This week I’ve done an analysis of how news sites worldwide approach apps and mobile web sites. To get some variety, I’ve chosen The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Irish Times and The Onion. If there’s a worldwide news site or app you’d like to see reviewed, just let me know and I’ll do a follow-up post with additional news sites in the future.
For those who want the quick version, I have a table below showing how the sites and apps compare in certain areas:
|New York Times
||sort of – m.nytimes.com jumps you to regular site on tablet; works on phones
||Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7 & Palm Pre; Also Kindle & Nook
||yes, after reading a certain number of articles
||yes – m.guardian.co.uk
||not for news (it’s a photo viewing app)
||Nokia and HP TouchPad apps; Also Kindle and a Flipboard channel
||currently no; rumoured to be considering one
||yes – m.aljazeera.net
||yes – live news stream & news headlines
||yes, live viewing of video news only
||Android, Blackberry, Nokia, and Samsung Bada; unofficial WP7
|The Irish Times
||yes – m.irishtimes.com
||yes but you must buy individual copies
||yes, ePaper for $1.99
||had one previously, removed in 2008
||not really, m.theonion.com resolves but isn’t any more mobile-friendly
||Android & Kindle, unofficial WP7
||Testing one currently: users must subscribe after reading five articles in 30 days
THE NEW YORK TIMES
[For a wonderful non-mobile browser-based reading experience of the NY Times, read my previous article on the Ochs extension for Chrome and give it a try.]
Visiting http://m.nytimes.com on an iPad redirects you to the full NY Times, whereas on an iPhone and a Windows Phone 7 you are taken to a more mobile-friendly site. It doesn’t matter that much, actually, because when you click into an article on the iPad, you get a big enough view to read, whereas the main page and category pages have quick small text and tiny navigation which is hard to use without pinching and zooming frequently.
The NY Times iPad app is much nicer, although only the top news is free. To get access to additional content, the app has in-app subscription options of either NYTimes.com + Tablet app for $19.99/month or the all digital access for $34.99/month. Without the subscription, you see all categories locked as shown. When you click on them, they show you the section’s front page, but trying to read the article gives you a subscribe prompt popup. The top news is nicely laid out, though, and the paging navigation inside the articles is nice to read. Occasional but nice-looking ads might pop up as you’re reading but they are easily closed. Another nice feature of the iPad app is the ability to set Offline Reading preferences so that articles are automatically downloaded for offline reading & images are cached.
The NY Times iPhone app is the same content as the iPad app, with the addition of a bottom navigation bar allowing you to see the most e-mailed articles as well as those articles, sections and blogs you’ve marked as favourites. As you read, the navigation goes away so you have more space to read. As with the iPad app, some ads may pop up but they’re nicely done and not annoying.
The Windows Phone 7 app for the NY Times is similar to the iPhone app, with top content available but digital subscription required to read additional articles or other sections. The only other differences I noticed were that the WP7 app doesn’t have advertising embedded in the app, and in the iPhone app you can only increase text size, not decrease it, whereas WP7 lets you select small, medium, large or huge text.
The Guardian officially launched their newspaper website in 1999, and in 2008 it became the first UK newspaper website to break 20 million unique users per month. They have a very thorough page explaining their mobile capabilities here http://www.guardian.co.uk/mobile as well as a frequently updated blog about the changes they’re working on here http://www.guardian.co.uk/help/insideguardian. Although they have an iPad app called The Guardian Eyewitness, it is a photography display app and not a newspaper app. They do have a news-focused iPad app currently in the works, and you can see previews of it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/help/insideguardian/2011/jul/11/kindle-ipad-android. The article states it was a completely new redesign and indeed it looks very interesting.
The Guardian’s mobile website, http://m.guardian.co.uk, shows the top three stories from several sections and lets you browse to different sections, mark favourite sections, and search. There isn’t a limit on content you can read as there’s no pay wall, but as mentioned in the table above, they are rumoured to be considering one.
