Reviewing the Statesman's iPad App
The Austin American-Statesman launched its new iPad app last week, and now that I've had some time to play around with it I'll share a few brief thoughts and comparisons with other newspaper iPad efforts both big and small. And it's fair to say that at the unabashedly lower-budget Austin Post, we don't even have an iPad app, only an iPhone app. So, cheers to the Statesman.
The Statesman contracted with Mercury Intermedia, a Tennessee-based development company that has also created mobile apps for USA Today and Showtime. So, unlike their previous iPad app (a higher-resolution version of their iPhone app) this is an effort that can compete with larger, more well known publications on the device.
The most important aspect of any iPad app, in my humble opinion, is the navigation. In this regard the Statesman does fairly well - there's a dominate photo at the top right, with the top stories below in a (mostly) vertically stacked list. To the left of that are more stories divided by topic - local, life, state, opinion, etc. At the top of the page is the navigation for each section - News, Business, Sports, and Multimedia. At the bottom are the latest videos and photo galleries. The design is a blend of traditional newspaper layout and online news formatting. Other newspaper iPad apps - like the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News - feel too much like a traditional newspaper layout.
Ultimately I find the front page too crowded and needs more visuals. It tries to tell you what to read as opposed to letting you browse and choose. The NPR app is a golden shining example of how navigation can and should be flipped on its head on the tablet. That's a news app that feels modern and fun to use. The Statesman's is better than most, but still has one foot stuck in the past.
The functionality of the app hasn't disappointed yet. It has crashed on me once or twice, but I'm willing to forgive just because it usually takes a few weeks to work all the bugs out. Swiping from one story to the next is smooth and responsive, and same goes for going down the navigation columns. By working with Mercury Intermedia, I imagine the Statesman spent more than most papers its size would have for the iPad, but it shows in the app's responsiveness - that's what we've come to expect from our iProducts after all.
Where the app really shines is its video and multimedia section. Navigating the video options is actually easier than on the website, and watching video on the iPad is always a joy. I like the Statesman's videos and am glad that they receive prominent placement on the app.
There are a couple of holes in this doughnut, though. First of all, the blogs seem to be missing as well as a lot of the Austin360.com content. I couldn't figure out how to navigate to Out and About or Digital Savant, and that's disappointing. Secondly, this app doesn't really do anything that the website doesn't do. This is a common problem with a lot of newspaper apps and I don't know if it's attributable to Intermedia's technical skills or The Statesman executive's imagination, but somewhere along the line someone decided good enough was, well, good enough.
I think if you're going to have an app in the marketplace is should do something that the web browser is limited by. Just as an example, I think if one of the sections was called "what's around you" and it used the iPad's location-aware feature to show you stories that had been written about events in your area. It could have been anything from a park opening to a robbery last week. Or if I liked a story, the iPad's push notifications to tell me if there have been updates or similar stories recently published. It's this personalization that's missing from the news and the iPad could fill that hole.
So should you download the app? It is free so there's no real reason why not. It's just as good as the New York Times and Dallas Morning News apps, and better than the Washington Post's - and all three of those have some premium content. But once again we have an iPad app with more of a focus on digitizing what a publication used to do rather than focusing on the potential of what they could do.
Have you downloaded the app yet? Let me know what you think.