November 18, 2010

News on iPad, the Obvious Way

Today our first news project for iPad went online, and we are proud like kids. Technically, it’s “just” an HTML5 optimization, but it has been a demanding design process to get to the simplicity it has right now. Unlike most news launches on iPad, the response so far from its readers has been overwhelmingly positive. This does not come as a surprise: while many like our surface design — which makes us happy, of course — the main reason why people love our iPad design for ZEIT ONLINE is that it’s optimized to run on the killer content app No. 1: the browser. What is somewhat astonishing is that, so far, only a very few newspapers have taken the time to optimize their websites.

Of course, we all know why news organizations focused on the App Store instead of the browser: print publishers got excited about apps because they finally opened a door to charge for content. Experimenting with new technology and finding ways to monetize content is without a doubt crucial for any news organization. Many news organizations have been successful selling their product in the App Store. iA has designed two iPad news apps (currently in production), and we have even created our own writing app — and it’s selling like blueberry pancakes, which is awesome.

But, however exciting the App Store might be, there is no rational reason to neglect the most obvious iPad news platform: the website. The chance that you sell your app will only rise if you have a strong presence in the browser — given only this it’s worth the money. Developing an HTML-based news app is not just cheaper and faster, it also gives you more editorial and technical control over your content. More importantly, HTML-apps are in many ways more convenient for the user. They’re easy to use, they’re more medium-appropriate, and in that sense more appealing. And they’re free. No long downloads, no “how do I get to…”, no weird crashes, no trouble to share, copy, paste, comment, tweet, or link to. They just work.

Finding the right shape for news on the iPad has not been an easy task, and while it is only the first version, we are delighted with the results. The quality of text and pictures delivered by ZEIT ONLINE is one-of-a-kind. Without the editorial power of ZEIT ONLINE, our design would never look as good as it looks. Working with their tech-savvy core team of Wolfgang Blau, Fabian Mohr, and Nico Brünjes has been a great pleasure (as always). This also shows in the product.

I’m going to leave out the technical specifics of the design process, and the insights we gained, to offer ZEIT ONLINE the head start they deserve. Instead I’ll give the last word to Wolfgang Blau, editor in chief of ZEIT ONLINE:

Interview with Wolfgang Blau

If you connect the classic web with the iPad, you don’t need an iPad app anymore, correct?

Wolfgang Blau: We didn’t connect the iPad with the “classic web” as you call it, the iPad has always been connected with the open internet, and comes pre-configured with the Safari browser. The enormous opportunities of the iPad as a browsing or surfing device have been overlooked during the first months of – understandable – app euphoria. We simply think that there are several distinct user types for the iPad: There are users who strongly prefer apps, and other users who primarily use the iPad as a surfing device and want apps only for tasks that can’t be done with the browser. We want to make attractive offers to both user types. And, of course, the for-pay digital edition of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT will only be available inside our paid app, and within the paid content section of our website. Our paid app also contains comfortable features such as download-to-go, which you don’t find on our open iPad-optimized site.

But isn’t this decision a departure from the idea of selling paid apps?

Wolfgang Blau: Quite the contrary: Through our iPad-optimized site, we will be able to offer our paid apps in a very targeted manner. Most iPad surfers already have an account for the App Store. This way, the larger user-base of our free, iPad-optimized site on one side, and our paid apps on the other side, will strengthen each other. For instance, we now can seamlessly link from within our paid apps on the iPad to free content on our site which is already optimized for the iPad. At the same time we reach a lot more iPad users through our free site, who we can then point towards our app offerings.

What is your general stance towards paid content then?

ZEIT ONLINE is already generating significant revenue from editorial premium products, and will launch additional paid products in the future. Yet, our sales team is also registering rapidly growing revenue from large scale display ads. From my perspective as an editor, the online ad market is still in its infancy and is just beginning to unfold its true potential. Part of this process is an increasing differentiation of the online advertising environment into sites that aim for sheer size and absolute numbers of users, and other sites that fulfill an increasing demand for premium environments such as ZEIT ONLINE, which aims for very qualified and affluent user-groups, and is characterized by high editorial quality, a strict avoidance of celebrity and gossip topics, and by a design that is optimized for each platform, whether that is a mobile phone, a desktop PC, or an iPad.

Questions by Dr. Frank Zimmer.

Official Statement from ZEIT ONLINE

Last summer, when the first iPads arrived in our newsroom, we were delighted by how good ZEIT ONLINE looked on this new device. The iPad, at least we thought at that time, displays the aesthetic quality of ZEIT ONLINE as well as any large PC monitor.

After a few hours of intense browsing, however, we realized that web sites that were designed for navigating with a mouse are not really useful for touchscreens and for finger navigation. Text links in small font-sizes, for instance, are simply not adequate for touchscreen devices. Over time we also noticed how we tried to navigate our photographic slideshows with wiping gestures, which – obviously – our regular site was not made for.

We swiftly concluded: Let us search for ways to optimize ZEIT ONLINE for the iPad, and ideally for as many other tablet PCs as possible, and let’s do it quickly.“

The first sketches of our editorial developer team led by Fabian Mohr made it even more obvious that tablet-optimized sites not only need much larger touch spaces around text links, but that the overall design asks for a strict reduction down to a site’s very essence for users to quickly find their way around.

ZEIT ONLINE currently exists as a site for desktop and laptop PCs, as a mobile site and within our for-pay app on the iPhone and the iPad. Our pay app also contains the full print-edition of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT. A core editorial request in regards to our new iPad site was that our news desk would not have to think of different sites, but could focus on one identical sequence and presentation of ZEIT ONLINE’s topic, no matter which device they appear on.

Oliver Reichenstein and his Japanese-Swiss agency Information Architects in Tokyo began developing touch-screen optimized designs of our most important templates, such as the homepage and our article-pages, as well as a global header and footer section. Simultaneously, our technical team at ZEIT ONLINE was searching for a way to run the classic desktop site and the new table-site under the identical domain www.zeit.de.

Nico Brünjes, our frontend developer, eventually found a technically elegant solution via CSS stylesheets and JavaScript and then wrote the complete code for it.

At ZEIT ONLINE, we cherish a culture of experimentation and “permanent beta“. Obviously, our new iPad site is only a first step. In future versions we will support additional devices as soon as they reach a significant market share in Germany, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and other Android tablets.

Blog post composed with Writer for iPad

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