"There's an app for that" panel session about mobile, iPhone and iPad apps at the Mediaguardian Changing Media Summit

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 28 March 2011

I attended a couple of sessions at the recent Guardian Changing Media Summit in Kings Place. One of them featured a panel talking about the emerging world of apps for tablet and mobile devices.

Michael Burgess of Seven said that initially he had felt rather underwhelmed when he got his iPad, but that as soon as the UK app store opened, and he could start getting content, he had his “wow” moment. He explained that Seven have published some research that shows people with tablet devices using their desktop and laptop computers less, and watching up to 10% less television.

He believes that the iPad and similar devices have “untethered” the web from the desktop environment. That had always been a task-driven lean forward experience - “What time is my train? Where can I buy these shoes? What do my symptoms mean?” - whereas the tablet was a lean-back consumption medium. Their research shows a massive peak of tablet computer use between 7pm and 9pm.

One of my keen interests with apps and tablet computers is the impact on production workflow for publishers. Mike said that the process of taking a magazine, and porting it to a website format that could then be used on a tablet device was “insanely complex”. At the moment he still doesn’t think the production tools are anywhere near as good as they needed to be. “You need to have stacks of HTML5 developers around to do cool stuff” he said.

Chris Thrope, an ex-colleague at The Guardian, and technologist at Artfinder, talked about how they were making a platform. Firstly that seemed the only way to scale across the range of devices that were likely to emerge. For the particular use case of Artfinder, walking around galleries, Chris suggested that a 9" or 10" tablet was going to be too big to carry around comfortably for any length of time, and that it might find a happier home on 7" devices.

Chris explained that taking the platform approach allows them to help partners like small museums and individual artists make apps, and then revenue share with them, either through associated products like the physical sales of prints, or sales of the apps themselves. He felt that with the current round of funding cuts in the arts, it will be virtually impossible for small museums and cultural institutions to keep up with building new features or adding new content into apps.

There was some discussion about whether organisations needed to make “native” apps, or whether web apps were the way forward. Mike Saunders at Kew said they had opted for an iPhone app because research showed they wanted to support existing visitor behaviours like hide and seek and serendipitous discovery. They also wanted to marry their public service ambitions - providing information to the public and supporting science - with more commercial opportunities like selling books related to the plants people had seen, and encouraging repeat visits. That meant they needed to access very low-level functions on the phone like reading QR codes and using geolocation, which mitigated against a webapp.

Ian Carrington from Google suggested the audience can be pretty agnostic about whether they want native apps or not. He cited a study by Autotrader suggesting a third of mobile users of their service rated their app very highly, even though it was in fact just a mobile optimised version of their website, and they didn’t at that time have an app.

Another strand running through the discussion was about findability. Mike Saunders said that Kew were very concerned about this, as they are just one cultural institution amongst many trying to have a presence in the app store. Juan Lopez-Valcarcel of Pearson said that they had less of a problem with this, as they have such a range of brands that have physical or analogue counterparts to their apps that they can cross-promote rather than just rely on being in Apple’s lists. He said Pearson have over 200 apps in the market at the moment, with the more experimental ones done by agencies, and the core editorial ones like books for children being done in-house.

For Juan, it seemed like the web got really crowded, and then suddenly app stores came and became a brand new space for the attention economy. If you have a brand like Tesco, he said, you know people will come to look for your app, so you don’t have to worry as much about in-app-store promotion. For smaller companies and developers though, he believed that word of mouth is still really key, and the thing that helps you move away from being in a position of just one of thousands of apps.

Coming back to their research piece, Michael Burgess said that word of mouth recommendation was a strong driver of app adoption. There was something almost physical about an app, because of the way that you can pull your phone out of your pocket and say “Have you seen this?” in a face-to-face way that you’ve never really been able to do with websites.

Alistair Crane from Grapple Mobile was chairing the session, and he made a great point about the reviews throughout the app store. You get something like the Ocado app, he said, that allows you to order and pay for your weekly grocery shop on your phone, and pick a time for your shopping to be delivered. And then someone gives it a one-star review saying that they think the scrolling is a bit jerky. “They’re kind of missing the point” he said.

Oh, and I learnt one very valuable lesson from Google’s Ian Carrington. A room full of media people will give a phone a round of applause for solving a Sudoku puzzle if it does it live on screen.

Next...

This Changing Media Summit session wasn’t the only event I attended last week concerning iPad apps and design. On Wednesday night I was in a very packed Hacks/Hackers London meet-up to see Matt Curtis and Madeleine Penny talk about the production of Eureka, the science magazine app from The Times. Tomorrow I’ll have my notes from that session.

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