News Reading and Focused Tasking on the iPad

New York Times app on iPad at launch at San Fr...
A series of events this weekend caused me to purchase an iPad on Saturday. I bought it mainly to test with in the short term and I’m still undecided about whether I want to keep it. It’s gorgeous, easy to use, and very well designed. It is also very expensive, fills limited “needs” and is inflexible. However two ideas stuck out very big in my mind from my first days of use that I wanted to share.

News Reading

The New York Times and USA Today applications are very impressive. In the past I’ve been pretty skeptical of “e-ink” newspaper applications. Hyperlinking and the interoperability make the Web superior to most news applications. The iPad applications, however, do a good job of recreating the experience of flipping through a newspaper skimming and reading stories as you go. Individual articles fill the screen, text wrapped in narrow columns which are easier on the eyes. On the USA Today app, you could literally “flip” through pages by dragging your finger horizontally. It was so simple and fun that I read through all 29 articles that were available on Monday morning. I haven’t read that much of a newspaper in years.

I still don’t think that applications are a good investment for most publishers, but I think there’s a lot Web publishers can learn from the design of these applications. Navigation was sparse. The focus was on content, not links. I spent little time on the apps’ front pages and a lot more time reading strories. Instead of marketing each story as a single product and trying to push other products on you (the model), the apps encourage you to play and consume more (the Netflix model?). Reading on these applications is more about the experience. Rather than overwhelming you with choices, they are offering a single cohesive product. These applications don’t have the burden of advertising and other marketing obligations that their Web counterparts have. I think some advertising could still be incorporated without destroying the experience (and in this environment, would be more valuable for advertisers). In the end I was frustrated that more news Web sites are not designed like this, since there is little in the apps that you couldn’t do in HTML.

The iPad will not save the print business model. For starters its too late. This device is not ubiquitous enough yet to make up for lost print revenue even if consumers would pay for subscriptions. Publishers have to recognize that they will never be able to recapture more than a fraction of their old subscription base online simply because they have too much competition.The publishers who do want to charge for content on an app should at least be smart enough to block access to non-subscribers on their main site. Otherwise they’re just selling bottled water. Under the right circumstances I could see myself paying for the right to read certain publications, but I don’t see myself as a typical consumer in that sense.

Focused Tasking

One of the biggest complaints from iPhone users is the lack of multi-tasking on the device. Playing on the iPad I’m starting to think the issue is exaggerated and that maybe this “limitation” is actually a feature. Forcing you to dedicate the whole screen to one view helps you focus on the task at hand, again by limiting choices. I believe this is part of the reason why I spent so much time reading the news apps on my iPad. It was more work to switch to Twitter or Gmail than it is on my browser. Whatever app I had open got my full attention. Compare that to my work computer which typically has half a dozen apps, more than a dozen windows and a bunch of tabs open at once constantly demanding my attention.

Even Safari on the iPad allows you to focus more on the task at hand. Tabs are banished to a background view so you aren’t constantly tempted. Double tapping on a text area zooms in on it, so the content you’re reading fills the screen. This is a feature is meant for making text more readable on mobile devices, but it also allows readers to block out distractions on the page. The HTML5 video experience also allows you to make any embedded video full screen, which looks great. You also have to consider that most iPad/iPhone users are a captive audience. They’re either traveling or too lazy to leave their living room, so they’re more patient and want to enjoy the content.

Yes there are some apps that need multitasking – I really can’t justify just sitting and looking at the NPR orPandora apps while I’m listening to them. Ithink I would suggest instead of caving on multitasking, Apple adds the ability to load widgets to your home screen that run in the background. That would allow me to keep track of live feeds like Twitter and Facebook while I’m idle (like last night when I was watching the NCAA Championship game with my iPad). It would also give radio apps a place to run in the background while you’re working. I imagine we may be hearing more about the future of multitasking in the iPhone later this week, but I for one hope they leave it largely unchanged.

* * *

So are some of my big observations from using the iPad, neither of which have gotten a lot of attention in the initial reviews. Even if you don’t need/want this device, there’s a lot you can gain from just looking at the design of the applications. It is worth spending a day or two playing with if you get the chance.