Many major news organizations have published iPhone apps that provide access to their content. All are free, and some have low key advertising. However, the quality of the app, from an iPhone and Cocoa Touch standpoint, varies widely. Here's a quick look at the first four on my list.
When designing a news app for the iPhone (or iPod touch), it would seem reasonable to look at the competition, note the design elements, and try to analyze what makes an app cool and useful by evaluating how well it utilizes iPhone technologies. Amazingly, that didn't seem to be a priority for some of these apps.
WSJ. This app falls in the middle of the pack in terms of the design. There are three major tabs at the top of the home page: Articles, Video, and WSJ Radio. At the bottom, one can select from What's News, Markets, Opinion, Saved (Articles), and More... The latter contains special sections such as All Things Digital, Barrons, WSJ Blogs, and so on.
The app is strong on content, but weak on navigation and has no search function. For example, the font size can change the article text size, but not the headlines. The author name is not shown in the blog title. Overall, the app is strong on richness of content, the videos are well done, but it's weak on instructions. For example, the Save button at the top of lists of headlines doesn't seem to actually do anything, then disappears just when you want to save an article. Hardly intuitive.
The WSJ app is a low key, all business, no nonsense app that made me feel like it could have been better designed.
TIME Mobile. This is a gorgeous app that cashes in on its print edition thematic red color and makes good use of iPhone technologies. There's an intuitive slider at the top to select from major categories like Headlines, World, Biz & Tech, Health & Science. Arrows at each end of the banner and shadowing suggest the finger swipe.
Settings and Info are right at the top of the home page. The buttons at the bottom single out News, Top 10 lists, Quotes and the most popular stories. The Media section focuses on either photos or videos. I enjoyed Ze Frank Trying to Understand Health Care. Articles can be e-mailed or sent via Twitter.
Ads are banners at the top of each article and are easy to ignore or pursue at your option. At icon at the top right allows for either a vertical listing of stories or a Cover Flow like viewing. However, there is no search function. Like WSJ, the app presents a potpourri of stories to nibble on.
I enjoyed this app a lot. Its use of sliders, Cover Flow, and ability to e-mail or Tweet stories is smart from a business standpoint. However, it's settings are not as complete as the USA Today app. I ranked it second on my list, right after USA Today. (See below.)
L.A. Times News Reader. This app barely functions and is poorly designed. Basically, it has a list of categories at the bottom and an odd slider in the middle to reveal more content or a longer list. As an organization principle, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The app is colorless, makes minimal use of iPhone technologies, and is tiring to even look at. Often, when I touched a category, nothing happened. It's hard to figure out why the L.A. Times even bothered to develop such a poor app and reflects poorly on the organization. This app goes right to the bottom of the list.
USA Today. This news app is right up there, tied with TIME Mobile for first place. It utilizes the same kind of slider at the top for finger swiping, exploits the color blue as part of its branding (and looks good as well), and has an info and settings button right on the home page. Buttons at the bottom lead to Headlines, Scores, Weather, Pictures, or Snapshots (reader polls).
The Pictures page is nicely designed and tells stories with photos, a lost art in many circles. The Weather section uses Location Services to identify where you are and provide local weather via The Weather Channel. The Scores page has a convenient banner to select from NHL, MLB, NBA, etc. Scores or game start time are shown.
News stories have a small embedded picture and there's typically a small blue + sign that suggests tapping to enlarge.
I did notice that even after allowed it to grab my location for Weather, the home page still showed the temperature in New York. An easy bug to fix. Also, this app didn't have a search function either, but it's so well done, that omission is easier to overlook.
The settings pages allows you to select a Twitter client for tweeting stories, links to Facebook, provides for bug reporting and feature requests, and even provides an e-mail address where one can ask for help. I looked for, but didn't see any in-line ads.
This is a delightful app, was released late last year, and sets the standard. It seems as if TIME Mobile developers learned from it and learned well. It's too bad the WSJ and L.A. Times didn't.
In part II, next week: AP Mobile, NYTimes, Yahoo! and Newsstand. NPR's app was reviewed previously.