Owning an iPad: My First Impressions

August 24, 2010

This weekend, I caved in and bought an iPad.

When it first launched in April, I was highly skeptical of its usefulness for somebody who already owns a laptop and a smart phone, and even more critical of the closed, limited nature of the platform. As the months went on, two things gradually warmed me up: 1) I got to play with one a few times and 2) I began to recognize a gaping void in my digital life: a dedicated device for reading, other than my phone.

Yes, I was tempted by the Kindle’s $139 price point and e-ink display, but I needed something that renders PDF’s exceptionally well and on which I can continue to use tools like InstaPaper and Google Reader.

Here are my initial thoughts:

In 24 hours, the iPad has already begun to revolutionize the way in which I consume information. The much-hyped Flipboard app alone is nearly worth the purchase of the device. Everything you’ve heard about Flipboard is true: It’s very cool and mind-blowingly well-designed.

Tired of waiting for the paperback, I bought the Kindle version of Jeff Jarvis’s “What Would Google Do?” and am already anxious to move onto other titles. I’m also loading all of the newspaper industry white papers and Web design books I’ve long had only in PDF format into iBooks, which renders them perfectly. I already get the impression that what I keep hearing is true: owning a device like this is going to substantially increase the amount of book-reading I do.

Whether I’m using the Kindle or iBooks (or Nook for that matter), it’s huge that the reading I do on my iPad can easily be picked up on my iPhone, which is on my person at all times. This kind of weaves the book-reading experience more directly my life, which I like.

The experience of reading on the iPad is less tedious than it is on one’s phone, yet without all the desktop distractions of 15 browser tabs and real-time notifications of emails, tweets and Facebook comments (I could enable push notifications on my iPad, but won’t). And of course being able to hold it in your hand makes it easy to sit on the couch with it and just read.

Somehow, the device has already established itself as a zone into which I can go to get some reading (and writing) done without distractions. To me, the app-based, limited ecosystem I initially hated the idea of actually kind of works in this context. It’s not without it’s disadvantages (more on that in a minute), but by and large the device fills the need I had for it.

While the bulk of my apps are geared toward reading (my home screen includes InstaPaper, Google Reader, iBooks, Kindle, Mashable, HuffPo, NYTimes and FlipBoard), I’ve also started playing with apps for services I use professionally, like DropBox and GoToMeeting
(which is pretty awesome), as well as some music-related apps, Netflix and others.

It’s also great for writing, especially if you happen to have an external keyboard for it; I was expecting Apple to force me to shell out for their proprietary iPad keyboard, but was delighted to learn that the Bluetooth keyboard I already owned works. I’m okay with using Notes and WordPress for writing, but would love it if Google Docs files were editable (Google’s fault, not Apple’s).

I don’t plan on overloading this device with apps. For me, its more about reading and productivity than games and social networking. I’m content with just a screen and a half of apps, plus the Web browser. Even the music I’m loading into the device is more conducive
to focusing: minimal, sometimes ambient music, some jazz, nothing with too many lyrics.

The iPad has its share of downsides and frustrations. It’s amazing for consuming content but, as many others have pointed out, is not so great at producing much beyond blog posts. Since I bought it primarily as an eReader, this isn’t the end of the world, but how awesome would it be if you could use a tablet computer like this to build Web apps, record and mix audio, shoot video and run something more powerful than Photoshop Express for graphics? Yes, there are some apps that enable creativity, but this is one area in which the desktop computer still excels dramatically.

Some other seemingly unnecessary annoyances:

  • It doesn’t have a camera
  • It doesn’t have a USB port
  • No mini-display port for watching on a larger screen or TV (Come on, guys.)
  • If I may get so nitpicky, I wish I could share items in Google Reader from any page in Safari, like I can in Firefox on the desktop.

There are a handful of little things that pop up from time to that are just easier to do on a laptop or desktop computer, but I imagine those things will improve with time.

Also worth noting: The iPad feels rather fragile, at least at first. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little heavy, and very portable by design. I know that if I accidentally drop it, there’s a very strong probability that the screen will break (something the warranty doesn’t cover). I’ve got a screen cover and protective skin coming in the mail, but in the meantime I’m a little hesitant to take the iPad with me to work or leave it anywhere where the cats could decide it’s something I bought for them.

