Closed Publishing Apps? I Don't Get It

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Or rather (sadly), perhaps I do.

So The Daily is finally with us. My disclosure right up front is that (since it is not available in the UK) I haven’t actually seen it. I applaud bold experimentation of this kind but the written and video reviews of it have left me somewhat underwhelmed. It’s a shame. The concept of consuming news and feature driven content via a tablet interface is genuinely exciting.

The idea with The Daily is that you download it every day. Just like buying a newspaper a new edition is available every 24 hours. It seems its had its share of download problems, but I think that what may hamper it most is not a technical glitch. It’s the fact that it is too much like an analogue newspaper. As Bryan McComb pointed out The Daily is static. As the day gets old and things happen across the world, The Daily stays the same. Unlike every news website, it doesn’t update to reflect breaking stories. It is out of date as soon as it’s published.

Print publishers of all kinds have got very excited by tablet apps. And its not hard to see why. A slick new interface with which to present content in new and interesting ways. A fresh and varied palette with which to incorporate video and do justice to high production imagery. But it seems it’s also an opportunity to return to an approach characterised by control. To create siloed audience segments. To sell a closed curated experience and achieve a much sought after paid-content nirvana. In other words, iPad applications are the new walled garden. Articles stripped of links. Content that is unlinkable, unsearchable, unshareable.

In the early days of digital content, publishers took time to learn the lessons of the open web and to move away from destination thinking that precluded linking out to external websites for fear that you would ‘leak’ traffic and it would never return. The counter-intuitive lesson of-course is that as Dave Winer once said, “if you want to make money on the web, send them away”. Links add value to content, different kinds of curation add value to the experience, and so best practice, in the words of Jeff Jarvis, has become to “do what you do best and link to the rest”.

Closed apps of this kind ignore the potential to constantly update like just about every other connected stream of content we dip into. To easily share content we find interesting as we are so used to doing. To show us what our friends or other like-minded people find interesting or are recommending in the manner of some of the more interesting content driven services (like Flipboard) that combine different forms of curation (including social) in ways that publishers seem slow to embrace. I agree with Erick Schonfeld and Matthew Ingram: digital magazines and newspapers should feel like a media app, not like a PDF viewer.

There’s no shortage of things for them to compete with. The competition for digital magazine apps isn’t other magazine apps. It’s Angry Birds. And every other app that’s calling for your attention on that screen. And the mobile web itself. In order for closed content apps to make sense they have to create a curated experience that is significantly better than the open web. And right now, I can’t see that happening.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a valid place for packaged applications that deliver real utility and value. But in thinking about apps vs the mobile internet, this is not (as Forrester have also said) a question of either/or, but both. Closed, unlinkable applications are attempting to confine content that is asking to be freed and connected. The problem is that right now, publishers seem to be pretending that the open web never happened.

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