Review of News Apps and Sites on the iPhone

Posted: December 2, 2009 by Ash Mishra in Design, News
Tags: , , ,

If you’ve been busy playing on your decade old N64 (like I recently have), you might not know that iPhone apps are the new gold rush right now, and it seems like every company wants to get an App on the platform to strengthen their respective brands and grab a piece of the pie.

However, as legions of users can tell you, there’s lots of Apps; but alot of them are subpar and reek of mediocre standards – little or no imagination, and poor implementations. And some of the worst offenders aren’t names you would think of.

Let’s look at a few major News apps on the iPhone: NYTimes, Time Magazine, All Things Digital, The Globe and Mail (Canada), and USA Today. Let’s contrast them with two News sites optimised for mobile Safari: TheStar and CBC.

[The following observations were done on an iPhone 3G with WiFi.]

Loading Times

The vast majority of people who read the News, are news skimmers. That is, most people check news sites briefly throughout the day to catch up on the news. During my days at BBC News online, we did research showing that the average time spent on a webpage was just enough for a user to skim the top headlines; likely click 1-3 stories that interest them, and then they’re gone elsewhere. This hit-and-run pattern is pretty much standard fare for news sites. Let’s see how the major iPhone News apps do.

The NYTimes iPhone app – if you haven’t used this app in a few hours, the first thing it does is download the latest news to your device. I clocked this in at a tepid 10-30 second range; even after subsequent launches. Yes, 30 seconds! (I can understand the first install of an App is slow, because it has to fetch all content, setup configuration, and get any other resources it may need. But subsequent launches should be faster because some of the content doesn’t need to be fetched again.)

In theory, the reason apps download news content, is so that you can read offline without a network connection. The problem, is that the amount of time the app takes to download content is fairly time-consuming; especially if all the user is doing is checking the news quickly like most people. A further flaw is applying a blanket condition: it’s downloading all news content, regardless if I read it or not.

The NYTimes app does not start showing you the latest stories until all of the new ones have been downloaded. As a reader I would expect to see these right away, and have the option of specifying what content is downloaded in the background. The third failed assumption is that the builders of these Apps believe by default that the majority of users will have spotty network coverage, thus needing to download content to the device. I would really like to challenge the reasoning that led to this assertion.

Let’s see how the other apps in our test-group fared for launching the app and displaying news:

Time Mobile: 8-10 seconds

Globe and Mail – 10 seconds

AllThingsD – a cheese-aging 20 seconds to update news content (even though the last time I ran the app was yesterday)

USA Today – 3 to 5 seconds

Contrast all these apps with loading their respective sites in Safari. I clock them within the 5 seconds range. The problem though, is none of these sites are optimised for viewing on Mobile Safari; if they were, they would be even faster.

For example, the Safari optimised site: TheStar loads in 3 seconds over my wi-fi network, and the resulting screen is a list of stories cleanly presented with a headline and image.  While simple, the user experience is good. And the quick access is great for headline skimming.

Likewise, the CBC site takes 3 seconds, but it has some flaws as we’ll see.

Switching Sources

A common pattern among readers of News content, is that they typically visit a number of sites that interest them. The first thing I do in the morning is read the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the CBC news site, and My Yahoo – all on my iPhone. Being able to switch quickly between these sites in Safari is great. I’m not opening and closing apps, having to launch and wait for content to be downloaded. And I’ve got access to standard navigation tools (hyperlinks, bookmarks, forward and backward buttons – do you really need much more to read the news?)

Safari even lets me multi-task; I can have multiple news sites open at once and switch between them rapidly and maintain state. Try that with iPhone apps.

News Presentation

The oldest published news – using modern methods, has been around since the 1600’s. So you would think that the patterns for presenting news would be pretty understood by now.

For me, the ideal news site, is one that gives you an image, a timestamp, a headline, and a quick summary. TheStar comes pretty close, but is missing a summary and timestamp (a date is at least provided).

The CBC news page unfortunately leaves more to be desired, because it only has a single image for the first headline, and then small font sizes for the remaining headlines. However, if you click on a section like Top Stories, you get a layout that has an image (or placeholder with questionable benefit), a headline and summary. However that section and many others (like World, Canada, Politics, Health) are all collapsed, so you need to click an extra link and then wait for the page to load up. Since webpages load content asynchronously; I question the default page choice. Likewise there’s a menu button in the top Right corner; but I’ve never clicked on it*.

(*Well I clicked on it, when I was working at CBC.ca and helping them test the site; and I hope my comments to the team are taken as constructive criticism.)