As handy as the iPad and similar devices are for reading, I do not believe this is the death of print… yet. In the same bag that I brought the iPad home in, I also carried a few print magazines from Barnes & Noble. There’s still something to be said for reading a long article on paper, although I suspect owning an eReader will make this already rare event in my life occur even less frequently.

As far as books go, I look at it like music: 99% of the music I listen to is comprised of digital files or music streamed over the Internet. But I still buy my favorite records on vinyl, partially as a keepsake and partially because the sound is often superior to most MP3’s.

Similarly, I fully expect the vast majority of my reading to be done in a digital format, but I’ll always have a physical bookshelf in my house. It does seem inevitable that the economics of book publishing will one day favor e-books over printing, binding, shipping and storing physical books, at least as far as mass market books are concerned. (As a side note, there’s an excellent pair of posts by Richard MacManus over at ReadWriteWeb weighing the pros and cons of eBooks.)

This thing will suit my needs for now, despite its limitations. What I’m more excited about is seeing where tablet computers go in the next few years, especially as companies like Google, Microsoft and players yet to be born improve on what Apple has produced.

If you’re an iPad user, what must-have apps would you recommend?

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My new gig: ReadWriteWeb

July 5, 2010

For last few years, my career has been decidedly on the technical side. As the Webmaster for a small newspaper company, things like HTML, SEO, information architecture and bug-fixing make up my day-to-day experience, among much else (like everybody working in this industry, I wear a multitude of hats). While I very much enjoy the geeky stuff, it hasn’t left much time for my original love: writing.

So you can imagine my excitement when I recently inquired about – and subsequently landed – a part-time blogging gig with one of my favorite sites, ReadWriteWeb. Specifically, I’m writing for a new channel on the site called ReadWriteBiz, which covers Web technology news, product reviews and analysis for small-to-medium sized businesses. In other words, right up my alley.

However infrequently I’ve updated this personal blog, posts here are likely to become even more sporadic. Be sure to head over to ReadWriteBiz to read more routine geekery.


iPhone 4 and the future of mobile video

June 27, 2010

I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to splurge for an iPhone 4 (because AT&T is horrendously bad, and I’m keeping a curious eye on Android), but regardless of whether I get one myself, I can’t help but be excited by the inclusion of iMovie on the iPhone, and what this likely means for the future of mobile video publishing in general.

I was pumped when i first heard about the iMovie video-editing app, but it wasn’t until I saw this how-to article on Mashable that it really hit home how significant this is. From the looks of it, editing video with this application is super-easy, with an interface even more simplified and intuitive than iMovie for the desktop.

iMovie for iPhone screen shot

Now you can shoot, edit and upload video from your phone. Image courtesy of Mashable

Initial estimates put iPhone 4 sales at 1.5 million units in the first day. While the accuracy of those numbers is debatable, it’s true that iPhones tend to sell extraordinarily well, and as a result, the iPhone has a tendency to set the bar in terms of smart phone functionality. Meanwhile, we have Android slowly creeping up on iPhone’s market share, setting the stage for what is sure to be an epic, competitive battle that can only improve each company’s offerings with every blow. Hopefully we’ll see prices drop too.

So what does this have to do with mobile video publishing? According to Gizmodo, 23% of U.S. mobile customers are now carrying smart phones. As that number continues to climb and features like HD video shooting and editing become the norm, it’s not hard to imagine a day in the not-to-distant future when most of us are walking around with HD video production and publishing studios in our pockets. Indeed, like the iPhone, Android already has basic video-editing apps available, and there are bound to be more.

Undoubtedly, this will lead to more garbage on YouTube. But it will also make it easier for people to tell stories, document their lives and communities and in some cases, expose corruption and abuse.

Like today’s citizen journalism, much of it will require editorial intervention and curation for it to be truly useful to society. But as we’ve seen with the Internet, mobile and social media already, providing the masses with the tools to create and distribute content has hugely significant — often disruptive — effects.


Do news publishers even need an iPad app?

June 14, 2010

There’s interesting critique of the current selection of news apps for the Apple iPad over at MondayNote.com.

