The Las Vegas Sun on an iPad and my thoughts on Apple’s latest little fruit

Not that it is a huge surprise to anyone, but earlier this month I was up-and-at-em first thing on the Saturday morning when iPads were available for sale.

It’s not much different from the other photos from that day, but here’s what the scene looked like at the Apple store at Las Vegas’ Town Square:

(Sidenote in regards to the above picture: I’ve noticed people often are surprised when Las Vegas has something that all other big cities have … like an Apple store. It sometimes feels like they think we only have mega-resorts and slot machines, forgetting that nearly 2 million people live here. That said, of the three Apple stores in Las Vegas, the best one to visit — especially when you need to visit the Genius Bar — is the one in Caesars Palace’s Forum Shops. At least in my experience, it’s typically not nearly as busy as the others.)

Anyway …

Later that weekend, I decided I wanted a different iPad case than the one I originally purchased. This gave me a great excuse to go to another Apple store, this time the one inside Caesars Palace that I mentioned above. More than 24 hours after the initial release of the new device, the place still was hopping:

At the Las Vegas Sun, we wanted to have a presence on the iPad for its launch, but didn’t want to blindly build an app that we couldn’t test.

We also kind of wanted to see what worked well on the device before trying to build something for it. And like many other folks we talked to, we decided that simply porting a publication’s print edition over to something that appears to behave like little more than a crippled, illegitimate cousin of a PDF isn’t really the right strategy. (But God bless all of those who are doing something. There is a special place in heaven for you for not standing still and pretending that 1995 is going to return any day now.)

Anyway, all of this meant that we needed to do something with the Sun’s actual website. Our team already is big-time focused on web standards, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the problem.

The problem was going to be that one of the things the Sun does well and has made a substantial commitment to is multimedia journalism. And like a lot of sites, we deliver lots of those elements via Adobe’s Flash plug-in, which obviously pisses off Steve Jobs.

So, straight to the point, we want to keep serving those elements on the Sun’s site when it is visited by a browser that supports Flash. But we also want them to work on the iPad’s great screen.

So, Greenspun Media Group smartguys Danny Debelius and Elliot Burres monkeyed around with our site’s code and tweaked it so it would know when a reader was visiting on an iPad and deliver video and photo galleries that not only work on that sucker, but look fantastic in the process.

We’d actually crossed part of this path before because we had worked to make the Sun’s videos compatible on iPhones almost a year ago.

When something can be done without a Herculean effort, and will help us be where our readers might be, why not do it? Just seems like a no-brainer.

This wasn’t a huge two-week process. It was something that we could do fairly easily without getting our programmers involved, etc…

And it all was done before the iPad was even released.

Here’s what looks like on an iPad:


The homepage:

Video player, full screen:

Full-screen photo gallery (with cutline):

Full-screen photo gallery (you touch the screen to make cutline disappear):


So, what do I think about the iPad?

Well, my reaction is similar to what David Pogue wrote in his “two” different reviews. The iPad falls into two categories for me: Rob, the nerd from Kansas who loves gadgets; and Rob, the person at the Las Vegas Sun charged with helping to take our news forward.

On Twitter, I religiously follow several journalism/tech folks who I respect immensely. Each day, I e-mail myself so many of their tweets (or use Instapaper, which is probably my favorite/most-used app right now) so that I can read/visit them later that it might be borderline obsessive-compulsive.

I’m probably going to oversimplify their general thoughts in an almost embarrassing way that’s surely going to get me called out. But it seems to me like some observers (and folks who, as I’ve already said, I really respect) essentially wonder if the iPad, at the very least, is going to be a huge distraction to the many publishers who think it might save our industry. And at most, that it might be something that ties the industry to Apple, which daily slides closer and closer to something that’s more evil than good.

If these are some of the many points/concerns about the iPad from people who care about the future of journalism, I’m right there with them. The iPad isn’t going to magically fix our industry’s woes. Advertising dollars aren’t going to start rolling back in because we can now pay a little more than $200 for an annual iPad subscription to the Wall Street Journal. And, outside of niche publications, it’s hard to make a convincing case for premium-priced digital subscriptions that can replace circulation revenue.

I suspect some publishers are excited about the iPad because they see it as a device that can approximate a print experience in a digital environment.

