Why the Fairfax iPad app was a waste of time

So Fairfax have relaunched their iPad app, with versions coming out tomorrow for The Age and SMH. I won’t repeat all the commentary going on around this, but I did want to make one point.

The time that Fairfax has invested in developing this app is a complete waste of time.

Which isn’t necessarily a criticism of Fairfax. It’s a criticism of the approach to both tablet apps and paywalls that every single publisher has taken. In the article linked above, Jack Matthews makes a point that many thought they would never hear from a newspaper CEO:

“You can’t charge for something on an iPad and give it away free on a desktop. And you can’t charge for something in a newspaper and give it away free on a tablet,” he said.

”The idea that you’re going to get the same thing free in one area and pay for it in another area is probably yesterday’s strategy.”

The above statement is absolutely true for content. It’s not true for an experience.

Fairfax are brilliant at creating content. They’ve been doing it for 170 years. What they (and almost every other publisher in the world) are not brilliant at, is creating interactive experiences for people using digital technology. And that’s why they’ve completely wasted the last nine months developing this app.

I’m not saying it will be a failure, I’m saying there’s a better model. And that model is to let any developer in the world create their app. Create an API for their content.

If publishers created this Content API, they would go from having a small team of developers working on their app, to having an entire development community working on it. There would be a multitude of apps, and this is a good thing. We still don’t know what a ‘good’ news app looks or feels like.

The open source community taught us that given enough eyeballs, all bugs are trivial. In the same way, given enough developers, awesome apps are inevitable. Even in the limited experiments we’ve seen with Content APIs for desktop use (Reuters, The Guardian, and Lonely Planet are just a few), some brilliant experiences have been created.

In the process of creating a Content API, newspapers would also go a long way to solving the paywall problem. Readers go from paying for content, to paying for an experience. If the best apps developed for The Age or SMH are driving thousands of digital subscriptions, it’s not hard to see why a percent cut to the app creator is both a great deal for Fairfax and for the developer.

Tablets are still an extremely fresh technology. The way we interact with them is still evolving, and there’s no way to tell how we will be interacting with them in one year, let alone five. But there are plenty of people out there who are brilliant at imagining and experimenting with those interactions. And given a shot (and the incentive), I’d love to see how they imagine the ways we might consume the words and images that have been in newsprint for 170 years.

- May 2011