We’re all being told that mobile is the next big thing for news, but what does it mean to have a good mobile news application? Jonathan Stray reports.
Just as an online news site is a lot more than a newspaper online, a mobile news application is a lot more than news stories on a small screen. The better iPhone news apps integrate multimedia, social features, personalization, and push notifications.
Not all apps get even the basics right. But a few are pushing the boundaries of what mobile news can be, with innovative new features such as info-graphic displays of hot stories, or integrated playlists for multimedia.
Here is my roundup of 14 iPhone news offerings. I’ve included many of the major publishers, some lesser known applications, and a few duds for comparison.
The New York Times Company
The Times doesn’t do anything new with this application, but they do everything fairly well.
The app is designed around a vertical list stories, with a headline, lede, and photo thumbnail for each. Stories are organized into standard news sections, plus the alway interesting “Most Popular.” Banner ads sometimes appear at the bottom, plus occasional interstitial ads when appear when you select a story.
The focus of the news is of course American. There’s no personalization of news content based either on interest or location, which may well prove to be a standard feature for mobile news applications. Fortunately, the app includes a search function, though it only seems to go a few days back.
Downloaded articles are available when the device is offline, which is a useful feature. Favorites stories can be saved, or shared via email, text message, Twitter, and Facebook.
The UI has a few quirks. The “downloading news” progress bar is expected, but the sometimes equally long “processing news” phase makes me wonder what the app is doing. The photos in a story very sensibly download after the text, but the scroll position jumps when the photo appears,which is hugely annoying.
There’s little innovation or differentiation here, but the experience is smooth.
The Daily Zeitgeist tries something completely different, and it works well.
The app draws news from a number of different sources, such as Google News, Digg, Reddit, and Yahoo Buzz. Headlines from each source are displayed in text panels on an uncluttered screen. The size of each panel indicates the story popularity and the background color indicates the freshness, with stories gradually fading as they age. Tapping on a panel brings up an info window with a thumbnail photo and the first few lines of the story. Doubling tapping on the info window loads the story from the original source in the integrated browser.
From within the browser view, stories can be loaded into Safari, emailed, or posted to Facebook.
That’s it. The entire experience is clean, simple, and fast. It’s possible to get an immediate, at-a-glance sense of what is news from the clever infographic-like interface, and I really enjoy the addition of user-curated news sources such as Digg and Reddit.
The implementation is not without its flaws. Less popular stories are displayed very small, necessitating zooming with two fingers, or by double tapping. It’s annoying to need two hands to zoom, and sometimes the zoom limit isn’t high enough to allow reading of the smallest headlines. Because the stories recede into one corner, I find myself imagining a one handed, one-dimensional zoom gesture.
I’d also like to see better customization of sources, such as the ability to display specific sections of Google News, or read the news in different languages. Nonetheless, The Daily Zeitgeist may well evolve into my favorite news application. It’s definitely something different and innovative.
The NPR news app, from the American public radio station of the same name, has a lot of audio as one might hope. In fact it’s the only news app in this roundup to include an integrated playlist manager.
Stories appear in the usual vertical list, with those that include audio clearly marked. Within each story page there are buttons for “add to playlist” and “listen now.” Wisely, NPR includes comprehensive text summaries even for its audio stories.
The app includes a “programs” screen where listeners can queue up popular NPR programs such as All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Planet Money. The “stations” screen allows users to find programming produced by NPR affiliates all across the US.
Radio is different from print, and NPR has done a good job at imagining how mobile radio consumption should work. The integrated play list is a welcome innovation, and the programming selection features are thorough and well thought out .
A few obvious audio features are missing, such as the ability to seek to an arbitrary time in the program, and integration with the iPhone’s volume buttons. It should also be possible to play programs in the background while using other apps, though this is a limitation of the iPhone OS. Helpfully, the NPR app includes a “Go To iTunes” button for programming that is also available as a standard podcast.
NPR includes some non-audio stories from the Associated Press in its article list. Banner ads sometimes appear at the bottom of the screen. Stories can be shared via email, Twitter, and Facebook. There is no search feature.
The app is not quite perfect, but it’s useful and unique. NPR is definitely on the right track.
The Associated Press
AP’s global network produces a huge amount of news, and their content forms the core of more newspapers and television reports than most people realize. Their app is therefore a welcome addition to any serious news junkie’s iPhone, but seems to miss one of the AP’s key strengths: comprehensiveness. The content is really a very narrow selection of AP’s stories, and there’s no search feature.
