Onswipe launched their new tablet publishing service a few days ago. There was a lot of hype, and even a little substance. The service isn't live for the public yet, but the press release mentioned a half dozen major websites as launch partners.
Unfortunately, most of the launch partners haven't actually launched yet. As I sit here editing the post on Thursday morning, the Onswipe website shows only 3 active partners. One of them, Gary Vaynerchuk's blog, still doesn't work right.
First, a word of background. The idea behind the Onswipe tablet publishing service is that it would give publishers an easy way to publish for tablets. The free service would provide an app-like experience with page style layouts (instead of scrolling) and an automatically constructed TOC (instead of the usual home page).
The TL;DR Review
This service lacks most all of the better features of a website and it adds little that you might find in an app. The regular Slate website is significantly better than the iPad edition. I really don't see a reason to use Onswipe at this time.
I spent a fair amount of time Wednesday night comparing articles in the Onswipe and desktop versions of Slate. I also spent some time looking at Marie claire, but I will probably hold that for a later post (the iPad edition of Marie claire wasn't functional yet). I looked at the content selection, content layout, and site navigation. There are any number of things that could have been done better.
As you can see from the picture, the iPad edition (I'm not calling it Onswipe anymore) offers icon style menu instead of the text you might find on a website. It's a reasonably good design, and if you select one of the sections across the top you'll see articles just from that section.
But there is a possible contradiction between the menu and the organization. If I'm in a particular section (twitter, for example), I would expect to only see content from that section. When I swipe to go from one tweet to the next, the iPad edition shows me whatever article was posted to the website next in (I believe) chronological order. The article could be almost anything from the website and very likely will not be the section I want.
The Twitter section revealed a second problem with navigation. Often times the tweets will contain links, and some links lead back to Slate. Unfortunately, they lead to the desktop version of the site, not the iPad edition. Also, articles sometimes have links to other Slate content (past coverage, related stories, and the like). Those links lead to the desktop version as well. Needless to say, that's not a good thing.
While I'm on the topic of links, I want to point out that the iPad edition disables one of the important features of Safari on the iPad. I can't press and hold a link to to see the options. I prefer to open links in new windows, and the iPad edition won't let me. This is doubly important because the iPad edition is slow to reload when going back.
As I got deeper into this review I noticed that the categories in the iPad edition don't match the ones on the website.
For example, the iPad edition has a “Slatest” category, but I do not see that on website. Also, the website has a “Briefing” category and “Blogs” category which are not found in the app. This might seem like a small matter, but if I want to tell someone to read an article I cannot describe it by section (for example, look at the second article in the whatever section).
I have one last suggestion for the iPad edition. I'd like to see Onswipe add a “related articles” doodad at the end of each article. The desktop version of Slate has it, and so do most sites. It's a standard feature because it's a good idea.
The article text is laid out in either 3 columns (landscape) or 2 columns (portrait). It has a ragged right edge, which I like but I know some will not.
You cannot make the text larger nor can you highlight, copy/paste, or do any of the things you're used to doing with a browser. You also can't leave a comment, but you can send someone a link by email, tweet, or posting to Facebook.
The absence of a zoom feature is killer, IMO. The regular Slate website is more readable than the iPad edition, and zoom is the reason why.
I suspect that Slate launched first because their content was the easiest to convert. The Slate website has a lot of long text articles with basic formatting and only a few pictures. You don't get to see the pictures in the iPad edition but it's okay because you're not missing much.
Unfortunately, they do still have the occasional sound clip or embedded video. The iPad edition choked on the enhanced content, and no attempt is made to disguise the fact it's missing.
It's difficult to say what content is missing from the iPad edition. It lacks a search feature, and this also means if someone recommends a story I will have a lot of trouble finding it.
The iPad edition probably has all the core articles of the website, but it's lacking at least some of the extras. For example, it does not have the Today's Picture/Cartoons/Doonesbury/Video widget which you can find on the website. It also lacks all the other widgets, the eye-catching content, as well as all the other ways one might discover content. Last but not least, the iPad edition also lacks all the videos, podcasts, and other enhanced content found in the regular website.
Each piece of missing content is important. It's one more reason that readers will go to the regular website instead of the iPad edition. They'll stay there, too, which means that the expense of maintaining the iPad edition will fall on fewer shoulders.
Here's the thing. A website like Slate's is made up of a number of different kinds content displayed in a number of different ways. Onswipe have come up with a good start towards displaying a faction of that content in an app style layout. They need to finish the job and get the rest of the content into the app.
But I'm not sure they can do that, at least not in an automated and cheap fashion.
Adding content to the Slate website each day is automated, but the original design was not. A website as rich and complex as Slate was not created in an automated process. It was originally laid out more or less by hand. Okay, it may have been on a computer, but someone's hand was on the mouse.
I believe it's foolhardy to think that you can spend a lot on the design of a website and then replace it with a cheap, automated, faux app. You can automate the app, but I believe that Slate should have an app that's designed with the same care as the website. That's going to cost money.