Monday, March 28, 2011

Review of "The Australian" iPad App

I've been using the iPad app "The Australian" since it was released.
There is a lot to like about the app, but there are also some significant issues which need to be addressed, and some issues which clearly News Digital Media are struggling with, most obviously the advertising vs usability tradeoff.
First of all, there are many excellent features in this app. It is cheaper and much more convenient than buying print media, and perfect for reading on the bus. It only requires a connection to actually sync down content, making it better than a website with the wifi only iPad.
The navigation is not too bad, plenty of categories, and you can read in a choice of three font sizes. The 'share' button is useful for when you do have a connection, and want to share via Facebook. The recent addition of the 'Gallery' adds excellent topical photographs every few days.
However, there are a few problems, most of which should be easily addressed, yet the early rate of improvements seems to have slowed to a crawl.
Sometimes selecting a news article during a content sync will crash the app.
Sometimes rotating the screen forcing the aspect change while reading an article will crash the app.
Somtimes dismissing a full screen ad before it has loaded will crash the app.
The crashes are very annoying, and it seems to me there are thread race and possibly resource usage problems that need to be addressed, and really shouldn't be that big of a deal for professional developers, and something they have probably already fixed and is waiting for the next release.
Advertising is always going to be tricky. I understand that it helps to fund the production of the content and the software development, and keeps the subscription relatively low. However, if the advertising continues to be as horribly intrusive as it currently is, and has been since an update in December, I can't see that they'll keep enough volume of customers to make any of it worthwhile. I can deal with a full screen popup ad that happens occasionally, and that I can dismiss. What is horribly annoying is that now there is a small ad on every single page, and even if the ad space isn't used, it still exists, empty.
The trouble with this advertising is that it completely cramps the layout of every content page. I had to switch from portrait view to landscape view to get a comfortable line width, sacrificing page length and having to scroll much more. Also, you can't now effectively use the left side for scrolling since you then touch the ad. You can't dismiss the small ads, so they are a constant distraction from the article, and end up having no impact, because you try to just ignore the space entirely. They only thing worse that could be done here, is to make the ads flash or animate. I can only suggest News does some proper usability testing, and maybe look at being able to slide the ads out of the view, leaving only a tab, or at least allow the ad to scroll up the page with the content so it doesn't remain for the whole article.
Minor annoyances that should also be looked at include adding a page scolling indicator like every other iPad app that has a scrolling page, so you know where you are up to when reading the page. Also annoying, when you change aspect ratio, the page resets to the top of the content. It would also be useful for the font size setting to be more persistent. Probably the video needs to be compressed a little more as you have to wait for most of any video to download before starting to watch.
Hopefully we'll see some further improvements over the next couple of months, otherwise I'll be looking around when my subscription is up.

[Update 29/3/11]
Troy Skillen of News Digital Media Support emailed me with:
"We are passing your blogpost to our Editorial and Product Teams and ensuring they take the time to read what you have written as we believe there are many points that can be taken from your piece moving forward. We are hoping the shortcomings within the app can be addressed sooner rather than later & are currently pushing for the advertising and crash issues to be dealt with as a priority."

[Update 9/7/11]
I've recently decided to not continue my subscription until the crashes are fixed. I've just had enough, it is very annoying. I'm using the SMH app now. Recently Troy Skillen (sic) emailed me with "We decided to push back the update after the release of Fairfax's enhanced apps as we decided there was more we could do to be competitive. We hope to be able to release more news about the update very shortly"

[Update 30/7/11]
I should note now that an update has been released, although I haven't used it yet.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Technician

Just finished reading The Technician by Neal Asher.
Damn, Asher just tells a fine story. You're not quite sure where it is going at the beginning, but The Technician has a good pace that keeps you reading, and dribbles out key information along the way so that you never feel that the novel is over before you get there. By the middle of the book I was wondering how this wouldn't be over in the next two chapters, but then, the story gets just that little bit more complicated, takes a turn, and you're off again. This was a very cleverly constructed read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Not as much of the visceral, mind blowing, gut wrenching death and destruction as in some of his other work, oh, ok, except for the end. It isn't like he's not going to have it at all. Oh, and the bit in the middle. The Polity AIs cop a bit of a blow to their arrogance at the sharp end of some new tech which I enjoyed. Damn smarmy AIs.