Chris Alexander

On Engineering

State of the Union: iPad News Apps

3rd August, 2010

So, the iPad. It’s a few weeks in and I don’t regret buying it, and I keep finding new uses for it (and every now and again, a new problem with it) and keep on enjoying it.

One interesting thing I find about the platform is how many people keep coming up with “revolutionary” applications for it. None more so than in the (social) news sector.

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It seems that it’s not more than 7 days between the latest revolutionary app for reading news coming out promising to change the way we consume content - and then promptly failing at it.

The problem with all of these applications is that they are simply not flexible enough. While their interfaces my be interesting and they do a good job of rendering content in a pretty and nice-to-use way, the actual content is curated in a pretty plain and unimaginative way.

I want to take a look at the major players in the news apps, and see where they do well and where they fall down. I’m mostly not going for the newspaper or magasine type apps here - they are not innovative at all and are of no interest to me. What interests me are the curation type apps, with interesting layout models and those that really take advantage of the iPad’s unique platform.

Flipboard

Flipboard came out a few weeks ago to much fanfare (mostly by Robert Scoble, it has to be said). Combine that amount of buzz with its price tag (somewhat stupidly, free - they could have made a mint in the first 48 hours alone) and what you got was Flipboard’s servers down for nearly 2 days while they buckled completely under the load.

Once that rather distasteful experience was over and done with and I could actually use the app, I was somewhat disappointed. All of the curation happens on Flipboard’s servers (hence why they went down so spectacularly), so it is tediously slow waiting for the app to start up and load some stuff. Once you get in to the content it’s not too bad, but some of the layout pages consisting entirely of tweets for example suck a bit.

It’s quite a nice experience, and with some proper customisation for what data you see besides Twitter, Facebook, Twitter Lists and some select RSS feeds, it might actually be a decent experience.

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BBC News

This app finally made its way (paradoxically) over here from the US. The reasons for this are long-winded and slightly tedious, but basically BBC World, a for-profit organisation that distributes the BBC’s content abroad, made the app originally. To release it in the UK the BBC needed the BBC Trust board’s sign-off, which they eventually got, hence we have the app.

The News app expands slightly on the grid layout that has been done to death on the iPad now with some rather nice improvements, notably the articles taking up a significant amount of space making them easy to read, and the nice video and picture content. It also includes nice streaming of the BBC News Channel live, which is decent quality too.

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Pulse

Pulse was one of the first iPad apps and was noted by El Jobso during his iPad keynote - so it gained a lot of traction very quickly. It was the original of the grid layout if you like, pulling the data from RSS feeds which you can import from Google Reader.

Unfortunately in recent versions it has become tediously slow, not really for loading the content but more for scrolling around and navigating. I also don’t really like its article view, but I guess it’s not unbearable.

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FLUD

This is an app that has only recently made it into the app store. It abuses the grid model yet again, and the in-app article display which is painfully slow to use. It adds the concept of a FLUD, which is basically a like or retweet, which allows you to show which articles you like. You are then forced to consume a feed of items that people have liked.

It sucks its data from RSS feeds, but somewhat sucks at it, as you can only seem to use a certain subset of RSS feeds - mine was not available for example. Kind of kills the open platform idea, no? Of all of the apps, I think this is probably the one I’d be demanding a refund for more.

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MyFriends

This is a Facebook client from the guys at Sobees, makers of popular web, desktop and now iPad apps.

Considering Facebook’s iPad remains non-existant, this one is quite a nice alternative. It includes support for Facebook Chat, and has a rather nice Flipboard-like newspaper view for your news feed when you start up (or you can switch to the traditional view). Photos are particularly good to navigate, and overall the experience is actually pretty good.

Reeder

Reeder is the killer Google Reader client. It has a slick interface, great functionality, easy to use and read the articles, find articles you’re interested in and so on. I haven’t yet found a feature of Reader it doesn’t support. When this came out it literally blew all the other Google Reader apps out of the water, and so it should for its brilliant design and lovely ease of use.

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But there’s something they’re all missing

All of these apps are great, and do a nice job of rendering the (occasionally extremely poor) they are given to lay out. One thing they’re all missing - even Reeder - is the ability to nail down exactly what it is you want to have displayed. I mean choosing your Facebook friends or editing a Twitter list or pruning your RSS feed subscriptions is one thing, but imagine an application that enabled you to create an advanced description of exactly the content you want, and then pull it from everywhere including Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, blogs and more - in real time. Now there’s an idea.

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