When it was released in December, the tablet demo of Sports Illustrated (see below) set off a firestorm online. The new SI promised interactivity, live sports scores, and the great sports coverage readers have come to expect, all wrapped in a beautifully designed application. Since the video’s introduction, the iPad has been released and dozens of magazine properties have taken their brands and content to the App Store. Few have succeeded in matching the design or functionality promised by SI’s initial prototype. Now, with the official release of the Sports Illustrated app, the video has finally come to life.
Delivering on Old Promises
Fortunately, Sports Illustrated’s app includes most of the features that were promised in the initial tablet demonstration. It far outperforms the official Time Magazine app, also published by Time Inc. One of the coolest features of the app is the “wheel,” a feature that enables sharing, emailing, player stats, and related photos and articles to be accessed simply by holding a finger down on an article. This means, however, that there’s no traditional copying and pasting available in the app. The share feature luckily makes up for this shortcoming,
Live Scores and Articles
Like Time Magazine’s application, the Sports Illustrated app also integrates nicely with live content from SI’s website to ensure that articles and issues are never out of date. Individual articles can pull up “related articles” or “related stats” from the aforementioned wheel. Better yet, users can get live stats and articles from SI.com directly within the app.
One of the Few Standouts
The Sports Illustrated app is an all star in the App Store. That said, it’s not difficult with the lackluster efforts from the magazine industry thus far. The SI app has great navigation and doesn’t bother with any of the more bizarre vertical and horizontal reading schemes. Instead, it sticks to the basics, presenting great content and adding interactivity and new features only where they’re of use to the reader. The SI app should serve as a great example to publishers of what their magazines should be like when ported to the iPad.
I’ve written in the past about the iPad’s impact on the magazine industry, but the iPad remains just as important to newspapers as it is to magazines. The Congressional Research Service’s 2009 report on the newspaper industry found that this could be the “worst financial crisis [for the newspaper industry] since the Great Depression.” Tablets and new form factors have brought new hope to the industry and many newspapers have made the iPad a crucial pillar in their digital strategy. Beyond paywalls, the iPad represents a significant potential revenue source. The iPad’s release has brought with it scores of digital newspapers, among them storied brands like the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Times of London.
The WSJ App's Front Page
New Form Factor, New Opportunities
The iPad is one of the first computing platforms to mimic the form factor of magazines and newspapers. Many newspapers have tried to port their publications to the iPad while maintaining many of the same visual styles and layouts that their readers are accustomed to. Some attempt to add interactivity in the same manner WIRED Magazine did, with the occasional slideshow and manipulable photographs.
Yet despite the traditionalism of most of the newspaper apps, I’ve found them invaluable. No longer is it necessary to carry a newspaper or two around. The iPad is an invaluable companion on a commute. I’ve found myself downloading all three of my favorite newspapers (the WSJ, FT, and NYT) in the morning and reading them all on the train. It really is terrific to have the iPad function as an all-in-one book, newspaper, and magazine reader. The Kindle may have the ability to download newspapers, but its functionality is nowhere near as robust as that provided by the iPad.
Highlights and Disappointments
The Financial Times application has been my favorite thus far. The app also won an Apple Design Award this year. The app includes the FT’s terrific content in a well designed layout, with great video content no more than a touch away.
Financial Times App's Markets Section
Moving between articles and sections is intuitive, and it doesn’t take much time to download an edition on the way to work. The app adds serious value, however, by linking into real time financial information. The FT, a paper designed for businessmen, allows users to look at the financial markets at a glance, providing a great overview of the currency, stock, and equities markets. The WSJ has some great features as well, including the ability to save articles and editions for later. I like how the app keeps the past couple of editions of the paper for perusal. The New York Times, not to be left behind, has also released a solid application.
There are, however, still problems with each application. One is common to all newspaper and content applications in the App Store – the inability to download content in the background. Instapaper developer Marco Arment has lamented the issue in a great post about iOS4. We can only hope that Apple will start including some mechanism to allow users to download content in the background with a future OS update.
As with magazines, newspapers are seeing reinvention and innovation on the iPad. Established media brands have begun paying serious attention to the platform, and it promises to pay off for them in the future.
I met Tarikh of Uncommon Projects a couple of weeks ago and got a preview of Steps, a cool new project designed to help users publish instructions or directions from their iPhone to the web. Uncommon Projects, based in Brooklyn, is a hardware and software design firm that has done projects like a cool series of photo bikes for Yahoo. One of the sample Steps they’ve put together online is a great introduction to the service’s potential.
List of Created Stpes
At the moment, creating Steps requires the Steps iPhone application. Users start projects and add steps, with a wide variety of different types of information to include. Images and text are the two most important, but Steps also gives users the opportunity to add directional arrows that translucently sit on top of the photos. Location can also be added via GPS and seen on an included map. This allows for breadcrumb navigation using just a map in case pictures or text aren’t necessary.
