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All the News

A look at the three-screen world through the eyes of news and publishing

Do you remember where you were when the news broke about Michael Jackson’s death? What about the raid on bin Laden’s compound? The Japanese earthquake? Or the night Steve Jobs died? What screen did you turn to for details? Chances are it wasn’t your television. More than likely it was your phone, PC or iPad.

At any point in the day or night, we’re likely to have one of those screens within reach. The smartphone radically changed the way we access the Web. And now tablets, with tens and tens of millions sold already, are adding yet another twist to what, how, and where we go online.

It’s no longer just a trend, it’s a fact: today we live in a three-screen world. Businesses have to again adjust their strategies and allocate resources to reach their audiences on still another category of device.

As it has in the past, the news and publishing industry offers a window to see the impact of new online technology and the success of various strategies to address it.

Where are they looking now?

More than any industry, media companies and publishing have felt the impact of the digital age’s fracturing of attention. The transition has been long, painful, costly, and is not nearly over.

Newspapers have been the worst hit. According to Pew Research’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, newsrooms have shrunk by 30 percent since 2000. 1Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State of the News Media 2011,” by Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell, 2011 This is no surprise, considering the staggering revenue impact of the migration from print to digital. In 2006, a reader spent 29 minutes a day on average with a printed newspaper, and generated revenue of $286.84. In 2010, a reader spent less than 1.2 minutes on average on an online news site, and generated $28.89 — just one-tenth the revenue of the old model., “Infographic: How Print Vs. Online News Consumption Compares,” By Amanda Natividad, 4/28/11

The scales tipped definitively in 2010 when, for the first time, more people said they got their news online instead of from the newspapers, according to the Pew project. The revenue scale tipped as well, with online ad revenue surpassing print revenue, but it is split over many sites, compared to the small number of news outlets that serve (or served) any given geographic market.

The ascent of online news has not been only at the expense of traditional newspapers. Magazines, network news, cable news — all have been eclipsed in audience by online news. Only local television news is a more popular source than online, and that by just four percentage points. 3Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State of the News Media 2011,” by Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell, 2011

Increasingly, too, consumers are getting their news on a mobile device — 47 percent get some of their local news on a phone or tablet, according to Pew. That number is now nearly a year old, and tens of millions of smartphones and tablets have been sold since. In December 2011, USA TODAY’s mobile traffic exceeded its PC traffic for the first time. Tablets — the third screen — were a contributing factor to that milestone.

iPhenomenon: The Third Screen

Could even Steve Jobs have seen how magical the iPad was really going to be, and how eagerly consumers would embrace post-PC technology? We’ll never know, but it’s clear that not just the iPad, but tablets in general are the next great sea change in Internet access technology, guaranteeing and accelerating the transition from desktop to mobile as the primary Web access point.

Apple and its Asian suppliers can barely keep up with demand for iPads from both consumers and businesses. One analyst predicts iPad sales in excess of 54 million in 2012 (along with more than 116 million iPhones). 4AppleInsider, “Apple projected to reach 116M iPhone, 55M iPad sales in 2012,” by Slash Lane, 1/6/12 Thanks largely to holiday gift-buying, in just a one month period, from mid-December to mid-January, U.S. tablet computer ownership jumped from 10 percent to 19 percent. Add in the Kindle and other e-readers, and the number jumps to 29 percent. In other words, nearly one in three Americans owns some kind of tablet device. 5PewInternet, “Tablet and E-book reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift-Giving Period,” by Lee Rainie, 1/23/12

Business users are poised to add momentum to the tablet phenomenon. In a recent survey by NPD Group, 73 percent of small and medium-size businesses say they plan to purchase tablets this year. 6Macworld, “Small businesses to buy more tablets in 2012,” by Dan Miller,, 12/29/11 Another study has 83 percent of IT departments planning to have iPads in place in the next two years., “Most U.S. Small Businesses Plan to Buy an iPad in 2012 [STUDY],” by Peter Pachal, 12/29/11

Despite its dominance, Apple won’t be the only player in 2012. While Amazon is vague about its sales numbers, it is believed to have sold some four million Kindles in December, led by its new Kindle Fire. Rumors are intensifying about a possible Google-branded tablet running the full Android OS (as opposed to the Fire’s Amazon-ized version). And Windows 8, expected in beta release soon and full release by the 2012 holiday season, is built from the ground-up as a touch-optimized OS, meaning the Windows experience could seamlessly span three screens, just as the Mac OS does now.