The interface is list-based, with a “Front Page” category that shows a couple hot stories from each of a customizable list of sections, including “Headlines”, “Most Recent”, and “Most shared”. There is a Photos button for some sections which leads to an attractive grid of clickable thumbnails, and a video button which leads to a list of video reports that play in the iPhone YouTube app.
The AP app is one of only two in this roundup that does push notification. When enabled, AP sends big headlines to your phone even when it’s off, which arrive much like text messages. I appreciated this for some stories, but found other headlines a waste of my time (another Tiger Woods story? Really?) The ability to customize push content is badly needed.
Kudos also for localization, though it’s incomplete because it is based on zip code — useless to the majority of the world, which is strange for one of the most global news organizations.
Stories can be saved to a favorites list, or shared via email, text message, Twitter, Facebook , or Evernote. Banner ads sometimes appear at the top of lists and stories.
The AP application feels a little clunky, with a somewhat cluttered UI and several incomplete features. That I can live with. What I’d really like to see is a much broader selection of AP’s huge output, combined with strong filtering and search features.
Thompson-Reuters News Pro
News Pro knows what it’s about: business and financial readers. The app includes comprehensive market information, and a scrolling ticker at the top of every screen.
News is presented in a list of selections from the full wire feed, at the bottom of which are category choices. There is nothing like a “most popular” or “trending” category, but business news is broken down finely into sections such as “Corporate,” “Market Report,” and “New Issues.” The coverage is nicely international, and the app gives the user a choice the US, the UK, Canada, and India on first invocation.
News Pro includes attractive photo and video sections, but where the app really shines is its market information. All of the standard indices are updated in near real time, as are exchange rates. The stocks section allows quick checks on any ticker symbol, and a user-defined watchlist. Any index or stock can be graphed within a fairly sophisticated interface.
Text size is adjustable and stories can be shared by email only. There is no favoriting feature.
This application is not the greatest for general news, but then it’s clearly not designed for the general reader. Thompson-Reuters knows their market, and understands that stories are just part of what a mobile application can deliver.
Where TIME Mobile shines is the interface. Of all the apps tested, it has simplest, slickest, cleanest interface. Or maybe the black background just makes it seem glossier.
The app is very much oriented around photography. Instead of a vertical list, the user is presented with a smoothly scrolling row of large thumbnails, much like iTunes’ “cover flow” interface.
Rather than the traditional news sections, Time’s categories are “News”, “Lists”, “Quotes,” “Popular,” and “Media”. In the era of 24 hour news, Time’s weekly format is ill suited to breaking stories, and they have wisely elected to focus on a different sort of content.
The app also supports favorites, sharing via email and twitter, text size adjustment,
TIME Mobile is pretty, and well suited to those looking for more of a magazine reading experience.
Guardian News and Media Limited
The UK’s famous newspaper has done well with its iPhone application. The app is based around the usual vertical story list, yes, but it is well implemented and supplemented with multimedia features such as photo galleries and integrated podcasts. The usual sections are available, but “Latest” and “Trending” are the home screen options.
The search function stands out. It finds topics, sections, and contributors, not stories, but the archive seems to go back a full year, unique among iPhone news apps. A topic search for “plane” brings up “Hudson river plane crash”, “Plane crashes (world)”, and “Lockerbie plane bombing (uk)”. Each of these categories expands into a long list of previous stories.
Stories can be favorited, or shared via email and Facebook. Text size is adjustable.
The Guardian’s app is cleanly implemented, the multimedia features are welcome, and the archive search function is innovative and useful. Well worth the low cost.
The CNN app is slick and complete. Really complete. The app includes custom search, GPS location-based content, gobs of video, and the ability to upload photos to CNN’s iReport citizen journalism website.
The headlines pages is divided into categories, and features a story list below a large photo. Stories within a section can be browsed by sliding horizontally between pages, which has a lovely magazine-like feel. Every story has a large photo, and many of the stories have associated video, streamed as usual through the YouTube player.
The video page features even more multimedia, also broken into one list per category, including the venerable “Most Popular.”
The MyCNN page allows content customization. The app can choose local stories based on your GPS location or zip code, which means it only works inside the US. It also supports topic searches by keyword, which are saved into custom news sections.
The “iReport” page features selections from CNN’s iReport citizen journalism content, plus the ability to submit your own text and photographic reports. Most intriguing of all, the “Assignments” page provides detailed suggestions on submission topics, such as “Winter weather near you” and “Tsunami: Five years later.”
The app rotates into landscape mode when the phone is turned. Banner ads appear in story lists. Stories can be saved or shared via text message, email, Twitter, and Facebook.
