This post was also published in VentureBeat.
Design on the Web needs a reboot — and the iPad may provide the push publishers need to toggle the switch. But will smarter-looking online offerings save old media?
Creators of Web content have poured considerable effort into reinventing their websites as top-down, gorgeously designed experiences for Apple’s tablet and other mobile devices, in the hope that what they give away on the Web might turn into something their audience will pay for as an app.
That rethink is starting to reach into the desktop, ranging from the Huffington Post’s Glide App for Google’s Chrome Web Store to the Mac App Store version of Mashable, a popular tech blog.
You might ask why Mashable needs a Mac App Store version: Don’t users have Web browsers on their Macs? True. But the iPad has a browser, and a screen large enough to view websites comfortably. That hasn’t stopped iPad app developers.
The iPad has driven a new take on the content site — a streamlined, sexy version. One typically might see navigation on the left, related content to the right, and articles that float open in the middle — a simple, uncluttered format. Most importantly, as with the iPad’s App Store, the Mac App Store and Chrome Web Store offer a micropayment mechanism that lets people pay small amounts of money with a single click in order to subscribe to content.
Apps, furthermore, have a dedicated presence, putting themselves at the top of a user’s menu of online activities. A Web browser contains infinite possibilities — but users only install a finite number of apps, giving app publishers an advantageous position in mindshare.
There is no question that these new, “iPadified” sites look far better than their Web analogs. If anything, they look more like the mobile versions of websites. And since mobile sites are by definition focused and simplified, they are quite often better experiences. As venture capitalist Fred Wilson noted on his blog, sometimes companies should just use the mobile version of their site as their actual website.
Think about how Web design happens in the real world. Does anyone really care about your mission statement? In a groupthink-friendly marketing meeting, it gets tacked onto the homepage. And then a social-media expert recommends a Facebook plugin and sharing links for a dozen or so popular sites. Then a recommended-content widget to drive more pageviews. Sales wants more ad inventory. (Startups like BrightTag have sprung up purely to manage this mess.)
Against that tide of flashy flotsam comes the iPad. For the smaller screens of mobile devices, hard decisions have to be made, and the crap gets cut. Which raises the question: Why was it ever there in the first place?
Woe betide the publishers who don’t iPadify their content. Entrepreneurs — full disclosure, myself included — are more than ready to do the job for them. The first generation of news aggregators, like Digg and Google News, used algorithms to present headlines in bare-bones format. Now, a raft of “social newspapers” like Flipboard, Paper.li, and PostPost, a side project of mine, are plucking headlines shared by users’ friends on Facebook and Twitter and displaying them in elegant, iPad-friendly formats.
Facebook and Twitter themselves, for that matter, provide elegant, stripped-down interfaces for reading the news, or what users’ friends consider news, at any rate. As a result, an increasing amount of traffic to news sites now comes from social links.
Against this tide, iPadification appears like a sane response. The embrace of mobile design and interface metaphors provides publishers the hope that they can retrain users to consume content as an experience, starting with the homepage, rather than a series of links that they click from an endless variety of sources.
But can it, really? Ultimately, iPadification and socialization aren’t conflicting: Well-designed newsreaders driven by social links seem poised to offer the best of both worlds. This scenario has already been played out in the music industry. An article in a newspaper is no different that a track on an album, and users have clearly decided they like to play DJ with music and editor with content. No matter how nice the labels made CDs, whether box sets or exclusive special content, users just want to download a track, not an album. From the user perspective, why should an article be any different? Why take an editor’s mix when you or your friends can put together their own?
The transition from paper to digital is likely to cull the weak, and only a few large players such as the New York Times, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, along with some of the top fashion-magazine brands, are going to make the cut. Taking ’90s-style CD-ROM “multimedia” and putting it into an app won’t save the vast middle tier of media. For the rest, either they’ll adapt to the economics of the open Web, as upstart new-media brands like Mashable and VentureBeat have, or they’ll fade away, apps and all.
Even the New York Times, perhaps the pinnacle of editorially curated content, is embracing iPadification and socialization after initially fighting it. News.me, a collaboration between the Times and New York City-based incubator Betaworks, the backer of link-sharing service Bit.ly, was supposed to launch late last year. It’s not out yet, but when we finally get a chance to see what they’ve been up to, we’ll get a glimpse of media’s iPadified, social future.