The New New York Times
The New York Times' prototype of its redesigned website raises fundamental questions about the merits of distributing content through websites versus apps. If you haven't yet seen the demo, it's available here.
The new website looks like a tablet app, functions like a tablet app, but isn't a tablet app — it's an HTML-based site available to any viewer on any device without downloading anything at all from any app store. For The New York Times, there's no need to submit anything to Apple or anyone else for approval, and no need to share revenues with Apple or anyone else. So far, so good.
The look and feel is clearly inspired by other HTML-based experiments in long-form storytelling. ESPN set the standard last fall with an Outside The Lines feature on Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis. As you scroll down the webpage, photographs and illustrations appear alongside the corresponding text, using a parallax scrolling technique. The New York Times upped the ante with its Snow Fall project last December, adding animation to the recipe. Snow Fall was a hit, drawing nearly a million unique visitors in the first week.
Neither experiment worked as well as on tablets as they did on desktops, but it's a matter of time before they do. So why bother creating tablet apps using platforms like Adobe Digital Publishing Suite when websites can be so tablet-friendly? We'd argue that these are the reasons why:
1. Spontaneity. Websites like these take time to develop, and once they're done, some parts are less flexible than others. The overall structure is fixed, in terms of how dynamic content flows into templates. New modules can be introduced with enhanced functionality, but the user experience is confined to the developer's original intention.
DPS apps, on the other hand, can be started and finished in a day, with whatever user experience best addresses the particular content. The structure is less rigid, in that the developer has the ability to seize whatever creative opportunities present themselves within a particular article, photograph or infographic, and create a suitable environment.
For curated content like books and magazines, apps offer more flexibility than responsive websites to be spontaneous. For dynamic content like news and sports, websites present an acceptable tradeoff between spontaneity and systemization, particularly if that system is handsomely designed.
2. Responsiveness. To developers, a responsive website is one that reformats its content based on the screen resolution of the device on which it is presented. To consumers, a responsive website is one in which a video plays immediately when tapped, regardless of whether or not there's internet available. Tablets are inherently portable, and they find their way onto subways and airplanes where WiFi is unavailable. Apps bundle content within the application, instead of relying on internet connectivity, and in many cases deliver more predictable outcomes than websites. Once the app is downloaded, animations and multimedia content play seamlessly.
3. Transaction processing. App stores make it easy for anyone to publish paid content, albeit with a 30 percent cut deducted by Apple or Amazon or Google. Websites lack turnkey solutions for purchases, either the app itself or incremental purchases within the app, like a particular issue of a magazine.
4. Device-integration. What makes a tablet like iPad indispensable is its inherent functionality. I can take pictures and videos, organize them and share them with others. I can maintain lists of contacts and calendars and access them in different ways. Ultimately, what will separate apps from websites is the ability to infuse that personal content with public content to make it more useful or relevant. The web is unpoliced; you wouldn't trust a site to access your information. But the app store is monitored; nothing goes in without a thorough review by Apple, Amazon or Google.
My iPad has other features my desktop lacks: an accelerometer, compass, GPS, iTunes library, and more. Expect publishing apps to better integrate with native tablet functionality over time, further differentiating them from content accessed over the web. That's not happening much today, but tomorrow's not far away.
Tablets are here to stay, and according to this new study, emerging as the dominant platform for website traffic. It's smart for The New York Times to rethink its website to be more tablet-friendly. And for a news site, their approach is sound. Fast Company agrees, describing it as societal appification. But for corporations, universities, agencies, marketers and other publishers, there continues to be a strong case for making apps to present certain content. One size does not always fit all.
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