So for tablets, it’s all-in for the four heaviest of the tech heavyweights. That means the third screen is here to stay. And like the smartphone revolution before it, it means content and website owners have to adapt yet again — and quickly — to an entirely new paradigm for content creation and consumption.

Tablet Problem? Or Tablet Opportunity?

Yes, it’s another form factor, and more operating system permutations, still more network connection considerations, and additional development expense. But tablets could actually be a bright spot for content owners looking to attract audience and advertising dollars.

This past holiday season, iPad users showed themselves to be valuable customers, buying more and spending more than other mobile shoppers. And a number of studies indicate that tablet users are avid content consumers as well.

“I think maybe 2011 was the year of the tablet to a certain degree,” says Erik Bursch, director, operations and content systems for USA TODAY. “We see users engaging with our app at a very deep level on the tablet. From an advertiser’s point of view, from a presentation point of view, you can do a lot more from a tablet. I think that that’s playing out in how rich applications are in the tablet space.”

More than three-quarters of tablet owners use their device every day, on average for 90 minutes. More than half use it daily to get their news, and many now spend more time on news than they did pre-tablet. In fact, the only thing they’re more likely to use their tablets for than news is to browse the Web. 8Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State of the News Media 2011,” by Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell, 2011

These numbers are likely skewed, as most current tablet owners have pricey iPads; they tend to be higher-income, better educated, often middle-aged consumers. As the market expands down to lower-priced Kindle Fires and others, tablet demographics will likewise gravitate toward a more mass consumer profile.

One area of publishing where tablets have shown real potential is magazines. Wired was among the first to leverage the multimedia and interactive potential of the iPad. Today, titles from The Atlantic to Vanity Fair are delivering reader-friendly versions on the iPad. And the good news is, many are successfully collecting “newstand” sales revenue through single-issue and subscription sales in the app stores.

About 10 million tablet/e-reader users read magazine content on their devices, according to the Affinity American Magazine Study. Three times as many smartphone users, 29 million, read magazines on their phone. More than a dozen and a half titles consistently reach over a million readers a month, with ESPN The Magazine delivering over five million readers a month, and People magazine reaching four million., “Which Titles Have the Largest Mobile Audience?” by Lucia Moses, 12/12/11 Those are impressive numbers even by old dead-tree magazine standards.

The takeaway from all these numbers is this: instead of viewing the third screen as just another device/OS to be accommodated — in other words, as a headache — successful content owners view it as a way to add value and attract loyal readership — as an opportunity. But it’s an opportunity that requires commitment to an outstanding user experience.

Different Networks, Different Connections, Different Problems

Whether a user is scanning the news on the morning train, catching up on industry news on a laptop at work, or reading an in-depth story on the iPad after dinner, they want the same thing: content that’s easy to navigate, content that’s easy to read on the device, and content that’s fast.

“Obviously different screens have different challenges,” says Nisheeth Mohan, Keynote Systems senior product manager. “A smartphone user is primarily going over a wireless network. A tablet user may be going over WiFi or 3G. And a PC user at work is connected to a hardwired, high-speed Internet connection.

“If you really want to optimize and exploit the full capabilities and provide the best user experience, you need to think from a device point-of-view, and understand how it’s being used and under what scenarios. What type of content does a user want to browse on a tablet versus a smartphone versus a PC?”

