iPad’s Killer App: It Looks A Bit Like A Magazine

What’s the standout feature of Apple’s tablet that promises a step-change in our app economy? There isn’t one. “It’s really just the bigger screen,” says Colin McCaffery, product director at 2ergo, one of the industry’s leading mobile app developers.

But that won’t dishearten newspaper and magazine publishers. Because, for all the bluster about iPad “saving media“, their real iPad salvation is this: they can present their editions in much the same old dead-tree format they did before that pesky HTML came along.

“I believe the iPad will be about sitting in front of the TV whilst watching TV, browsing a ‘magazine’,” McCaffery – whose 2ergo made the apps for The Guardian, Fox News, Arsenal FC and others – told me in an interview. “It will switch on in a second, you’ll be straight in to your content – it will be almost exactly like a magazine that you pick up from the coffee table.”

iPhone developers are currently getting to grips with the new software developers kit that includes iPad features, and 2ergo is already working on firm iPad app projects for four clients. But there don’t seem to be a significant technical upgrades from the iPhone version…

“The good thing about iPad is all the existing iPhone apps will work,” McCaffery says. “The new SDK allows you to take advantage of a larger screen. It’s going to be even more of an opportunity for newspapers and magazines to monetise their content from a subscription point of view. It looks very much like a magazine.”

That is likely to mean two things – using the SDK’s other best feature (split-screening) to create iPhone-like apps with multi-columned content; and digital-edition mags and newspapers (which are horribly ill-suited to reading on a PC) may finally get the platform they deserve.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has built a device shaped like the pieces of paper that, to publishers’ chagrin, many folk no longer carry under their arm. It was Marshall McLuhan who wrote: “Media come in pairs, with one acting as the ‘content’ of the other.” As if countless digital devices hadn’t already borne that assessment out (iTunes is a CD player reborn as the ‘content’ of a computer), this – to Steve Jobs’ benefit – is also what newspapers, magazines and books will be to iPad.

One other key development, when combined with the larger screen, may promise also to return the paradigm of paying that magazines enjoyed before the web – it’s the popularity of paid apps and the emergence of in-app charging and renewals, both introduced on mobiles before tablets.

2ergo’s Guardian app was the first UK newspaper app brave enough to charge a one-off mobile app cost, £2.39, but drew 70,000 downloads in four weeks; mags like The Spectator and MusicWeek, built by ExactEditions, charge by the month…

Some may remark the Guardian app means only one-off revenue for the news publisher and no recurring income, but don’t rule out in-app charging just yet. “There are different types of content and applications within the app that we’ve got in development,” McCaffery says. We understand Guardian News & Media considered charging an obvious and easy decision from the outset; its editor last week forecast “significant revenue” from iPad”.

That app’s success may also be emulated by “a similar newspaper client” for whom 2ergo is developing “a subscription-based offering – probably advertising and a weekly subscription in the app”, McCaffery says.

“There’s a real large opportunity for newspapers and magazines to have subscription models,” says McCaffery. “We’re now seeing print media companies come to us and, from the start, have decided it’s going to be a weekly or monthly subscription.” This works on mobile because “from a consumer point of view, it feels more like a newspaper package; they feel more comfortable with that”.

Paid mobile apps plus a larger screen would seem to equal a kind of digital magazine that actually makes real non-advertising money. But, for now, credit iPhone, and not iPad, with being the larger contributor to that equation.

“There’s lots of things that we are pushing the boundary on already just with iPhone,” McCaffery says – for example, the Guardian app’s off-line sync, favourite-journalist streams and gallery view; the Arsenal app’s match highlights, available a day after a game. “There’s plenty left to go with the existing SDK.

“I’m going to withhold my views on the uptake of the iPad,” McCaffery adds. “It’s going to be a smaller uptake.

“One school of thought says it will be nowhere near as high as iPhone – but you never know with Apple. There was dismissal of Apple entering the phone industry – supposedly, there was no way they could make it anywhere as usable as a Nokia – look what’s happened.”

Smartphones, e-readers and tablets will be hot topics at our upcoming paidContent 2010, Feb. 19 in New York. We’re nearing a sellout but you can still register.

Disclosure: Our publisher ContentNext is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian News & Media.