Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The media and the message

UK newspapers, Free
Many newspapers are struggling to come to terms with the web

Innovations, not paywalls, are the future for media companies says regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Like thousands of other people around the world I've just spent £2.39 on The Guardian newspaper's iPhone app.

I can now read the paper onscreen, with some sections nicely cached for offline browsing and a cleverly designed user interface that lets me put the Media and Technology sections at the top of the paper, mark articles as favourites and quickly find related stories.

I can't - yet - buy anything like extra content, early access to stories or the ability to search the archive, but I would imagine that the business plans and functional specifications for those features are already being pored over at Kings Place, the paper's shiny new office near King's Cross in London.

They had better be, because one immediate result is that I have stopped buying the paper in the morning, except on Saturday when the social setting is completely different and scattered sections, coffee and conversation are a vital part of the weekend.

Multi-Channel news

The Guardian isn't the first newspaper or magazine to offer a smartphone app.

Time, The Daily Telegraph and New York Times have already entered this new space and others will inevitably follow, and we can expect a standard feature set to emerge over the coming months as the various competing groups analyse each other's software.

Bill Thompson
When everything is in flux, knowing how to avoid making your customers too unhappy might be the secret to success.
Bill Thompson

Even those media organisations that are currently unable to accept Apple's stringent terms and conditions over liability and other aspects of the iPhone developer agreement are likely to find a way, because this new market is simply so compelling and important.

Those who don't make it onto the iPhone have a growing range of other smartphones to choose from, with Symbian, Windows Mobile and Android all supporting the sort of functionality needed for a news reader.

The launch of the app takes The Guardian one step further from being a traditional newspaper and continues the journey begun in 1994 when I put the coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival onto the "Fringeweb" I built while working at internet service provider PIPEX.

It reinforces editor Alan Rusbridger's vision of the organisation as a media company that delivers largely text-based news and comment over all available channels rather than a newspaper with a shiny website.

It also shows that there is an alternative to the approach being pushed by News International, publishers of The Times and The Sun, that is based around removing their content from the big search engines and setting up paywalls around it, locking it out of the "link economy" and trying to establish the newspaper site as a profit centre within an organisation that still thinks of the printed story as its primary product and the web as just a new publishing technology.

Walled garden The Guardian seems to have realised that in an always-on, hyper-connected world almost all of its news content is now a commodity offering; that very few of the "facts" it publishes are exclusive at all, and none are exclusive for long, that the desire for comment and columns and features by favourite writers is weaker than the desire to have something for free, and that the commercial model that sustained newspapers in the past is gone forever.

We may not be willing to pay for the news itself, but we are willing to pay for curation, integration and convenience.

The App itself was cheap enough to be an impulse purchase, but it has put The Guardian brand onto my phone and into my consciousness, and every time I pick up my "Tamagotchi" - as my son Max likes to call my iPhone - there's a chance I'll read the paper.

Iphone and Motorola Droid, Getty
Smartphones could change the way people consume news media

More importantly, I can see that I would be willing to use the payment feature built into the iTunes Store to pay for specials and content and maybe even early access to articles because I value the convenience of having it immediately available on my phone.

The dynamic of paying on a smartphone is completely different from that of paying on a laptop or desktop, and I don't think my resistance to newspaper paywalls is just a curmudgeonly desire for more free stuff and dislike of News Corporation's aggressive attitude towards the internet culture I am part of.

Different media have different characteristics and affordances, and encourage different discourses.

The relationship between me and the news content I read when I am using my laptop is different from the one mediated by my smartphone, and content and service providers need to acknowledge that - as The Guardian has done - and not simply shout about its unfairness.

This applies outside the newspaper industry, too. Along with The Guardian app we have just seen the international launch of Amazon's Kindle App for the iPhone, offering an alternative to the clunky, expensive and already dated Kindle e-book reader for those who want to dispense with hefty books while commuting or on holiday.

The Kindle app isn't the greatest e-book reader on the iPhone - I far prefer Eucalyptus - but it has the great advantage of being connected to the Amazon online store, so you can buy titles and have them delivered immediately and without fuss.

They may be overpriced and locked up with restrictive licenses and a digital rights management wrapper, but, like songs from the iTunes Store, the system is nicely integrated and the end-to-end customer experience is solid, reliable and not unpleasant.

When everything is in flux, knowing how to avoid making your customers too unhappy might be the secret to success, and not just for newspapers and booksellers.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.

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