Web 2.0 Expo: Lessons Learned Building Tablet Apps
Time magazine exec outlines lessons learned in launching an iPad app the same day the tablet was put on sale.
Speaking at Web 2.0 Expo, a UBM TechWeb/O'Reilly Media event in New York, Time's Senior Director of IT Publishing Solutions Scott Smith noted that although Wired Magazine initially got more buzz out of the launch of its digital edition, the Time magazine iPad app has consistently ranked as the top grossing digital magazine title on the iTunes store, and another Time publication, People magazine, has since become number 2. "There's nothing cool about our application--it just works," Smith said.
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The publisher has also created digital editions of Fortune and Sports Illustrated, with 17 more titles scheduled to come online by January 2012. Time has become one of the leaders in setting standards for magazine publishing on the iPad. Time has also created products for Android devices, Barnes & Noble's Color Nook, and some other also-rans like the BlackBerry Playbook and the now discontinued HP TouchPad. Time has tried to create unique native experiences for each of these devices, rather than simply serving up repurposed PDFs of the magazine, he said.
Time managed to be one of the first on Apple's tablet despite never having gotten its hands on an iPad for testing of the app, prior to the product introduction. That was because Time refused to sign Apple's non-disclosure agreement, Smith said. When he and the lead software developer visited Apple headquarters to demo the software, shortly before the tablet's launch, the software that had worked well running on the simulator Apple provided for development on a desktop computer crashed when loaded onto the actual device, he said. So the developer had to camp out in Cupertino for an intensive 72-hour debugging session to slim down the software.
Early reviews were dismal, particularly since readers had to pay $4.99 per week for the content, even if they already subscribed to the print edition. Time and Apple eventually reworked the terms so subscribers to the print version of the magazine could get the content for free. Although the product hasn't changed substantially since its launch, reviews have started to improve as readers learn to appreciate it more.
Smith said many of his lessons learned would apply to many contemporary software projects. "You have to embrace the startup mentality. You have to run the sprints, and you have to launch the product before it is done," he said. In other words, organize software development into short bursts of activity, deliver it to customers sooner rather than later so you can get feedback, and refine as necessary. That wouldn't be the right way to deliver a new aircraft control system, where the cost of failure is high, but it is the right way to deliver a digital product into a fast-changing market.