Let’s see how the iPhone Apps do:

NYTimes: provides a headline, summary, and photograph where its available. But both the default headline and summary font type & size makes them so difficult to read on a tiny iPhone screen, that I hardly am able to skim any of them. However, if you’re a more savvy iPhone user, you can change the font size in the Settings App, and make the headlines readable. (Those settings aren’t publicised and I found them by accident.)

Time Mobile: the interface design here looks like it was done to replicate a multi-page magazine – so by default, on the news page, there’s only a single large image, and a big headline. If you wish to see other stories, you need to scroll horizontally through them. One nice feature is the List button in the top right, which allows you to switch from the single story view to a browsable list of stories. I like that. However the app doesn’t include timestamps or summaries.

Globe and Mail: Unfortunately this decent print-paper, has one of the worst iPhone apps for news presentation. The first thing you see when you launch the Globe and Mail is a list of sections. If you want the latest News, you need to choose a section like Top Stories first. And then you get a small image, a headline, a light-grey timestamp, and a odd looking icon on the right. This is not a very good use of space. (As an aside, many stories also have odd timestamps reading like: –9216 seconds old. Well, I am a engineer, but the effort to calculate the amount of hours in my head, and wait … it’s negative anyway?)

While I’m talking about the Globe and Mail; this app was built by a company called Spreed, who apparently build speed-reading software. So the little weird icon next to every story allows you to read the news story in short 1-3 word phrases at a speed you specify. Apparently to improve your speed-reading skills. Bizarre, and frankly who thought this was useful?

All Things Digital: This technology focused news app, on the surface looks like it does a good job of news presentation – there’s the requisite image, headline, and summary. The headline could be a font size larger. But my major complaint is about the images – they are almost always meaningless (no relation to the content), or a photo of the author of the article.

USA Today: Not a bad presentation. The headline is present in clear readable text, and you can read the summary if the headline grabs your attention. Photos are present (but quite small, and therefore have room to improve).

Reading the News

NYTimes: When reading stories, you are inundated with links for ads which you can inadvertently click, and they exit the application into Safari. I’ve done it more than once, and it’s annoying. Loading stories is rather slow too; it takes about 4 seconds, and there is no activity indicator showing what it’s doing. One nice feature when reading stories, is that the navigation and tab bar are hidden once you leave the top (or bottom) of the page; maximising the area to read and removing distracting elements. Unfortunately scrolling through stories is slow, jerky, and even unresponsive. The user experience is thoroughly broken that I cannot use it to read content.

Time Mobile: Other than the bright red navigation bar and tab bar controls, reading content is smoother than with the NYTimes app. There’s a nice added touch which allows you lock screen orientation. And a simple button to share stories by email or Twitter, but it’s lacking Facebook.

Globe and Mail: At least it’s more responsive than reading stories on the NYTime’s App, but this implementation lacks imagination (other than the now infamous Spreed button): there’s no buttons to increase text size, lock screen orientation. Sharing is done with embedded links in the story; and at least these are integrated into the App (i.e. they don’t force you to exit to Mail or Safari).

All Things Digital: Story presentation is nicely done, and offers the basic tools that other Apps do – text font sizes, sharing of content. There are no forward and backward story buttons though, but that’s a small oversight. One thing that is confusing though, is several stories have a “Read the rest of this post on the original site” which opens an embedded web browser presenting the story on All Things Digital, but the content is not mobile-optimised. If you’re going to redirect a user for the full story on your website, why have a mobile App?

USA Today: I was surprised that the USA Today app is quite basic for reading stories, because the App generally shows some innovation and performs well in other areas. But not here. The first major flaw is lack of screen rotation support; you’re stuck with portrait. The second is the inability to increase or decrease font sizes. They do have one nice feature in stories with expanding photos, that opens a modal box with a picture and a caption.

The Mobile Safari optimised sites for TheStar and CBC both provide faster reading of news than any of the above Apps. While they are low on features (no font size adjustments), they support basic functionality such as rotation and navigation between sections. The CBC goes as far as to allow you share with embedded Facebook, Twitter, and Email buttons. Both sites present text in a clearly readable font and large phone sized images.

Leveraging Content

The last 2 sections bring us to this topic. As an iPhone and Palm WebOS developer myself, I do keep abreast of other devices like Android and BlackBerry (an aside – does anyone talk about Symbian anymore?). Many of the developers I know are all waiting and insisting on better HTML 5 integration on these devices – because to quote Brock Whitten – an evangelist for PhoneGap*:

“Having to build an App for each device in it’s own programming language is a path to insanity.”

When building an App for each device, you have the obvious capital costs to build for each device, and then the ongoing maintenance costs. It’s silly, and makes no sense as a business practice.