The application also allows you to preview the steps before uploading them to the web. Once shared, the app can send the steps out in a tweet or an email.
The Steps app makes it incredibly simple to create instructions and the web app that Uncommon Projects has created is a perfect companion. The iPhone view feels just like the application itself, allowing users to look at maps or see the text and pictures along with every step. Viewing the Steps site from a desktop provides an equally informative view.
Viewing Steps' Directions Online
A Lesson in Simplicity
Steps is just the kind of application I love. It’s easy to use, simple, and beautifully designed. When the app is released, it’ll make it easier for everyone, be they chefs sharing recipes or relatives giving directions to their homes, to make easy to understand walkthroughs.
New York subway apps for the iPhone have always been popular, as tourists and residents alike need an easy pocketable resource to navigate the challenges of New York’s massive labyrinthine public transportation system. Exit Strategy received a lot of press last year for helping New Yorkers find the opportune subway car for their destination. The app gained some sophistication earlier this year with full maps, but it gained popularity for its simplicity and underlying information. NextStop, a new app from the Brooklyn App Factory, attempts to make it easier to be on time with the subway.
The app adds a wrapper and some nifty features around the MTA’s little known subway schedule. Users of the app enter their subway line and their departure point and are shown a countdown timer. Touching the train’s time displays the subway’s expected stop time at stations further down the line. The app includes other common features like a favorites system and tools to find nearby subway systems.
NextStop is, at its core, an easy and pretty way to access subway schedules. iTrans NYC, one of the more popular subway apps, includes subway schedules as well. Yet iTrans is built around a variety of other tools and costs $3.99. NextStop is free and is the perfect companion for any NYC traveler.
The iPad is, along with the Kindle and the Nook, one of the first devices to bring the pleasures of eReaders to the masses. Unfortunately, it has brought the struggles of digital media along with it, casting users into a sea of confusion with new acronyms like ePub and mobi, among others. The most basic users will undoubtedly simply stick to Apple’s included solution and purchase all of their books directly from the iBooks store. This remains an incredibly simple and turnkey solution that even advanced users should consider. Other book sellers, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, each include similar storefronts, allowing purchases from the desktop on their websites and simple delivery to the iPad. Each of these interactions requires little more than several clicks and files never need to be transmitted from the desktop to the iPad itself. But what’s the more advanced user to do if the iBooks/iTunes combination isn’t enough?
Calibre's Conversion Dialog
Those that dare to wade into the more advanced waters of eBook reading will need a quick primer on their device’s capabilities. The iPad’s native reader, iBooks, currently only supports the open ePub format, although support for PDFs is promised in a forthcoming version showcased at WWDC alongside iOS4. It’s important to note that eBooks downloaded from any of the aforementioned stores (Amazon, B&N, and iBooks) may come in the ePub format, but each is locked down with its own proprietary digital rights management system, making files from one online bookstore unreadable in another company’s reader.
Yet there are a multitude of sources for unencrypted eBooks, including stores who sell books without DRM. Formats may become an issue in this case, with lit, mobi, and more serving as the defaults for several other popular mobile readers. In this case, a user’s best option for books management is Calibre, a terrific open source program that works with a wide variety of eBook formats and readers. I’d say Calibre is the iTunes for your digital book library, but I like to think of it more as iBooks’ desktop companion.
iBooks’ Best Friend
Calibre, available free of charge, deftly converts eBooks from most formats to ePub, PDF, and more. It’s as simple as dragging and dropping into the app and selecting an output format. Calibre can also download metadata and covers so iBooks properly organizes your book when it’s displayed on your iPad. The app also centralizes your books on your hard drive so there’s always somewhere to go to find the original eBook, just as iTunes attempts to centralize your music library in a folder on your hard drive.
Calibre offers simple solutions for moving these books to your iPad, with a recently unveiled “push-to-iTunes” feature that will seamlessly add books to a connected iPad. Otherwise, users have to go into their Calibre library folder and drag the books to iTunes’ iBooks panel (when an iPad is syncing). If you’re not an iBooks user, Calibre works perfectly with Stanza, one of my favorite apps.
Like to Read? You’ll Love Calibre
Calibre does what any good app does – removes the strictures of formats and medium and instead leaves the text itself as the most important part of the reading experience. A simple drag and drop enables users to convert books from any format to any other format with ease. The developers are great and the app sees frequent and innovative updates. Like most open source projects, it makes me want to donate – the software’s almost too good to be true. It does much more than converting eBooks, though, and it’s worth a look for anyone interested in reading, whether on your iPad or off. Get it here.
The project is centered around a series of locks at famous landmarks around New York, with several in each of the city’s five boroughs. In Manhattan, for example, keys can be found at Gracie Mansion or in Bryant Park. Specific instructions are provided for participants to get to the locks.
