Can a new computer rescue a troubled industry? Come Saturday, the release date of the iPad, and the answer to that question should be a little clearer.
Since it debuted on a San Francisco stage in January, the Apple device has been hyped as nothing less than a knight in shining armour for newspapers and magazines. Many are struggling because of the recession and structural changes to the media business, including an exodus of advertisers and readers from print products to the internet. Downsizing – both in terms of staff and the number of published pages – is now common, particularly in the US.
But some pundits and executives say Apple’s new platform is just what is needed to check the slide. A handheld computer is thought to be more amenable to leisurely reading than a monitor, as Amazon’s Kindle has demonstrated. Now news organisations such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time and the US version of Wired magazine are cooking up a variety of proprietary delivery systems and will likely charge for access to their content.
Still, putting aside the question of whether users will pay for information that they are used to receiving for free, there are complicated issues of design and ergonomics that these content providers must address.
One of the most important is creating an immersive reading experience, which determines if users will linger on particular news sites and stories. Research from the Silicon Valley-based Nielsen Norman Group, a web usability consulting firm, suggests that readers rarely reach the end of articles. In fact, they are generally disinclined to scroll down web pages, and spend only 20 per cent of their time below the page break. Jakob Nielsen, one of the company’s founders, explained in an interview that reading from a screen is tiring, and there are too many distractions – from links to clickable pictures to YouTube videos.
Pablo Boczkowski, a media expert at Northwestern University, says that consumers of online news tend to act like magpies. They pick and choose snippets of news, jumping around once they know the main issues. “When they get to a story, if they spend a minute, that’s a lot,” he says.
Intelligent web site and app design can help here. Boczkowski emphasises that simplicity is key. And for just that reason, both he and Nielsen are critical of a 2009 mock-up of Sports Illustrated magazine for a tablet computer (the mock-up can be viewed in an online clip, and is shown on a device that resembles an iPad). Although it dazzles with its embedded video, animations and myriad interactive features, it appears to encourage mad clicking and browsing rather than contemplation. “They put too much stuff in it. Just because they can doesn’t mean they should,” Nielsen says.
Apple also shoulders some of the responsibility for ensuring immersive reading, as screen technology plays a key role. The Kindle, which uses greyscale-only electronic ink, can be read for hours without eye strain. In that vein, the best screens are those “that have a quiet feel to them, that don’t burn the eyeballs,” says Nielsen. Here’s hoping the iPad is gentle with our ocular regions.