The CNN app is a monster in terms of functionality, yet the whole feels uncluttered and functional. The content is good, the customization is good, and the iReport features are on the cutting edge of web-enabled journalism.
Missing Ink Studios Ltd.
The Independent’s main screen is a graphical topic page showing unread stories in each category, with all content from the UK newspaper of the same name. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait for all stories to update before you can read those already downloaded. The total number of unread stories appears as a tag on the app’s icon in the iPhone’s home screen.
Within each category is a list view. Most story items have thumbnail photos. Banner ads appear at the top of both the story list and individual articles.
The font size is adjustable and items can be favorited, but shared only by email.
This is a bare-bones app that feels more like a sharp RSS reader than a news organization product. This simplicity is not entirely a bad thing, but the app misses many mobile possibilities.
Al Jazeera English Live
The Al Jazeera English Live app streams the AJE broadcast feed to your iPhone. It is produced by LiveStation, whose desktop player can be used to watch Al Jazeera and other stations on your computer.
Video quality is quite good over wifi, but much lower resolution over a 3G connection, as might be expected. In my tests around Hong Kong the video often stuttered or froze and was not really watchable without wifi.
And that’s it. This app is a viewer for the Al Jazeera English television channel, no more or less. It’s exciting to be able to watch it from my phone, and as 3G networks improve we can expect the experience to be more reliable. Al Jazeera is to be commended for leading the charge to mobile video broadcast. But the internet is not television, and I’d like to see the ability to select programming, as the CNN and NPR apps do so well.
Disclosure: I have been a contributor to The Jakarta Globe.
The young Jakarta daily comes to the iPhone in minimal form. The interface is the standard news list, divided into categories such as City, National, Business, Sports, and Life and Times.
Stories can be favorited but not shared — a problem for users and publisher alike. Banner ads appear at the bottom of story pages.
In the era of aggregation and global reach, local news is under-served. This creates an opportunity for focused reporting. The Jakarta Globe application is a good example of a local news application, but it lacks compelling city-and country-specific features. For example, why can’t I look up Jakarta movie listings?
Ultimately, users will install this application only because there are few other mobile sources for English-language news about Indonesia and its capital city.
Fluent News Reader
Free, plus subscription for some features
Fluent News Reader aggregates stories from a user-defined list of sources, by default including the RSS feeds of the Washington Post, the New York times, the BBC, NPR, USA Today, Al Jazeera, Reuters, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, the Economist, Fox News, and several dozen others. Duplicate stories are removed, much like Google News.
The app comes with a standard set of sections such as “Business”, “World,” and “Sport”, but Fluent differentiates itself through the ability to make custom sections. Sections are defined by keyword searches, which are extremely useful in their own right. The balance of results can be adjusted by promoting or demoting individual news sources.
But only up to a point. Fluent wants you to subscribe at $1.99 for one month or $2.99 for three months for “premium” features including the ability to create an unlimited number of sections, promote more than one source, and remove the banner ads in article lists.
Stories can be saved, or shared via email, Twitter, and Facebook.
Fluent news is perhaps the only truly comprehensive news aggregation app for the iPhone. Its search and custom sections features are very useful, as is the ability to adjust the importance of sources. But when the most expensive iPhone news app is selling for $4, dishing out $1 every month just to keep features unlocked seems a bit rich.
BBC News Mobile
This application, which does not seem to be supported or authorized by the BBC, is one of a several in the BBC fan creation category. The interface is simple, with a list of stories in each of three sections: “World News,” “World Sport,” and “World Business.” Choosing a story simply brings up the appropriate bbc.co.uk page in the integrated browser. The “Share Story” button sends an email.
What we can learn most from the existence of this and similar applications is that the BBC has not satisfied pent up demand for an iPhone app.
The Huffington Post
The Huffington Post looks like a mobile newspaper should. The design is clean, with their trademark headline photo up top. The interface is simple, with the usual sections including a “blogs” category. There is a well-stocked video section which makes use of the iPhone YouTube player.
Where the Huffington Post stands out is its social media integration. There is a “comments” button on every page, and new comments can be posted from within the app. The bottom of each article also includes a selection of recent tweets on the article topic, complete with a “reply” link for each tweet that integrates with a user-selectable iPhone twitter client (though not Tweetdeck, which is annoying.) All of these features are unique among the apps in this roundup.
Font size is adjustable and stories can be shared by Email, Facebook, and Twitter.
There is no search function. Otherwise, the app is full-featured, good-looking, multimedia, and actively social. The Huffington Post continues their embrace of the web with their thoughtfully designed iPhone application.