The iPad Election: Not quite ready to declare victory for mobile

I love election night. It’s my favorite non-holiday night every other year. For 25 years, I spent it at someone’s campaign headquarters. Working at Poynter has led to severe election withdrawal, and I was looking forward to an evening in front of the TV, immersed in drama, results and video sent via other people lucky enough to be in the middle of the winners and the losers (still jealous!).

Then I thought, Hey, it would be fun to watch election night on my mobile devices! More information than an election night junkie can handle, right? So I borrowed Poynter’s iPad, downloaded as many news election apps to it and my iPhone as I could find, bookmarked news sites, and settled down with an adult beverage to follow the results.

This is not a review of the quality of coverage, or who had the best live blog, the smartest commentary or the fastest results. This is about the experience of watching the election results via mobile devices, compared to a laptop and a TV.

Turns out, most apps and sites fit into one of two categories:

  • Standard mobile coverage that worked fine, but was largely a collection of articles
  • Innovative coverage that reached to try something new, but was beset with technical difficulties

I saw many sites that were perfectly respectable but not terribly interesting. I’ll spare you the list, and focus instead on those that actually tried to do cool things, with mixed results.

Best election eve news app: ABC

My favorite experience of the night ended up being the ABC News app. I landed quickly on the results map for the House and Senate races. The map had probably the best touch interface of the many maps out there. The video stream quality was good but inconsistent, with the video coming and going. When it hung up, it would (usually) restart on its own.

Best theoretical use of location: CNN

Mobile is about local, and I expected the phone apps in particular to use my location to give me results, but only one did. That app was the one I had looked forward to the most, CNN’s Election Center 2010, because I think CNN is pretty smart about mobile development.

Earlier in the week, I had taken the quiz on where I stood politically (I’m not saying, so don’t ask), and allowed it use my location. It looked like there were lots of nice features, but by mid-evening, I couldn’t get it to connect for the rest of the night. CNN’s regular news app worked fine, and its website is nicely optimized on the iPad.

I flipped between CNN, MSNBC and Fox on TV quite a bit to see if there was any reference to mobile, or cross-platform promotion. Turns out, while I was watching, none of them mentioned either their mobile or Web offerings.

News app with most potential: Fox

Like CNN, Fox had a special “America’s Election HQ 2010″ app ($.99), and like CNN’s, it had a ton of potential. While CNN had an issue with functionality, Fox had trouble with the interface. The news section was fine, a typical news feed. The cool stuff — the races, the balance of power sections –  worked very erratically, and took some detective work to figure out.

The “MyHQ” section told me I could add races, but didn’t explain how. I finally realized I could go back to a different section, touch the little star next to certain races and make it a favorite. Whew. The interactive map worked well, once I realized I had to select my state on the side, and couldn’t just zoom in and choose it.

The Fox website is not optimized for the iPad. I counted four “Get the flash player” buttons and two blue boxes showing missing Flash content (damn you, Steve Jobs).

Most walled app: The Wall Street Journal

The firewall in The Wall Street Journal app kept me from seeing much of the Journal’s coverage. “Election Night 2010″ was a subscriber-only option. On the Journal’s site, the live video was in Flash, and thus unavailable.

On the plus side, the Journal’s interactive graphic map of results worked fairly well. It wasn’t perfect, but if you were patient, you could zoom in. Interface issues, apparent in most of the apps, showed up here, too. When I switched between Senate and House races, it zoomed back out to the full U.S. map and I had to zoom back in to local races. This was true on The New York Times site, too.

The always reliable: The New York Times

I feel obligated to mention the New York Times iPad app, since, well, it’s the New York Times, but I’m not sure what to say. A perfectly nice photo gallery showed up twice on the front all night, and at 10 p.m., all the photos were of people voting, and none from the evening of results. In fact, at one point in the evening, the two lead stories were largely duplicates of each other.

The Times tablet-optimized site was a much better experience. The front page graphic wasn’t interactive like it was on a computer, but if you clicked on the link to House, Senate or Governor’s races, you arrived at a nice interactive map.

Best use of streaming: PBS NewsHour

The PBS NewsHour app had a live stream all evening (using UStream), but it frequently dropped, just playing audio. Quality looked great when it played, so I suspect NewsHour’s ambitions overshot the capability of the devices, but I liked that it switched to audio-only rather than stopping altogether.

I applaud those who explored the potential of election night on phones and tablets. You’re helping figure out where we’re headed. But for all that effort, by the end of the night I was tired of how much work it was on mobile, and I went old school.

I set down the phone and the iPad, propped up my feet to watch the laptop and the TV, and waited for results to creep in for the Florida governor’s race.

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