Many content owners — but by no means most — are beginning to successfully tackle smartphones. They’ve figured out that users on the go have specific needs that are different than when they’re in front of a PC — whether it’s location-based information or text that automatically displays in readable fashion. And they’re recognizing that their sites need to load quickly despite the vagaries of cellular networks.

Tablets are an entirely different story. In most cases, it appears site owners can’t quite to decide what to do with them. Short of formulating a bona fide tablet strategy, two approaches are typical.

In one camp are those who simply serve up the mobile site. The mobile site’s built to be fast over 3G, the theory goes, and lots of people use tablets on the go over 3G, so the experience should be nice and snappy. The problem is, users didn’t shell out $500 or $600 for an iPad to get 4” content on a 10” device. They could use their phone for that. They’re looking for something special — magical, as Steve Jobs said. So no matter how fast the mobile site loads on the tablet, users are disappointed. But at least they’re disappointed quickly.

The other camp says just serve up the full PC website. They’ve got a 10” screen on their tablet, their theory goes, and the site looks fine at that size — it’s practically a laptop. Besides, they have fast WiFi connections. The problem with this theory is, there are more iPads sold with 3G capability than without, and one has to assume that if buyers are paying an extra $100 for 3G capability, they want to use it. But as we learned from smartphones, full websites don’t like a 3G connection, no matter how big or small the screen.

“They’re delivering so many objects — so many bytes are downloaded — they’re not taking into account that mobile networks aren’t able to deliver them as quickly as a wired connection,” says Tim Murphy, Keynote marketing manager for mobile quality. “The New York Times was delivering 126 objects on the page when I checked. That’s a monstrously large website. Somebody sitting in an airport is not getting that in a reasonable time.”

The bottom line is that you can’t just take an existing site, mobile or desktop, and say it’s good enough for a tablet. It will fail from a user experience perspective, from a performance perspective, or both.

Measuring Three-Screen Performance

How does your mobile site load time compare to your desktop site? How does it compare to the competition? And how does your tablet compare to mobile and desktop?

Keynote used its industry-leading measurement technology and extensive monitoring network and partnered with the Yankee Group to do a side-by-side-by-side assessment of three-screen performance for a selection of major websites. Some of the results are surprising, and some were downright alarming.

iPhone 4 and iPad 2 measurements were taken via 3G on Verizon and AT&T networks in New York and San Francisco. The expectation would be that iPad performance should be on par with the iPhone, and in some cases it was. (This would be the result if the mobile site or some variant is being delivered.) But for fully half of the sites, iPad performance was slower, sometimes significantly slower, than the same site via iPhone.

When you look at what’s on the home pages, the reason for the iPad’s slow-as-molasses performance becomes clear. Whether in terms of bytes or objects downloaded, the iPad sites are clearly heavier than their iPhone counterparts. And, inexplicably, in more than half the cases, more home page bytes and objects are being downloaded to the iPad than to desktop browsers.

In general, load times for both iPhone and iPad were not impressive — in both cases, more than half the sites took 10+ seconds to load, and a solid handful tortured users for more than 20 seconds.This is not where the numbers should be five years into smartphone Web browsing, especially when many sites demonstrate that it’s possible to consistently achieve load times in the five- to ten-second range.

What’s equally or perhaps more alarming is that availability is just as unimpressive. You don’t need one hand to count the number of iPhone/iPad sites that achieved 99 percent or better availability. A number were in the 97 percent range. This kind of availability shortfall has been confirmed in other Keynote measurements.

“In a recent mobile index for portals, availability was around 96.3 percent,” Murphy says. “They’re out of commission 3.7 percent of the time. When you’re talking about 29 million people accessing magazine content on their phones, 3.7 percent is a million people, a million potential bad experiences.”

For news and media sites in particular, 24/7 performance and availability is a critical brand attribute. News happens anytime, night or day, and when it does, the site has to be there for users.

“When bin Laden was killed, when Michael Jackson’s death was announced, when it’s really hot news, people are going to fire up their phone, they’re going to roll out the tablet,” Murphy says. “For companies on the 24 by 7 news cycle, knowing how they perform at 9:30 at night can be just as important as how they perform in the middle of the day on a desktop.”