Perhaps more entertaining however, is how keys themselves are obtained. The artist has maintained the somewhat humanitarian concept of a key to the city by requiring people to show up with a friend or relative that they are recognizing with a key. The keys are thus given out as recognition for a job well done – maybe for a recent success or, even better, for humanitarian activity.
The companion iPhone application is one of Apple’s featured iPhone apps, and for good reason. The app, which does little more than get people involved with the project and point them in the direction of keys, is a catalyst for further participation in a smartly designed and good hearted attempt at getting New Yorkers to explore their city.
Most people who have seen my new iPad react with the same question, “should I get this or the Kindle?” Apple, obviously, intended its iPad to be perceived as much more than an eBook reader. Yet the much publicized launch of the iBookstore, along with the iPad’s slim form factor, have led many consumers to perceive the iPad as an expensive eBook reader.
The Kindle is the Premier eBook Reader
Amazon's Kindle 2
The Kindle was launched solely as an eBook reader and is marketed as such. Jeff Bezos, on introducing the device, said of the Kindle that “it’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.” Amazon has definitely done much of the legwork in improving the acceptability of the eBook as a new medium for written material. Amazon’s true innovation was bringing E-Ink technology to the consumer market, along with doing the technical legwork to simplify the reading experience. At its core, the Kindle is a delivery device – a user purchases a book as they would online and finds it available for reading seconds later.
The reading experience does everything it can to mimic the experience of paper, all of which is aided by E-Ink. The screen is technology’s response to those who complained that they would never be able to read a book on a traditional LCD screen or a laptop. The Kindle itself is merely the size of a large paperback and is lighter than most printed books. The Kindle is Bezos’ effort to translate the book for the digital age, and he has largely succeeded in providing a popular and widely accepted new platform.
The iPad as an eBook Reader
Apple's iPad with iBooks
The iPad has benefited from terrific interest from both book publishers and book retailers. As a consequence we’ve seen innovative new packages like the Vook and traditional books from retailers like B&N, Amazon, and more. While the Kindle has a terrific – and probably the largest – bookstore, the iPad offers more choices for where you get your ebooks.
There’s Apple’s iBooks, Amazon’s Kindle reading app, B&N’s new iPad reader, and more. The three largest players each offer different solutions to the eBook problem. iBooks tries to mimic the feel of a physical book, utilizing a color UI with beautifully rendered page turns. The Kindle’s UI is black and white and encourages the same type of user interaction as the physical Kindle – a simple tap on the side of the screen changes pages in a fluid transition not as visually distracting as that of iBooks. B&N’s app allows users to choose from dozens of different visual settings but maintains the same fluid page transitions as Amazon’s Kindle app. Only the iBooks app has a store in-app; the others force the reader to go to Safari to purchase books. This is a definite snag in the clear workflow Bezos presented with the original Kindle, but one that I’m sure both B&N and Amazon will surmount in future applications.
The iPad’s reflective LCD screen probably isn’t the best for simply reading a book. It’s a pain in the sun, where it’s nearly impossible to see the text on a page. E-Ink mainly solves this problem with its screen. People who have issues reading for long periods of time on their laptops may wish to reconsider an iPad purchase if it’s intended solely as an eBook reader. While the reading experience is cleaner and more enjoyable, it’s the same experience as the backlit screens most notebooks include. In addition, the iPad’s battery life is rated at 10 hours, enough for most commuters but nowhere near the weeks the Kindle can last for.
The iPad as a Platform: Bigger Than Books
A Vook on the iPad
The key differentiator between the two comes when we move beyond the simple eBook reading features. The Kindle includes a browser, but not one that functions nearly as well as the iPad’s. It’s black and white and renders incredibly slowly due to the E-Ink screen technology. The iPad’s Safari browser is widely regarded as one of the best on a mobile platform.
I’ve always seen the iPad as more than a traditional book reader as well. The Kindle simply translates the book reading experience into the digital age but strives not to completely alter the way we experience books. New features like Amazon’s Popular Highlights add subtle suggestions about the importance of a passage but do not redefine the reading workflow. Cool ideas like the aforementioned Vook change the reading experience by adding videos, multimedia, more information about certain topics (with links) and more. Could the iPad help the form of the written word change? Only time, and developers, will tell.
Those of you struggling with the decision to purchase an iPad or a Kindle might want to do some soul searching. What do you want from your portable device? Just books and nothing more? Buy a Kindle – that’s what it’s meant for. But if you’re looking for a small computer, with thousands of different and innovative new applications that could redefine reading, the iPad is for you.
PDFs for iPad?