So what does all this have to do with the iPhone News apps and the Mobile Safari optimised web-sites? Well – Android, Palm WebOS, and Safari are all built on top of WebKit. So websites like TheStar and CBC already work on these devices. The native iPhone Apps however, do not.

That’s not saying you shouldn’t build iPhone Apps. You should if you’re adding additional value. But you could be smart about it, and build a combination of a native App and leverage mobile web content, like we did with the CBC Hockey app. I embedded the Mobile Safari version of the Hockey Night in Canada website for the News tab of the App; had help adding a little JavaScript to hide the navigation, and I was done. This ability to leverage content has initial cost savings as well as reduces the ongoing maintenance costs.

(*if you’re interested in learning more about leveraging HTML 5 on the iPhone, have a look at PhoneGap, an open-source framework for building apps in JavaScript for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry. Palm WebOS is already HTML 5.)

(As an aside, I was surprised by the strong emotions of iPhone developers at the 2009 Vancouver iPhone Forum who are adamant they want the devices of other companies to fail. Part of this may be because they make their living on the iPhone and feel threatened, but part of it may also be an emotional attachment to Apple. I prefer Apple products so far myself; but I do so because they are thus far – better products. However, as a Developer who makes my living doing this kind of work – I think it’s important to remove the emotional quotient and be rational and objective when thinking about the future.)

Bells and Whistles

One of the primary reasons to build native iPhone Apps is to take advantage of the iPhone’s features and to maximise the user experience. Let’s have a look at the News Apps.

NYTimes: The tab bar items at the bottom are Latest, Popular, Saved, and Search. The More tab allows you to customise the Tab bar with specific news sections like World, Politics, and others. While the customisation is nice, the only innovative feature I could find was in the share content button which allows you to text message about an article. That – is neat.

Time Mobile: This App does a little better and provides quick easy access to Top 10 Lists, Quotes, and more importantly a dedicated interface for accessing Media such as Video and Photos. However, at the time of this review the Photos didn’t work.

Globe and Mail: This App provides such a basic interface, that there’s nothing it can do that a mobile-optimised version of the site couldn’t do better.

All Things Digital: There’s an integrated search bar which is well done, and a nice selection of sections which you can customise your Tab bar with. The Photos are nicely implemented with a caption and make good use of screen space (in both portrait and landscape) and implement the iPhone sliding gesture. However, other than that – nothing innovative that really adds value over a mobile-optimised site.

USA Today: When I first saw this App, I breathed deeply, and thought finally … an App which someone has put thought into. The use of space, the navigation, the customisation, the integrated Sports Scores, the Weather section with expanding sections, the beautiful Photo gallery with captions and gesture support, and the ability to vote and view results of Polls through the App (polls even include location details). This app is a RICH experience, and it is well done. Bravo.

Where all the other News Apps fail is providing added value over the mobile-optimised sites. Features that take advantage of the device and do more than just a web site. If you need a few suggestions – how about ability to read and write comments, view related stories, add tags, add a story as a favourite, allow user-generated content by using the camera and location. These companies could do something innovative other than just replicating (badly I might add) the same functionality a well-built mobile web site does.

Ranking the Sites and Apps

It turns out that I began writing this review at about the same time that Peter-Paul Koch wrote an post questioning the choice of native iPhone Apps vs Web apps. I disagree with some parts of Peter-Paul’s article (specifically that developers are choosing to write Apps natively over JavaScript because they are arrogant; I prefer ignorant), but I do agree with some of the observations. John Gruber of Daring Fireball had a retort. I quote John:

“Not only are native iPhone apps faster and more capable than their web-app equivalents, but they’re easier to write.”

Well I disagree: for 4 out of 5 Apps crititiqued – it is faster to load the repsective websites; and the websites have not even been optimised for mobile.

The argument that building Apps allow you to monetize a product also stands on shaky legs – when the Apps are free. The NYTimes is Ad supported, but the others are not. All a native App is doing in this case is getting brand placement on the App store, and on the user’s device (which is not such a bad thing); but the brand actually suffers damage if the resulting App is a bad user experience.

I’ve deleted the NYTimes app from my iPhone. I kept Time Mobile and the USA Today app. And I continue to use the TheStar and CBC mobile sites in Safari.

If you’re going to build a native iPhone App, do it for the right reasons.

– Ash Mishra

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Comments
  1. JRocket says:

    Thanks for sharing this well-considered and organized review of news apps. One omission I’d like to mention is AP News. This app loads quickly and has several news options including a section for local news based on your location via GPS/Cell towers. I usually check this app before I open USA Today.

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