Without naming publishers or apps by name, the tech blog argues that “most are disappointing” and that in many cases, simply browsing a publication’s Website using Safari on the iPad would suffice. That’s probably correct. After all, the main reason desktop Websites don’t work well on the iPhone and other smartphones is simply the size of the screen. By its very design, the iPad solves that initial problem. How good are news apps on the iPad?

That isn’t to say that publishers should sit back and do nothing with respect to making their content more accessible on Web-enabled tablets and e-readers. As devices like the iPad (and whatever Google and others have in the pipeline) become more common in the wild, anybody who publishes a Website is going to need to take those devices into account during their next redesign. To be sure, there are use cases and features beyond simple reading that would justify the expense of building an app, especially as publishers begin to monetize their content via apps, something that has been famously difficult to do via the Web.

While I share the concerns of Jeff Jarvis and others about the proprietary, “walled garden” nature of Apple’s app ecosystem, I do think there are legitimate reasons for building an app, as part of a multi-channel publishing strategy. It may not prove to be absolutely necessary for all, though.

For those who do go the app route, the aforementioned Monday Note post offers some sensible pointers as to how media apps could be done better: downloadable content (for offline use), more video, and more interactivity, among other things.

How about you: Have you used any news apps that blew the Web-based browsing experience out of the water?


The trouble with news content pay walls.

December 14, 2009

Undoubtedly the biggest and most heated debate among newspaper publishers, journalists and other media types in 2009 was the question of the pay wall: Since the recession has slowed online advertising growth, should we go back to charging readers for content?

Without rehashing the entire debate, everybody knows that one person who has advocated most enthusiastically for paid content is Rupert Murdoch, owner of the News Corporation.

While I tend to think that pay walls are probably suicidal for most newspapers, I do think that News Corp’s Wall Street Journal has a lot of high-quality content that people will (and do) pay for. For those following business and finance news especially, the WSJ is contains invaluable insight from some of the best journalists in the world.

However, I think the WSJ could be a bit smarter about its pay wall, and should consider keeping some of its content open. Here’s an example:

Wall Street Journal's pay wall

Here’s a story about Google’s new mobile handset, locked behind a “subscribers only” pay wall. To read it (and much more), I would have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal Online for $103.48 per year.

Putting aside the well-known Google News pay wall backdoor, this speaks to a major conceptual flaw in the idea of charging for online news content: I do not need the Wall Street Journal to tell me about Google’s new mobile phone. Or anything about what Google announces. Or what Facebook does. Or frankly, virtually any tech-related news. This information is already being disseminated by hundreds of other outlets, some traditional, some new.

Now, don’t get me wrong; WSJ and their blog All Things Digital have some great, high-quality tech coverage. But so do those hundreds of other sites. If one site out of 400 is charging me to read an article on a particular topic, I’m probably not going to pay. The Wall Street Journal may continue to succeed, by virtue of being the Wall Street Journal, but for other news organizations, there’s just way too much competition for this kind of strategy to work.

This isn’t to say that some news and information publishers couldn’t come up with a way to produce and package really high-quality content that readers would consider worth paying for. But simply building a pay wall around text-based news on a Web site is probably not going to be a winning strategy for most.


Why the Comcast-NBC merger is no reason to fear for Hulu’s future

December 10, 2009

Will Comcast take a bite out of Hulu?

Illustration by JPT



Ever since the rumors of Comcast’s now-impending acquisition of NBC-Universal began buzzing, so too have questions about whether the future of Hulu — the free video streaming site part-owned by NBC — is at stake.

After all, observers noted, much of the content made available for free on Hulu was previously only accessible via cable subscription, the necessity of which consumers have begun to question, thanks to the recession and the availability of free television content on the Internet. Will Comcast mess with Hulu?

