Newspapers were the first to realize the power of the Web to communicate instantly with their readers. Now being mobile-enabled has become increasingly important for them to stay relevant today. And as if it wasn’t enough of a problem to choose the right platform (Android, iOS), device capability, or to choose between mobile Web and native application, things have become more complicated with penetration of tablet devices (though there's no competition to iPad yet).
Tablet devices will become the biggest point of influence as to how users will interact and consume digital content. Companies such as BBC, FLUD, Wired, and many more already have their iPad native application available on Apple 'sApp store. CNN, Reuters, ESPN, SPIN.com, and NYTimes.com have made themselves aligned to iPad Web browsing experience.
However, the strategic choices will become easier for digital content publishers if they try to understand how different stakeholders of the publishing industry will deal with content in future.
Native Experience of Information
The first advantage of creating a native application for iPad is the richness of experience the app provides. Designers seem to be designing apps more as amalgamations of games and info-graphic interfaces and less as task-driven interfaces. Native applications can make good use of device capabilities such as camera, accelerometer, gyroscope, voice and motion sensor, and GPS and add to the overall experience of the application which is difficult to achieve on browser-based app designs. While some amount of offline browsing and location aware services are possible using HTML 5, it is still not possible to access some of the native capabilities of mobile devices from browsers due to security and privacy concerns (for example, access to address book or calendar).
The Wired iPad app is a beautiful example of static magazine content being made available in a highly interactive and multimedia-based content delivery format, without compromising on the magazine’s original free flow content designs, large visuals, large advertisements, and silky smooth page flip transitions. However, in many ways the content is confusing and unusable because of non-obvious controls, unintuitive interactions, and game design thinking. Read NN Group report on usability of iPad apps and websites.
Hybrid Experience of Information
Publications need to think — Does reading infotainment content always require such rich multimedia experiences? What about serious content readers who would want to read articles for hours? Does it make more sense to have subtle and clean reading experience for them?
Financial Times has designed a hybrid version of Web and native applications for their website (app.ft.com), optimized for an iPad. The website exploits HTML5 capabilities to load content in the background and provides a newspaper's page-after-page flip reading experience that is completely browser based. Users can easily differentiate the content reading experience from traditional Web content rendering without compromising the subtle simplicity.
Richness of Content is Expensive
Rich content comes with its weight and each bite of space on the iPad is expensive. Single copy of Wired magazine consumes half a gigabyte of storage space on the iPad before one can use it. Data on mobile is still expensive; downloading a copy of Wired using the 3G iPad connectivity would easily cost a fortune in many countries along with the time that it would take. And all of it will impact the end user experience.
Natural Digital Content Interactions Are Missing
In many ways native applications' designs reduce the user’s natural tendency of reading and interacting with the digital content. Features and controls that users use in browsers are not available (for example, copy text and photos and share it with friends by pasting it in an email). Features like bookmarking and printing pages are not available unless they are built seamlessly within the application.
Access and Reach
Digital content is highly search driven. To access a certain publication's content, users may use any of the search engines or they may find it via links from other websites, blogs, Twitter, and/or links embedded in emails. However, the mobile native apps currently do not support such navigation. So, if a publisher's marketing strategy is to increase the number of visitors and not bother about the repeat visitors, it makes sense to go for mobile optimized Web, especially if it is viral.
Media Advertising Means Money!
Advertising has been a primary source of revenue for most media companies across platforms. For a decade, it was believed that ‘Web users are ad blind’ and they don’t care about ads. At the same time, there has been a significant growth in various media companies' advertising budgets year after year. It’s time media content producers rethink about advertising.
Designers and marketers of traditional Web have worked on aspects like ad slots, positions, sizes, context, level of interactivity, personalization, and more but now iPad can potentially sail them far ahead in time. Ads designed for Wired app are more persuasive by being highly interactive. Perhaps there is scope to make them more meaningful, information exchangeable, intelligent and personalized by adding context sensitiveness. Advertising of such kind will certainly provide better branding mileage to advertisers and also the opportunity to get richer data in bargain. It might just be advertisers who will push publishers to go ‘tabletized’.
Editorial Control: Rigid vs Flexible vs Time to Publish
For publications that are in the business of providing real-time digital content, it is important to package content and keep updating it (for example, coverage of elections or scams). It becomes utmost important for the editorial staff to have flexibility and control over the content and presentation. Native application takes away that flexibility and control because of rigid content meta data structures and templates. Due to cumbersome maintenance and update routines in native applications and app stores, any change made to the app design can take weeks to happen. The work includes programming, testing, approval process, and then finally the end users have to actively choose to update the app. Mobile Web apps, however, require limited programming and testing, hence always providing users with the latest content and experience.