App, Website, Or Both?

There’s no silver bullet for getting content successfully onto three screens, no switch that can be thrown to make content fast and usable. On smartphones and now tablets, site owners are juggling some combination of optimized website, Web app and native app; except for those who are doing nothing at all, and effectively writing off what is soon to be online’s biggest audience.

>A look at three major publications illustrates the divergence in approaches. >Wired magazine, long a beacon on the digital frontier, offers optimized sites on the smartphone and tablet, as well as a full-blown digital magazine (aka, “app”) on the iPad, complete with video, animation and interactive content. The iPad edition is free for print subscribers (subscriptions can be had for as little as $10 a year) or $3.99 an issue a la carte. >Wired’s mobile-optimized smartphone site serves up a small-screen friendly version of the content (no pinching or zooming required) and loads quickly. The tablet site looks just like the desktop site, but it also loads quickly over a 3G wireless connection. The iPad app edition requires a monolithic download of the entire issue — best done over WiFi — which is then available in its entirety for offline viewing. >The Financial Times has taken an as-yet pioneering approach, going all-in on HTML5 to create Web apps for mobile devices. >“With the Financial Times Web app, the entire website is downloaded in the browser, so it’s fast to navigate and can be viewed offline,” Mohan says. “One of the reasons native apps were preferred was they’re more interactive and you can do offline browsing. But with HTML5, you have offline browsing capability. HTML5 can make a website experience a lot more powerful and comparable to that of a native app.” >In practice, downloading the site takes some time; a disclaimer on the welcome screen tells users it’s best done on a WiFi connection. This is somewhat of a paradox, because if you’re on a WiFi connection, the full site loads much more quickly than the app version; but if the goal is to have the content available for offline reading, the download makes sense, and the content is formatted for mobile viewing. USA TODAY was among the first to roll out native apps for both the iPhone and iPad, and has embraced all the major mobile platforms as they have come online, most recently, the Kindle Fire, where it quickly became the number one news app. The USA TODAY approach to app content updates is somewhat unique, inasmuch as it gives the user the option to have the site update dynamically as they browse (by default), or they can choose in the settings to update everything at launch, so all content is available for offline viewing.
Users who opt to view USA TODAY via a tablet’s built-in browser (instead of the app) are delivered the full site; the publication’s data indicates that their users skew heavily to WiFi connections rather than 3G.

Whatever the approach, any serious mobile strategy requires effort and investment. Native apps need to be developed separately for multiple platforms, at minimum iOS and Android, for both smartphone and tablet — that’s virtually four apps, for starters.

HTML5 Web apps theoretically simplify the development task, in as much as one app should function acceptably on multiple phones. But a big tweak is required for tablets, to take advantage of the format and deliver a native-like experience.

Still another approach is to build separate, mobile-optimized sites for smartphones and tablets, streamlined for fast loading and usability, but not offering the capability of offline viewing.

Making Hard Decisions, Serious Commitments

Building a presence for a three-screen world requires tough and important decisions. Apps offer greater functionality and offline viewing. But apps are not searchable and won’t show up in Google or other search engine results. News apps have been shown to have stickiness and more intensively engage users, but typically users adopt only one or two favorite news apps.

Publishers and news organizations are trying any and all approaches to regain audience and revenue lost to the explosion of online content. A viable smartphone presence is a given. And an innovative and high-performing tablet approach can provide a real opportunity to capture a loyal, more lucrative audience.

The examples of news and publishing hold lessons for website owners in every industry. We live in a three-screen world and none of those screens can be ignored. Users have different expectations and purposes for each. They want content that’s suited for the device, and they never want to wait.
Easy as 1-2-3? Definitely not. But essential for success in our fractured online world. The time to get building is now, before smartphones and tablets are in everyone’s hands, and even as the tech industry is fast at work on a potential fourth screen — connected TV. Stay tuned!
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