Media iPad Apps: Is That the Best They Can Do?

Among the hotly awaited apps for the iPad are some media-related ones, including a few from Conde Nast — Wired magazine and Vanity Fair — as well as the New York Times, Associated Press and Bloomberg (be sure to take our poll and tell us which publication you’re looking forward to reading on the iPad). But I have to say that the initial prototypes I’m seeing are, well…underwhelming. Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard has a pretty good roundup of the major media prototypes at the Nieman Lab blog, but none of them are really groundbreaking as far as I can tell, either in terms of their features or their design.

I was pretty excited when I saw the Wired app demonstration video — partly because the display is large enough to give a nice, broad view of the magazine’s pages, and really makes photos and video work well. Much better than trying to view that sort of thing on a tiny iPhone screen. But the more I thought about it, and the more I’ve looked at the other prototype apps that have emerged in screenshots and videos leading up to the launch of the iPad, the less excited I am. Articles and pages in a row that you can scroll through? Wow. Really innovative.

This is supposed to be a groundbreaking, world-changing device — the dawn of a whole new era of computing in which apps rule our lives instead of dumb computer programs on a desktop, where multitouch finally takes precedence over clutching some stupid peripheral device wired to a PC. I, for one, had high hopes for what the media world could do with it.

Sure, Wired showed some ads with rotating cars, and the New York Times showed some video playing in its demo of an iPad app. But apart from a couple of little filips like that, they all look pretty much the same as the web sites that they’re based on — and part of the problem with mainstream media web sites has always been that they replicate the same user interface metaphors that appear in the printed versions of their products. Paving the cow paths, that’s called. It sure isn’t a way to be creative or innovative, or to find new audiences. Let’s hope that some of these apps were rushed into production in order to make Apple’s deadline, and that more fully-developed apps will be forthcoming in the future.

So what could they do? Why not take some risks? Have the front of the New York Times app be just a video, or an interactive graphic — maybe something like this, or an interactive version of one of these. In the group Josh Benton put together, the slider-style horizontal layout of NPR’s app and the scrapbook-style look of AP’s app are what pass for radical approaches. USA Today’s app looks exactly like its web site, and Bloomberg’s more or less does, too. Why not do something that really takes advantage of the touch interface, and allows the user to interact in some creative way — like this? If there’s any of this going on in any of these apps, I can’t see any evidence of it (but of course I don’t have an iPad, so I can’t actually try them out).

I’m all for sticking with a comfortable interface and maintaining brand identity and all that, but come on — the people who are buying these things are early adopters. Opportunities like this don’t come around very often — especially in the world of media.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rego