1 of 1”), and in the lower right, the number of articles in a given section (“Article 2 of 25”). Small arrows make it even clearer; swipe up and down to move from page to page, and left and right to move between articles.
The app’s developers used swiping effectively [2. Why Apple’s Calendar app won’t let you swipe between pages is a mystery]. All in all, navigation with this app is well-executed.
The feel of this app mimics the paper version well, right down to the textured “edge” of the page. Of course, you’re still holding the iPad, which gets heavy quickly and sucks in direct sunlight (smudges and reflections are even more pronounced in full sun), but that’s not the app’s fault. You can easily move through an article with the swipe of a thumb tip, so it’s not disruptive at all.
The color pictures look great, though I do wish they were larger. The developers stayed faithful to the paper’s infamous layout — bright color, short stories and that weather page — while resisting the urge to re-create the mobile version that’s as close as mobile Safari. Good for them.
What make this app unique is the section navigation and daily app photo gallery.
Acquiring new content couldn’t be easier: just launch the app. It’s updated around the clock, 7 days a week.
Finally is communication. Reading on the iPad is a joy, and the USA TODAY app takes advantage of what it offers. Text is sharp and legible, navigation is easy and articles are uncluttered. I’m entirely comfortable sitting down with this app in my favorite chair with a cup of tea and an hour to myself.
However, it’s not perfect. The biggest annoyance is the lack of bookmarking. If I leave off in the middle of an article, the app returns to the home screen when re-launched. Additionally, other niceties like the crossword puzzle don’t work. I can’t select text for a copy-and-paste, and the section pages feel cramped. But all-in-all, it’s entirely possible for the app and hardware to disappear and let me simply read and enjoy. The uncluttered UI and adherence to the physical paper’s layout and look make this possible.
USA TODAY for iPad will be free until July 4, 2010. After the initial launch period, the app will be available via a fee-based subscription.
The New York Times
Also available on the iPad’s launch day was The New York Times Editor’s Choice, which displays several articles from the publication’s news, business, technology, opinion, arts and features sections per day. Criticized by Jobs himself for insufficient content, Editor’s Choice has gained both detractors and fans. Here’s how it compares to my criteria.
Navigation is simple. Departments are represented by icons across the bottom of the screen with the related articles above. Small dots indicate the number of pages of articles that each department offers (for now, they all offer two). Once an article is selected, you can swipe between its pages from the same position used to hold the iPad, which is great. Again, small dots indicate how long an article is. Also, it’s easy to adjust text size.
My only complaint about this app’s navigation is that, unlike USA TODAY for iPad, I can’t swipe between articles within a department once I’ve got an article pulled up. I must first jump back to that department’s home page.
I must admit, this app feels like the Times. True, you can’t pick up a stray copy at Starbucks, but the typography, black text on a white field and layout of the department home pages are instantly familiar. The app displays three columns when in portrait orientation and four when in landscape. Nearly every photo can be enlarged and several kick off slideshows.
My complaint is with the advertising. A small banner ad is displayed on the department home pages and I can live with that. I’ll even take the large-ish ad that accompanies some articles. But the unavoidable interstitial ad that precedes some content is just disruptive. Yes, it’s easily dismissed, but it’s annoying when it unexpectedly pops up. I realize that the Times has bills to pay, but I wish there was another solution. Perhaps a future subscription model will kill these ads.
What’s unique about this app? The gorgeous video gallery. Up to seven are available at any one time, featuring Times writers and reporters. Their production lives up to the standards of the Times and I’ve enjoyed watching them. I haven’t found another newspaper app with such effective use of video.
Just like USA TODAY for iPad, The New York Times Editor’s Choice downloads new content at launch, so there’s nothing for me to but tap its icon.
There are many more newspaper apps in the App Store. The Financial Times recently won an Apple Design Award and is quite well done. But are they enough to lure people back into the habit of “reading the paper?” Personally, I’ve read more newspaper articles with the iPad than I have in the last several years. Why is that? Surely the novelty of the device played a role initially. The iPad was my new toy and I wanted to use it.
But now I’ve had it for almost three months and I’m still at it. That’s because I simply enjoy reading on the iPad. Holding the comfortable device in my lap is completely natural. The fact that I needn’t fold and crease an oversize paper as I read is actually a bonus. Reading on a computer is the polar opposite. A laptop’s size and shape deny that cozy feeling of sitting down and reading. Yes, I called a computer cozy. If you’ve tried it, you know what I mean. I believe that, years from now, we’ll see that form factor had a lot to do with why people weren’t reading newspapers online and, even more importantly, how the renaissance of newspapers began.