Those who think like that *are* distracted. And wrong. (Though I guess many of the folks I know in our industry also probably pray that the revenue-returning hope from iPad will turn out to be true. Of course many of the folks I know back in Kansas hoped Bill Self could win another national championship for the Jayhawks this year, as well.)

So, what does the geek in me think?

I’m definitely not an elitist when it comes to technology, although I personally own enough computers, cell phones, gadgets, etc., that it pretty much looks like an Apple store or a Best Buy vomited in our living room at home.

I own a Mac Powerbook, but the computer I use the most is my MacBook Air — which doesn’t have tons of power or a gazillion ports to plug crap in to. Heck, the “computer” I probably use the most is my iPhone. I’d guess that somewhere close to 85-90 percent of the e-mails I write are done so on my iPhone.

When I got my iPad, I never envisioned it as a replacement for my laptop.

Good thing, because it’s definitely not a laptop. If you need or want a laptop, I think there are some good little machines out there right now at pretty decent prices. Just don’t get the iPad.

The iPad isn’t really a glorified iPod Touch either. It’s more of a cool way to surf the web, watch movies/video, read books and magazines, etc.

After having the iPad now for a little more than two weeks, here’s what I use it for:

• I’m on the web with it a lot. As stupid as this is going to sound, it’s just fun to visit sites with this thing and it is quickly becoming my preferred way of surfing the web when I’m at home.

• The MLB “At Bat 2010” app is amazing. I use it all of the time to follow the Kansas City Royals, who appear to suck again this year. Watching game highlights on the iPad via this app is great, and MLB does a great job keeping info/video/stories flowing in a very timely manner.

• I have recently started using the “Things” app across my desktop computer, iPad and iPhone in an effort to try like crazy to keep myself on task. Early results are that it seems to be helping, and I use it a lot.

• Like a lot of people I know, I prefer the Amazon Kindle app to the Apple iBooks app. The iBook app is slicker, no doubt. But the Kindle app works better for me across different platforms, and when I’m looking for a book, Amazon has it and Apple usually doesn’t. I understand that many of these things could change, but as of April 21, I use the Kindle app way more often than I do the iBooks app.

Instapaper. Probably my most-used app. I have it tied to all of my browsers on all of my machines, as well as tied to my Twitter apps. Indispensable.

Netflix. I know I’m a dork because our family never had a Netflix account until we got an iPad. Now, we have a Netflix account via the iPad app and we still don’t have a single movie in our delivery queue, yet it is probably the app used the most by our family. Our sons have watched 10 streaming movies and many of those movies more than once. The movies look surprisingly great on the iPad, despite being streamed.

• We have tons of “traditional” media/news apps on our iPad — Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, GQ, Guardian Eyewitness, NY Times Editors’ Choice, NPR, Popular Science, AP News, Maxim, Thomson Reuters News Pro, etc. Just like on my iPhone, the news app I go to the most on the iPad is the USA Today app. I like many aspects about the others, but not enough to use them much. To me, at first blush, the most interesting magazine implementations at the moment are from Popular Science and Maxim. But at least for right now, when I want news, I still go to the web for it. Unless it’s baseball news. Then I go to the MLB app.

• We have several movies loaded onto our iPad via iTunes and they look and sound fantastic. This week, I had my first major travel/flights since I got the iPad and it was a fantastic experience in just about every way.

• We have two younger sons (8 and 3) and they use our iPad a lot. We have numerous drawing and coloring apps (Chalk, Draw, ArtStudio, Color&Draw, etc…), which are all a big hit with them. We also have the free Toy Story eBook, which also has some games and coloring activities inside of it, which they love.

• I also have found that when I am at home, I am more likely to check my e-mail on my iPad than on a computer.

You can write on it (answer short e-mails) but you’re not going to want to do much of that. I tried to write some contest entries on it last week and quickly gave up. And as cool as the “Pages” word-processing app is, it still seems like a total pain to get content in and out of it. My conclusion is I’m definitely not going to want to write anything long on this baby.

The iPad definitely feels like something new to me. Like many folks already have said, it is primarily a media-consumption device. And that ticks some people off. Not me. My expectations were pretty managed.

