by Tom Kaneshige

The Real Apple iPad Killer App? Reading

Aug 04, 20114 mins
Consumer ElectronicsTablets

Steve Jobs was wrong. People love to read on the iPad. Let’s hope newspaper publishers don’t ruin it for everyone.

Breaking news: The iPad proves people still read!

Now Steve Jobs can eat his words on the digital paper they’re written on. You may recall the Apple chief famously saying in 2008 about e-readers: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Since then, the iPad has become the hottest gadget in the history of tech. Its killer app? Reading.


iPads Make It Easy To Read

For starters, flip over to Flipboard. This app renders content feeds in an easy-to-read magazine style format. It’s the most hyped iPad app on the App Store. Another iPad app, Instapaper, which strips clutter from Web sites to deliver just the content, has single-handedly brought back long-form stories to the Web. Instapaper has become so popular that Apple built in the same functionality into its upcoming iOS 5.

I haven’t even touched on the success of iPad bookstores, such as Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks. Although, I have to admit that I’ve been largely unsuccessful reading a novel on the iPad. There are just too many distractions. It’s too easy to switch apps and check email or surf the Web.

Then there’s the plethora of magazines looking to cash in on the iPad craze. Top among them is The New Yorker, known for its long reads. The New Yorker has sold 20,000 yearly iPad subscriptions at $60 a pop after only 10 months on the App Store.

The New Yorker is an especially interesting iPad case study because it makes little use of multimedia on the iPad. Embedded videos and interactive graphics were supposed to be the big advantage iPad magazines had over their print counterparts. Instead, The New Yorker on the iPad stuck to its reading roots.

Having just read the compelling story of “Getting Bin Laden” in the latest New Yorker edition on the iPad, I can attest that the power of the app is in its simplicity and ease of reading. There are few, if any, bells and whistles. Given The New Yorker’s success on the iPad, publisher Conde Nast is reportedly readying more iPad magazine titles.

Digital Fish Wrap?

Believe it or not, though, the iPad can still stumble as a magical reading device, derailed by the ineptness of some newspaper publishers. The first iPad-only newspaper, The Daily, was panned for its lackluster stories. I slammed the San Francisco Chronicle’s attempt to charge for a $60-per-year digital subscription on the iPad while continuing to serve up the same stories for free on its Web site.

The biggest fail might be The New York Times. Let’s be clear: I applaud the Times iPad model of $20 a month for unlimited access. Unlike the Chronicle, the Times cleverly took away unlimited free content on the Web.

So what’s the problem? The execution of the Times iPad app has been crappy. Customer reviews cry foul about an app that constantly fails to download the most recent content. Users have to reboot the iPad to get the app to work properly again. The Times app is fish wrap.

This week, after another Times app fail, I bookmarked the Times website on Safari and now prefer to read stories there. The Web site itself serves up a good reading experience. One can argue that there isn’t a problem since I’m paying for access to digital stories, not an iPad app.

But judging from the hugely successful iPad apps such as Flipboard, Instapaper and The New Yorker, newspaper publishers can certainly deliver a better reading experience on an app. It’s clear iPad users want to read good stories over a reading-tuned app rather than a Web site where you’re constantly pinching and squeezing to adjust the size of the type.

If publishers such as the Times see the iPad and apps as a second chance for online reading, then they better take it more seriously. Major publishers serving up bad reading experiences on the iPad will only undermine early successes.