Many publishers have simply translated their magazines to the iPad by making them into PDFs of the print version. Some, like Wired, have added custom UI layers and slight multimedia additions to spruce up their publications. The vertical and horizontal reading interface present in magazines like Wired show that publishers are trying to think out of the box, but they haven’t quite succeeded yet. Unfortunately, the current workflow may not work. A series by Ad Age this week shows that magazine publishers are taking the content from their print editions and dropping them into templates for the iPad. What would happen if magazines were custom designed for the iPad? If the content was specifically designed to take advantage of the iPad’s features? I hope we’ll be able to find out in the coming months.
I’ve reviewed six iPad magazine apps so far, each with their own set of pros and cons:
Wired: An interesting first attempt that falls short due to download size, quirky navigation, and its underlying architecture. Time: Interesting effort tying live content (News Feed) with magazine content but this is essentially just a PDFed magazine. Newsweek: The iPad-only edition it includes makes boastful claims, but the app itself can’t compete with the others listed here. GQ: The men’s interest magazine’s first iPad edition includes a bizarre navigation system but some useful innovations. Zinio for iPad: The popular and experienced magazine digitizers bring their platform to the iPad and make it one of the few viable options for those interested in magazines. Popular Science+: Like Wired’s app, bizarre navigation makes Pop Sci difficult to enjoy on Bonnier’s Mag+ platform.
So far, it appears that even lackluster efforts are producing success for publishers. There is clearly more potential for the medium and I’m sure content producers aren’t resting. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Lexcycle, acquired last year by Amazon, released a version of their popular iPhone/iPod touch eReader Stanza for the iPad last week. Stanza was my eReader of choice on my iPhone and I’m thrilled it’s finally been ported to the iPad. It’s a terrific reader that’s compatible with a wide variety of different formats. Before Stanza for iPad was released, I used Calibre to convert my eBooks to iBooks’ required ePub format. Stanza allows users to read in a whole bunch of formats, and the 3.0 release adds PDF, DjVu, and Comic Book Archive support to Stanza’s already extensive library of readable files.
Stanza includes the most customizable reading interface I’ve seen on a mobile application. It allows you to customize nearly everything, from the page turning animations (a slide like the Kindle’s or a page turning animation like iBooks’) to the background and color of the text. Stanza really does make the experience all about the text – the user is able to customize everything about the way the book is viewed. Barnes and Nobles’ app was lauded earlier this week for including the same customization but their application locks you into using their bookstore. Stanza lets you load your own books onto the iPad or iPhone. It also, however, allows you access to a variety of other eBook stores directly from the phone.
Stanza's Text Descriptions
Perhaps the application’s best feature is Stanza’s Detail views for text. Highlighting text using the traditional copy and paste mechanism in iBooks yields a tooltip that lets you bookmark (highlight) and look things up in the dictionary. It’s a more complicated scenario in Stanza but one that offers one additional option – the ability to share text on Facebook, Twitter, and through email. The detail view pulls up the paragraph in question in an iPhone-sized window and makes it easier to select text.
Stanza works perfectly with Calibre, my app of choice for eBook conversion. It now allows for a really simple workflow to get eBooks from the desktop to an iPad. It’s possible to move books by utilizing a computer as a wireless server, or by pushing them from Calibre into iTunes. It’s also possible to drag books into iTunes and into Stanza.
Stanza is the ideal reading experience, with customizable colors, animations, and more and compatibility with dozens of different formats. The Lexcycle team has succeeded in bringing the great iPhone app to the iPad and I, as an avid reader, am glad they did so.
The location based app market has been popular for quite some time now, with its major players becoming household names. Foursquare, Gowalla, and upstarts like Booyah’s MyTown are showing impressive user numbers and gaining traction among mobile users. Yet at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, two new startups showed promising twists on location-based services (LBS). DeHood aims to create a new community vibe through its iPhone app and website, each of which pulls in information about their local area. Yet possibly more disruptive is SCVNGR, which takes the game dynamics present in Foursquare and makes them the center of the service, instead of placing them on the periphery as Foursquare does.
Making Checking in Fun Again
Foursquare is designed to one day become a social and local utility, with social gaming mechanics designed to encourage checkins and to get people to use the platform more frequently. With SCVNGR, going to somewhere and checking in isn’t enough. Instead, they make the entire world a scavenger hunt. At Disrupt, challenges included “Double Down,” with users suggesting companies for venture capitalists to invest in, or “Give me a ‘T’,” wherein users had to spell out TCD with random scraps they found at the conference.
SCVNGR has spent the past couple of months working with institutions like colleges and museums to build “treks,” which are essentially scavenger hunts. These are designed to drive more traffic and interactivity with the institutions. One could theoretically travel through the Metropolitan Museum of Art doing a trek, a highlights tour of sorts that was designed with SVNGR. The app includes social features as well, allowing users to see where they rank against their friends and the treks their friends had previously completed.