AP’s iPhone App: White Elephant

White Elephant: A possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to the owner. (Random House Dictionary)

Today, AP debuted its AP Stylebook iPhone app.

According to the press release. “AP Stylebook fans have been asking for a mobile application so they can have style guidance wherever they go. Journalists never know when they will need to run out the door to chase a story, so as long as they have an iPhone in their pockets when they go, the Stylebook can go with them.”

…Which indicates the strategy here: The AP Stylebook iphone app is basically an app as e-book. Which almost explains its exhorbitant price: $28.99.

Yep, that’s right: $28.99 for an iPhone app. Seriously.

Beyond displaying the text of the AP Stylebook 2009, this app adds a little extra functionality: “The 2009 AP Stylebook app features searchable listings for the main, sports, business and punctuation sections, along with the ability to add custom entries and personalized notes on AP listings. Stylebook app users are able to mark any entry as a favorite for easy access.”

…In other words, similar with what you could do with this book on a Kindle. Only AP doesn’t offer a Kindle edition of the Stylebook.

AP does offer online Stylebook subscriptions: $25/year for an individual, with cheaper bulk pricing available for organizations. Which means that the iPhone app is more costly than an online subscription. So why wouldn’t iPhone users buy an online subscription instead and access it through the mobile Safari browser?

Here’s another thing baffles me: Why sell an app that’s basically a standalone e-book? Why not offer a free app with some free content/service that also can allow paying subscribers to log in from their phone and have a mobile-optimized experience? It seems to me that AP is reinventing the wheel with this app, missing obvious opportunities to grow its Stylebook market, and positioning this product poorly through ludicrous pricing.

It gets worse… but it could get better too…

USABILITY HURDLES

I own an iPhone, and I use it a lot. Typing and editing on this device is a frustrating chore. Given the difficulties of typing on an iPhone keypad, who would want to do any copyediting on the iPhone? It seems to me that most news professionals would be writing or editing on a computer. They wouldn’t actually write or edit stories on the iphone.

However, some reporters may file brief updates or field reports via iPhone. And they may want these to be stylistically correct — if the updates are being published live, without further editing.

In this case, there’s a usability hurdle: you can’t run two apps at once on an iPhone. So in order to check something in the Stylebook app you’d have to:

  1. Save your work
  2. Close your writing app
  3. Open the Stylebook app
  4. Look up the answer to your question
  5. Copy the relevant info (or just remember it)
  6. Close the Stylebook app
  7. Reopen your writing/editing app
  8. Put the AP info to use.

That process is so clunky as to be deeply impractical. Especially if you’re covering fast-breaking news in the field.

HOW AP COULD DO BETTER

I’m not trashing the mobile app-as-ebook concept. It can be useful, especially for reference material. And it makes sense for how-to content that is periodically updated.

But in order to justify a price that drastically exceeds the print edition ($18.95 for journos, cheaper for member papers and college bookstores, even cheaper to buy it used online), a mobile app must offer more functionality than just taking notes, bookmarking items, and making custom entries.

AP completely missed the mark on this one. It’s yet another example of how badly this news behemoth really just doesn’t get online or mobile media. It’s like they’re not even trying. I’d be surprised if more than a handful of mainstream journos who just got their first iPhone and think this sounds like an appropriate professional tool would  buy this. And I suspect those that do will quickly regret it.

Fortunately, AP has room to redeem itself on this. It could:

  1. Rework the app to make it an access tool for paying online subscribers.
  2. Re-release it as a free app. (Maybe give a year’s subscription to the suckers who bought the pricey app.)
  3. Offer a “try before you buy” demo — maybe five free searches, so people can get a feel for the user experience.
  4. Include a “subscribe to Stylebook” option prominently in the free app. to make it easy for people to buy after they try.
  5. Offer some free content with the free app. (500 most common stylebook queries, etc.), as well as a daily tip or other fresh content. In other words, PROVE that the Stylebook is, in fact, relevant and useful.
  6. Make sure the free app works with bulk (corporate) accounts, not just individual subscriptions.
  7. Gather data from the free searches about what kinds of terms they might want to include in future Stylebook editions.
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