November 22, 2010

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set off a minor Twitter furor earlier this month when he offhandedly opined that the iPad was “not mobile.” Zuckerberg quickly softened the statement clarifying the iPad was just not as mobile as a smart phone.

He was right in the first place.

This occurred to me while, of all things, using the “60 Minutes” iPad app last week. For a fan of the show the tablet experience is a good one. It offers recent clips, iPad-only highlights, as well as a searchable archive. If you were so inclined, it would be easy to spend an hour just browsing through old interviews with a current or former president.

What the “60 Minutes” experience on the iPad is not, however, is mobile. And neither are most other major media apps on Apple’s tablet. And, perhaps to their credit they are not trying to be.

Watching Andy Rooney discuss his sleeping habits is definitely not the type of content that would appeal to an on-the-go smart phone owner. Nor does “60 Minutes” need to know my exact GPS coordinates in order to serve up Lara Logan’s interview with a Medal of Honor winner. In both cases, the more relaxed pace of a tablet session is a much better fit.

And that is just as well. Early studies show that iPad use is mostly confined to the home, the device is being shared among members of the household, and activity peaks in the evenings and weekends. In other words: leisure time, not mobile time.

Almost every media app for the iPad fits this mold: designed for “lean-back” consumption, not the active information-seeking behavior of a smart phone user.

Take NPR’s iPad app, one of my favorites. The network provides top news stories, a playlist of radio reports, hourly newscast updates, instant access to programs on-demand and live streams of almost every NPR station in the country. This is not an app you open for 30 seconds to check traffic or the weather.

Granted, I do often open ESPN ScoreCenterXL to find a quick box score. But, ESPN is a master of the multi-platform approach and its iPad app is dominated by stories, photos and videos. While I might spend 30 seconds in the iPhone app, I may spend five or 10 minutes browsing the iPad version.

This, in part, is why The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others see dollar signs attached to tablets in the guise of paid subscriptions. Tablets, more than the Web or the smart phone, are print-like. It has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with how people interact with the medium.

So, yes, the iPad is portable, but mobility does not define it. Likewise the smart phone can be a time-waster (Angry Birds?) but relaxation does not define it.

I have begun thinking about the platforms this way: Smart phones are about location, and tablets are about leisure. Publishers looking to build on either device need to realize these two factors overlap, but it is their differences that make them useful. To fully serve and engage an audience, an app needs to target one distinctive strength — either location or leisure — and make the content and experience fit that use.

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