The Guardian’s iPhone app is a slightly nicer experience than the mobile website. The look and feel is similar, with the top stories from various sections on the main page. They have also added a Trending and a Multimedia tab to show, respectively, the top ten trending stories and subjects in the last 24 hours and a video, audio and photo gallery. Additionally you can add favourite stories as well as sections.
One of the slightly annoying things about Windows Phone 7 is that when you’re browsing the Marketplace for apps, it can be very difficult to tell which ones are official and which ones are just some random developer. You have to click on the app and scroll to the bottom to see who is listed as the developer. In the case of the Guardian, there is no official app, but the Guardian Newsreader grabs content from their site and populates a basic WP7 app which actually looks decent and works quite well.
Al Jazeera’s mobile website gets it so right for phones. The front page shows simply one large top story and three sub-stories, followed by a list of their categories. Click on “In Depth” in the navigation bar to get various sections such as Opinion, Features, Spotlight, etc. Click on “Watch” in the navigation bar to watch or listen to live coverage from their television channel. Very simple, but contains all the types of things a reader would want in an easy-to-use mobile website. The mobile site on a tablet leaves a bit to be desired, as it doesn’t really take advantage of the screen real estate, but it’s still just as usable and effective.
The Al Jazeera iPad app takes an interesting approach to the front page. It starts with a live stream of the video channel and updates from Twitter feeds. From there, users can click on “News” to see the front page of the website (basically the exact same as the regular website), “In Depth” which is the In Depth page from the website (again, almost exactly the same) and “Blogs” which is the Blogs page from the website. The video feed is fantastic and works great. The other pages could maybe be tailored a bit, more in the style of the mobile website as readers will end up doing a lot of pinching, zooming and panning to read the content.
On the iPhone and Windows Phone 7, the app is mostly just the live video feed. The iPhone app uses similar navigation to the mobile website, so you can still click on “News” and “In Depth” to see top stories there. I couldn’t find an English version of the Windows Phone 7 app, the one there streams the live Arabic coverage. The front page is quite strange and just has links to the video feed and the website, where the website link opens up a browser window to see the normal site instead of the mobile site which is strange.
THE IRISH TIMES
The mobile website for the Irish Times works fine on a phone, but it’s a bit oddly formatted on a tablet. On a tablet, you’re probably better off going to the regular website and using pinch/zoom to read and browse. On a phone, the site works better. The front page has the top three stories from several different categories with some thumbnails. Reading the individual articles is pleasant and focused, even if it’s mostly text. The website is plain but it’s functional and easy-to-use.
The iPad app for the Irish Times, called the Irish Times ePaper, is where their mobile experience falls over. Downloading the app is free, and you can download one free issue of a daily edition. Additional papers to download require a subscription which forces you to register with The Irish Times and then go to a website which has you select a subscription plan, either a single issue, 1 month, 3 months or annual. The whole thing is strange because I thought Apple were forcing in-app purchases and subscriptions, that is, the ability to purchase new issues or subscriptions from within the app, to happen via the App Store. I know they reversed the harsher terms from February, but I thought it still applied to purchases which happen inside the app?
The reason I mention this is that the process for going through the Irish Times registration, selecting a subscription plan and entering payment details is quite tedious. I’m sure they don’t want to lose the 30% cut to Apple, but I actually think the App Store ease-of-use would help them sell more and make up for the revenue Apple deducts.
Anyway it actually won’t matter much because once you download your trial copy you’ll be hesitant to spend any additional money. It feels like looking at microfiche at the library. It’s a giant image of the actual pages of the print newspaper, ads, crossword puzzles, classifieds and all. There is weird hyperlink behaviour which automatically highlights any clickable text (such as an article title) in blue, and clicking that text pops up an overlay with the content of the article or blurb inside it. Reading these articles is okay, you navigate by swiping left and right as if they were pages, but it has some strange sharing options like “Print in Text” and “Print in Graphics” along with the regular Email/Twitter/Facebook options.
One thing I haven’t seen anywhere else, however, is the ability to have an article read to you. Click the small headphones icon on an article and an computerized Irish voice will read the article to you. However when you close the article, the voice continues talking and the only way I could get it to stop reading was by opening another article.