As my friend and mentor Bob Cauthorn says, it’s an “information appliance.” It does certain things well. But not everything. You don’t get pissed when your toaster can’t bake a turkey, yet it seems like some people can’t get over what an iPad can’t do.

I’m not one of those people.

I’d say the iPad is more like something you relax with in a comfy chair, not sit at a desk or a table with. My initial thoughts are that I really like it. The things that it does, it does really well. And it’s just fun to use — that’s an intangible that goes beyond its power and ports.

But it’s definitely not a laptop or even a netbook. And, outside the obvious of not being able to make phone calls (which I can just barely do on my iPhone, anyway), I’m noticing that I use the iPad much differently than I do the iPhone.

When I use my iPhone, I tend to use apps. In most circumstances, apps seem more practical (and quicker) for me to use than going to the Safari browser on the iPhone. But I’m noticing that on the iPad, I’m much more likely to just use the web.

I have the New York Times iPad app, but unless I’m on an airplane without an internet connection, I’m much more likely to visit the Times’ website.

However, just because that’s how I use it, doesn’t mean that is how everyone will use it. An interesting point from one analyst was that the “power of the iPad is it is multiple things to different people. If you ask five people, you get five answers.”

And I’m fairly certain it’s not the savior for newspapers or magazines. (Though I do think some magazines ultimately will look badass on this baby.)

For newspapers to get it right, especially if they’re going to go the route of an iPad app, I suspect they need to think more like how ESPN appears to think when it moves to a different platform.

Look at how great ESPN is as they design different experiences across so many different media:

• On TV, ESPN means game coverage via traditional live broadcast capabilities and great post-game coverage via “SportsCenter” and “Baseball Tonight.”

• In print, ESPN magazine means great photos, longer features and analysis pieces.

• On radio, lots of talk shows, interviews, punditry and — of course — live game broadcasts.

• Online, pulls together all of these appropriate elements but does it in a way that typically feels pretty webby to me. It does a fantastic job with breaking news on the big, national stories. And though I can’t pass judgment on its local sites because I’m not really a fan of the teams where it has local sites, its numbers are impressive in those markets.

• ESPN on the iPad also feels like their brand customized one more time for a different medium/platform. I have the ESPN iPad customized for the Royals, Jayhawks and UNLV Rebels. And although I don’t go to it daily, I do use it at least a couple of times a week.

I think in a lot of ways, ESPN really “gets it.” It’s an organization that understands that its brand — though always clearly about sports — is defined differently in different platforms/media.

I don’t feel like very many newspapers understand this. Just because you do one thing in print doesn’t mean you do the exact same thing on the web or on mobile devices. Or now on an iPad. (Please don’t read into this that I feel like newspapers should build iPad apps solely around personal customization, like ESPN did with its app. However, I do think newspapers shouldn’t blindly just do the exact same things across all platforms and call it good.)

There is a difference between re-purposing your content and re-imagining your content. Smart newspapers will re-imagine their content to exploit different platforms rather than simply re-purposing.

As I mentioned earlier, the iPad feels like a media-consumption device. And at a minimum, I feel it’s a little irresponsible not to make sure that your news organization’s web content works correctly on it. You don’t have to build a dedicated app if you lack the resources, but at least get your website working well.

In this day and age, our goal at the Sun is to reach our audience wherever it might be. And we’re certain that some of our audience will be on an iPad. Analyst estimates on iPad sales vary, but many fall in the 3 million to 7 million range for the first year and expand to as many as 20 million new sales in 2011. And that’s just the iPad, not the whole universe of tablets that are in the pipeline.

Getting involved early is smart. In 1995, the world’s Internet population was 16 million (that’s less than the number of iPads some are predicting to be sold in 2011 …). In just four years global internet users had grown from 16 million to 248 million.

That’s a lot of change … and you can either participate in it or watch it from the sidelines.

Internet-connected mobile use is hugely important for our industry and it’s a mistake not to be active in this space. In three years, the iPhone and iPod Touch went from zero to 75 million users. In just a few years, the Apple app universe went from zero downloads to 3 billion downloads. When an attractive new platform arrives, people adopt it quickly.

So it’s really not that complicated: If this is where our readers are going to be, we should be there, too.

And the Las Vegas Sun is. We’re just not tying huge revenue expectations to it.


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Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.