April 6, 2010 Last Updated 2:52 pm

First wave of newspaper and magazine apps leave much to be desired; but apps from programmers shine

Preaching patience is hard when all around you critics proclaim, with scant evidence to support their position, that the iPad has proven to be a failure  — or a wildly successful revolution in media. Folks, it is neither. It is a work-in-progress.

It is true that the first round of apps from the media are poor. Many are redesigned RSS readers, some are minor attempts to create new publications that fit the form. But only the Times and WSJ to my knowledge were given iPads to work with, to test their creations. And even when the programmers and editors involved with the creation of new iPad apps had a unit to work with, they still faced the politics of internal interests.

The AP News iPad app.

The best new iPad apps will appear from two different sources: those media firms that are prepared to stake their future in New Media; and those that are not in anyway involved in print today.

The first group should include some familiar names like Wired. The tech books can not get away with appearing old school. This creates high expectations, to say the least.  I thought the most intelligent decision  I’ve seen so far from a media company was from those that chose not to launch iPad apps by April 3. These companies probably realized the trap: launch a buggy app that doesn’t feature the kinds of content and programming many iPad users will expect and you are setting yourself up for failure.

In June of 2008 when Apple introduced its iPhone OS 2.0, the one that launched the app store, almost any app that delivered content to a smart phone was revolutionary. A number of third party vendors appeared that helped media companies bring their content to the iPhone, and later Android and Blackberry platforms.  These rather simple RSS readers are still the norm — simple solutions to the complex question of “what do mobile media readers want?”

Wired is one of a group of magazines that I’m convinced wants to explore the new medium of tablet publishing. What this means is interactivity — not just embedded multimedia, though that, too — but Flash-like programming that tests the medium’s capabilities. Which, of course, is one of the reasons that Apple’s decision not to include Flash support has been widely criticized. Many programmers are familiar with Flash, and creating interactive Flash content is a natural. (Look this interactive feature today in the NYT. This is an example of the kind of content that would be perfect for the tablet.)
“Sometimes you really have to wonder whether the magazine world deserves the fate that
is being dealt to them. ”
— Glynnis MacNicol, Mediaite

The second group of tablet publishing products have not appeared either — those from new publishers who will produce publications specifically for the iPad and other tablets, without ever producing a print or web version.  My hopes for tablet publishing has always rested with this group. They are the equivalent of the web-only properties that have led New Media so far.

Those who are drawing conclusions from the first day’s release of media apps need to get a life. How many stand alone apps were released: a dozen? a few more? Right Zinio is giving away a half-dozen magazines within its free app. Pixel Mags has 36 magazines including MacUser and Trailer Life Magazine. These are iPad versions of their web flip books — attempts to create a digital magazine newsstand for the iPad, a newsstand that delivers the exact same product as can be seen in print, online and on smart phones. There is nothing wrong with this, and I’m sure some publishers are proudly proclaiming today that “we’re on the iPad”. They are, and good for them.

But this isn’t what those iPad concept videos were about. That kind of content will come later.

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Pixel Mags has 36 magazines available for the iPad today including Dwell.

So is there no interesting content available for the iPad? Hardly. iPad buyers were excited that Netflix launched their app so quickly. Additionally, ABC has suddenly jumped out in front of the other networks by launching an app that plays episodes of their primetime shows, complete with advertising I might add. On Sunday my iPad went missing as my youngest daughter discovered Ugly Betty.

A look at the Paid App chart shows that Real Racing HD and SCRABBLE for iPad are winners. Many have misinterpreted this to mean that the iPad isn’t going to be a serious reading device. That’s like saying that the television is not a serious news broadcast player because viewers seem to prefer American Idol. The ABC Player is listed as the second most popular free app right now, with USA Today at number four. In fact, media apps make up 60% of the top ten. If anything, this shows the hunger for good content. Add in the apps from Zinio, Pixel Mags, AP News and the BBC and suddenly it looks like the media is dominating content on Apple’s tablet.

Programmers, however, are the ones demonstrating the device’s capabilities. Now that the games and utilities can be seen and learned from, media companies can start to get a feel for what works on a tablet. By the end of the year the iPad will an established product with between 3 and 10 million units sold (estimates are all over the place). Additional tablets will have hit the street, as well. Only then will we know whether the tablet is going to be a simply an extension of print, or like the web, a place where those that enthusiastically embrace the medium thrive.

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