There are approximately 5700 applications categorized as News in the App Store, according to 148Apps.biz, making up a little over 2.5% of the overall store. Nonetheless, competition between News applications is fierce with competitive limit and predatory pricing. And we haven't even considered the non-competitive factors like offering video over 3G or push notifications. Even though the Washington Post application offers neither of these, it is currently standing at number eight in the top paid apps. Let's find out why.
The old phrase "never judge a book by its cover" (or more aptly, never judge an application by its front page), is thrown this out the window for news applications: the front page is everything. A good news application will present a large summary of news on the iPhone's small screen, meaning design is everything. Unfortunately, the Washington Post application falls short of its rivals. There is a significant amount of dead space at the top of the screen, limiting the overall content that you can see at once. The blue bar that tells you what section you are viewing is useless because the navigation bar above it tells you also (see pictures). The horizontally-scrolling navigation bar is becoming more and more popular among news application with good reason: it is by far the easiest and most effective way of switching categories. We're glad to see that the Washington Post application has incorporated it into its official application.
I will highlight one particular feature. You can swipe an article summary and save it to MyPost (WP's own version of Instapaer), e-mail the article or share it through facebook and twitter. Oddly, the Washington Post claims that the application is ad-supported, but there wasn't a single one to be seen in our multiple tests.
Of course, the Washington Post has a monopoly of its own content, and this is why you would buy this application: to read their articles. When inside an article, the dead space that I mentioned earlier disappears into a succinct top bar. The content becomes the heart and soul of the application. It's text heavy and image-light, meaning its good for GPRS, EDGE and 3G. There's no shortage of articles or sections either - most main categories have a number of subcategories. For example, at the tap of a button the Politics section can be further split into: latest politics, White House, Congress, Fed Page and more, just like on the website. News can be refreshed by then-Tweetie's famous "pull-down" feature, a nice addition.
The bottom menu bar sees Apple integration like in the iPod app. What confuses me is that some sections are only available through the bottom menu bar, and others the top. Nonetheless, a plethora of categories are available to choose from. In addition, the ability to search and save articles to read later exists.
The application itself feels solid but lacking something. Even though everything you need is there, it has no style or flare like, for example, FT Mobile. The unchangeable white background is bland and straining on the eyes in darker areas; and the fast scroll to top feature (by tapping on the bar that has the time, battery life etc) doesn't work. These flaws are easily fixable. However, there are no push notifications for new content (like breaking news stories), even though the application is paid-for. This is something that substitute news applications offer, so its omission from the Washington Post is disappointing.
So what makes it worth $1.99? The content. If you're a frequent reader of the Washington Post, $1.99 seems attractive. If your not, it seems a little over the top for what is essentially free content. Ultimately, my conclusion will probably be different to yours. I'll leave it at that.