EMEA managing director Nic Newman on how newspaper and magazine execs are viewing the apps market.
What counts as a successful apps strategy for print publishers nowadays? Experiment, innovate and iterate, while trying not to pour money down the drain? The pace of the market has been dizzying since the launch of Apple’s App Store, as publishers try different approaches.
As managing director of TigerSpike, Nic Newman is one of the people trying to step back and take stock of the key trends. His company has developed iPad and smartphone apps for the Sun, the Economist, the Daily Telegraph, the Times and Time Out among others.
Apps Blog caught up with Newman after a hectic few weeks attending conferences and client meetings, to pick his brains on what he sees as the important trends. “People are getting a better idea of what they want, but they still have no idea where the market is heading to in the future,” he says, picking out three trends in particular.
Trend 1: Unique user interface and user experience
“People are moving away from it being okay to having a UX that everyone else has got to saying ‘I want a unique UI/UX design to stand out from the crowd,” says Newman, although he happily admits that the big danger here is creating too much complexity, especially if people have to learn a new interface for every new media app that they use.
“The whole point is it has to be intuitive, rather than just creating complexity,” he says. “Certain features are becoming what I’d call the equivalents of the clutch, brake and gas pedal – for example, left to right reading versus vertical.”
So, on one hand, iPad media apps are standardising around certain elements of UI and UX, while on the other, publishers are trying to make their apps stand out still. “In the same way that cars are driven the same way but the body can remain different, the slickness and speed of an app will define its difference,” says Newman.
“The message coming back when we run user focus groups – although I’m paraphrasing here – is that in a world where content becomes ubiquitous, user experience is what makes people choose certain apps. The way it feels guides their choice.”
Trend 2: Loyalty over downloads
I spoke to Newman a few days before it emerged that Apple had changed its App Store rankings to factor in active usage of apps rather than pure download numbers. He was already thinking along these lines though, after Google had made a similar change in the weeks before the interview.
“There is a move from an obsession about downloads to an obsession about loyalty,” he said. “Android changed their rankings to include an element of stickiness, and I’m sure Apple will follow suit. So for a lot of guys we do apps for, the questions are becoming how do they promote re-use, create loyalty and run CRM campaigns?”
Newman sees these app store changes having a big impact on how magazine and newspaper teams view their apps, particularly when it comes to moving away from the brand essence of a title being a monthly or weekly publication.
“People don’t want to turn their magazine into the web or a newspaper – that is fundamentally wrong – but what if people could choose to follow a story in the magazine throughout the week after it was first published?” says Newman.
“Think of an article on the BP oil spill, where you can follow the story as it develops through an infographic, which lets you know how the story is developing. A lot of stories can fit into this idea, as well as bringing in the different opinions about a story that people are having.”
That brings us onto the addition of social features to these kinds of apps – helping readers to see “what people are saying about these stories out there in the world” in Newman’s words. The key challenge is how publishers can make sense of the mass of tweets, status updates and comments around any given story.
“Consumers do not just want a continuous stream, they want to be helped to place a filter over the information. So what kind of filter can we place,” he says, stressing that it’s early days.
Trend 3: Which platform(s) to target, and how?
Publishers continue to grapple with questions about which platforms to target with their smartphone and tablet apps, even if there are an increasing number of developers and services promising to help them go properly cross-platform.
“Technology-wise, publishers are wondering what they should do,” says Newman. “Should they continue to be native or go to HTML5? What is the right technology to become multi-platform, and how can they please their users while reducing the cost of multiple apps?”
And? Newman says TigerSpike’s current vision is of a “hybrid app” blending native code with HTML5, to make it easier to launch apps across various devices, while playing to their individual strengths.
“The Economist is going from iPhone to Android quite soon, and if you do it properly, the technology in the background can be replicated to go multi-platform. But the UI and UX has to be fundamentally different,” he says, reflecting similar views from Taptu CEO Mitch Lazar, who was interviewed for the Apps Blog earlier this week.
Newman says that TigerSpike’s clients are as focused on business models as on technical differences when it comes to weighing up the various smartphone and tablet platforms, with Apple’s recently introduced rules on subscription billing – which require publishers to offer an in-app subscription option – giving them a prod.
“Certain companies we’re working with are developing a Plan A and Plan B for that scenario,” says Newman. Rather than focus on Apple, who may not play ball with them in the future, they’re focusing on how they can monetise the other platforms. HP is coming, RIM is coming, the Xoom Android tablet is out now. They’re waiting for the other platforms to make it as easy to monetise apps as Apple have, but no one’s quite worked it out yet.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010