I get the feeling this technology, whatever they’ve used to create this, was some sort of knee jerk reaction to someone deciding “WE NEED AN IPAD APP NOW!” To me, it’s a poor compromise of wanting to have an app quickly and wanting to make sure all the content is there, but the readability, searchability, image quality and usability unfortunately all suffer here. I don’t know what their digital subscriber numbers are for this app, but I would be surprised if many people are able to read a newspaper in this format on a daily basis.
Now let’s look at their iPhone app. The iPhone app is basic, works great and seems like a much more thought-through approach to a mobile application. Its navigation bar has a Home, a Sport, a Business and a Latest News section, as well as a More tab which shows weather, podcasts (podcasts buttons take you to iTunes, they don’t play inside the app) and most read articles. Ability to change text size, share articles, and navigate to the next article all work very well. The articles seem to be text only while some of the section pages have thumbnails, but in the same way only the section pages have ads so no ads clutter your reading experience. Like the mobile website, the iPhone app is basic but usable. And for many users of news apps on phones, it’s the functionality and usability that are most important.
America’s Finest News Source has been one of my favourite news sites ever since discovering it during college (and that was way before http://literallyunbelievable.org/ was on the scene). I have been impressed over the years at their willingness to try new strategies and new technology so readily. Their current experiment, which they’re getting some slack for, is a pay wall for foreign readers (i.e., readers outside the US) who view more than five articles per month. Their CTO says it truly is an experiment in which they’re looking for reader feedback and that nothing is set in stone. Their digital subscriber numbers, however, suggest that it may in fact stick around. Readers pay $2.49 on the Kindle store for a monthly subscription, and they’re number five in the newspaper category there, which means they definitely have a loyal fan base of people willing to pay to access their articles.
Since their mobile website isn’t much to talk about, let’s start with their iPad app. The iPad app is a fantastic app which has a lot of their great content laid out in a familiar, Flipboard-like style. One of the things that The Onion get very right is advertising. Articles may have small banner ads at the end, but the only time you see anything larger than that is when you click the “Refresh” button: it shows you a half-page ad while you wait for new content to update. I saw one other advertorial as I was browsing images, but it was so well done it was not obvious that it was an ad. The video and photo integration is excellent and it’s easy to spend a lot of time in both sections. The only thing I could think of that I would have liked in this app was the ability to view different sections without searching, to click and see all the Commentary or the Infographics or Statshots or Local News. The only sections categorized are Latest News, Videos, Images and Sports. But it’s a great app and has one of the most capable sharing mechanisms I’ve seen including Pinboard, Tumblr, Instapaper and several other sharing apps.
The iPhone app is similarly great, and perfectly adapted for the smaller screen. Instead of the gridded, Flipboard-style interface, it’s lists of articles and some small thumbnails. The iPhone app has a bit more sections to navigate, including Twitter, Voices, Audio, Images, Opinion, Horoscopes and more. You can save up to 25 articles as favourites or to read later, and the sharing options are a more regular email/Facebook/Twitter.
Again, on Windows Phone 7, I’m not sure if “Crazy Hot Solutions” is the most official Onion app to get, but they offer both a free and a paid version of The Onion (paid app removes the ads). The panorama scrolling is nice and shows popular stories, breaking news, video and radio news. The app is nice if slightly less polished than some of the others, but it also has a few interesting features like customizing the colour, turning on a profanity filter, and live tile customization.
It’s quite obvious that news sites who think about the use cases and likely situations of their readers end up designing a better, more usable application and/or mobile website. Those that don’t who simply end up building a frame to shove their existing web content into, offer very little value to their customers, whether those customers are paying or not.
The New York Times digital subscriber numbers suggest that people will not be afraid to pay for access to the content they want. It will be interesting to watch what happens with The Onion’s pay wall experiment and The Guardian’s attempt at creating one.
[NOTE: There currently is not a way to take screenshots with Windows Phone 7, so those photos were taken of the phone itself; apologies if they’re hard to read or fuzzy.]