I don’t think we should worry about losing Hulu as we know it anytime soon. Here’s why:

  1. Fancast. Comcast has already launched its own version of Hulu called Fancast. Same deal: Lots of TV shows and a smattering of movies. For free. Obviously, Comcast isn’t opposed to streaming TV content online for free. (To be fair, one counterargument could be: Exactly. Comcast may try to throttle Hulu’s success in favor of its own site. However… )
  2. If Comcast pulls NBC’s content out of Hulu, it will not only piss everybody off (okay, fine, you’re right, Comcast *is* used to doing that), but it will leave ABC and other content providers who will remain on Hulu– ie, Comcast’s new competitors — with an advantage.
  3. I don’t have cable. I watch all my TV shows online. But guess who I shell out $60 a month to for Internet access. That’s right: Comcast. Something tells me those bastards will find a way to leverage their ISP business to make up for lost cable subscribers and still end up being an obscenely profitable company.
  4. There’s still stuff you can only get (legally) from a cable subscription. While many – if not most – popular television shows are available to stream online for free, many are still only available via cable. Many sports broadcasts and new episodes of “premium” HBO shows can’t easily be found online to stream and thus, an incentive still exists for people to purchase a cable subscription. Besides…
  5. Most of the NBC-owned content currently on Hulu is network TV, and thus doesn’t require a cable subscription to view anyway. I can watch The Office and 30 Rock on TV without cable. Unless Comcast/NBC would pull these shows just to hurt Hulu’s traffic, I can’t see a compelling business reason for them to restrict access to them on Hulu.
  6. Of course, anything can happen. Many people just expect a negative outcome when Comcast is involved, which is not totally unjustified. Indeed, they may find a way to ruin or water-down Hulu. But there are plenty of good reasons for it not to.

     

     

    Related Posts: » How to save hundreds of dollars on cable; »Eliminating the cable bill, part deux: Boxee!


4) Mofuse: Launch a mobile version of your Website in minutes

October 8, 2009

mofuse-mobile-site

Mofuse

It’s been 15 months since Neilsen declared that the mobile Web has reached “critical mass” and even longer since news publishers began scrambling to get on board.

Well, the numbers have only skyrocketed since then. There are plenty of providers of mobile Websites, apps and SMS marketing capabilities, but they aren’t all cheap. Vendors like Crisp, Advanced or iLoop Mobile offer really nice solutions, but each one will run you a couple grand to set up, plus monthly fees, revenue shares and SMS messaging costs.

That’s just for mobile (or “WAP”) Websites, SMS capabilities and some other bells and whistles. If you want a native application for iPhone, Blackberry or Android, you’ll have to go to a mobile app developer and fork over a few thousand more bucks.

The good news is that you can get started on the mobile Web without breaking the bank with free or cheap products. There are a few: Verve Wireless (newspapers only), Mobify and Mofuse, to name a few.

The one I found to be the easiest to get started with was Mofuse. In a few minutes, Mofuse lets you launch a mobile-friendly version of any blog or Website; All you need to do is plug in an RSS feed, pick some colors, upload some graphics (optional), and you’re off. One thing: Your RSS feed should contain the full content of each post or article, not just a snippet (You can often change this setting in your content management system, or you may need to contact a programmer to help you).

Mofuse's mobile Web site builder has an easy-to-use UI

Mofuse's backend site editor: Piece of cake.

Like so many great Web apps, Mofuse uses a “freemium” model, with a few tiers of pricing above the free version, each one with a more robust feature set. Mofuse for Blogs, the free version, is really all you need to get a decent-looking mobile site up and running. For more advanced features and customization, Mofuse Premium has three tiers of pricing, ranging from $40 to $200 per month.

Coolest features:

  • Auto-redirect mobile users.The ease-of-implementation will depend on what content management system your full-sized Website is running on, but Mofuse does give you the code snippets necessary to automatically redirect mobile users to the mobile version of your Website. (Note: You can always do this using a simple JavaScript redirect, but it won’t work for people on smaller, non-smart phones)
  • “Send-link-to-phone” widget.Another code snippet that lets you embed a “send link to my phone” widget in your full-sized Website, so a user can text themselves the URL to the mobile-friendly version.
  • Customization.Even without the CSS access that the $89/month “Small Business” version gives you, you can still modify the colors and graphics on your mobile site with ease. Cheaper CSS access would be sweet, though.

Limitations: I feel bad complaining about such an awesome free product, but it does have a few limitations; 1) Rather than redirecting *all* site users to the mobile version’s homepage, some method of relating mobile and desktop versions of each individual piece of content would be nice. That way, if a mobile user follows a link to a specific blog post or article, they’re not redirected to the homepage of the mobile version instead. 2) Although JavaScript is limited on most mobile devices, some means of integrating Google Analytics with Mofuse would be nice too.

Example: PW Style blog (mobile version)