March 3, 2010 Last Updated 9:46 pm

The state of news apps: a look at the Washington Post, The Guardian and Gallup iPhone applications

Today the Washington Post finally got in the mobile media game with the appearance of their paid application in the iTunes store.
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Apple introduced the second edition of the iPhone OS on July 11, 2008, and with it came the iTunes app store. That move may have been even more significant to mobile media than the introduction of the iPhone itself. The new iTunes app store opened up mobile phones to new features, and have allowed publishers like the New York Times to extend its brand across the nation, if not the globe.  (The iPhone is currently on OS 3.1.3, with OS 4.0 is due out this summer. Each new OS version is free to iPhone users, unlike new versions of computer operating systems.)

The NYT app was introduced less than two weeks after the iTunes app store was established and has been the leading news application ever since. Today, the free app and is on version 2.32 (the CNN Mobile app is the number one paid app).

What follows is a review of the new Washington Post app, and a comparison with The Guardian and Gallup’s iPhone app offerings.

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The screen shots above, each of which can be enlarged by clicking on them, show some of the features of the new WaPo app. The application opens to a simple screen of white, and contains a small banner ad on the bottom. I don’t know of what real value this ad is since the screen changes almost immediately to the index page. There are no ads on this page right now, telling me that the app was released without the direct participation of the advertising department. I obviously could be wrong about this, but I believe this because any advertising manager worth his/her weight would want ads in the very first edition of the app in order to be able to sell additional advertising later. A spec issue, if you will.

The index has a great feature, one that caught me by surprise. If you “pull down” the index it rubber bands and reveals a message that the action will refresh the index. Very unique and creative.

The new layouts need work, however. The middle screen capture above is typical — all text, without graphics.  Another story about Karl Rove (this is the Washington Post, after all) does contain a picture, but the image is so large that it almost appears that there is no story that follows.  Comparing the layout to The Guardian layout shows that there is still some work to be done in this area.

The Post app has another little handy feature which can be seen in the far right screen shot.  The “My Post” feature allows you to save stories in a folder for later viewing. This may not seem like a very important feature until you realize that the Index page will always be updated, and the going back to find a story will be hard if you can’t bookmark or store the story in some way. The Post app handles it this way and it is a nice solution.
The navigation along the bottom is fairly standard and is not geared towards multimedia. An additional navigation tool is found at the top in a scrollable headline bar that gets you to blog areas.

The Washington Post iPhone app costs $1.99 and was released today (and is awaiting its first reviews on iTunes). (Update: Poynter’s Damon Kiesow spoke to the Washington Post’s vice president and general manager for digital operations, Goli Sheikholeslami. That post can be found here.)

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The Guardian app for the iPhone remains state-of-the-art despite the fact that it has not been updated since December 23rd and is still at version 1.01. (Apps are often frequently updated early in their life as developers get rid of bugs, add features, and generally respond to user feedback.)

The Guardian index page look is better graphically, though there are a limited number of stories for each category. The page does contain one of the coolest (if you don’t mind me using that word) features: a topics link on each story that brings up more stories and allows the user to really browse the app in a way usually not seen on a smart phone.

News layouts, too, seem better suited to the iPhone, with slightly smaller photos (see middle screen shot) and captions that seem very newspaper like.

The features that really make The Guardian app a leader, though, is the incorporation of galleries and audio. This is an app you would want to spend time with. At $3.99, it is more expensive than the WaPo app, but feels worth it.

Additionally, the app gives a nod to mobile etiquette by leaving out the ads. I hope that if The Guardian designs an application for the iPad that it looks at incorporating advertising in some creative way. But for the iPhone, the choice of no ads, but a fee for the app seems to me perfect.

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Finally, a look at something outside of newspaper apps, one from a familiar company: Gallup. The Gallup News app was released late last week and is very simple . . . and free. (And by the way, I just love the different app icons. I don’t find the The Guardian’s icon very appealing, and the WaPo icon is rather uncreative. What to do for Gallup? Well, this isn’t a bad solution.)

The index page is a quick look at their latest survey results — no stories, no links, just numbers. The next page is “Top Stories” and unlike most news apps, Gallup has chosen to go with reversed type — and it works for me.  The layouts — which I have not shown here — are clean and work well.

The real surprise here is the editor’s video content. It’s nicely done, but would concern me if I were the “publisher”: the latest video is dated February 19th, can they keep their content updated?

In the end, the Gallup app is simple. But because it is free, expectation will not be sky high.

The key to any app is will you use it. Right now I have seven pages of apps on my phone — there are those with much more — but I will likely trim back on the number of apps on my phone because so few are used regularly.  It usually takes a week or two to tell if an app will “make it”.

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