The Daily has reached the end of its life: as News Corp. splits in two, its losses, which might have been manageable within the current behemoth, would have loomed far too large in the smaller spinoff.
The news is not particularly surprising, but it would be wrong to simply dismiss it as a Murdoch folly which holds few lessons for anybody else. Rather, I think that The Daily has taught us all an important lesson — which is that tablets in general, and the iPad in particular, are actually much less powerful and revolutionary than many of us had hoped. Specifically, far from being able to offer richer content than can be found on the web, they actually find themselves crippled in unexpected ways.
News apps, it has become clear, are unwieldy and clunky things. Every issue of a new publication has to be downloaded in full before it can be opened; this takes a surprisingly long time, even over a pretty fast wifi connection. That’s one reason why web apps can be superior to native apps: no one would dream of forcing people to download a whole website before they could view a single page.
On top of that, the iPad’s native architecture is severely constrained in many ways. Look at any publication you’re reading in an iPad app, and search for a story. Oh, wait — you can’t: search is basically impossible within iPad apps, which at heart are little more than heavy PDF files, weighed down with multimedia bells and whistles. Navigation is always difficult and unintuitive, and pages are never remotely as dynamic as what we’ve become used to on the web. This wasn’t The Daily’s fault. Again, take any native iPad publication at all. Read to the end of a story, and then see how many headlines you can click on: which stories are you being given the choice to read next? The answer is probably none, and again the reason for that is built deep into the architecture of the iPad, and of other tablets too.
When the iPad was first announced, there were lots of dreams about what it could achieve, and how rich its content could be. But in hindsight, it’s notable how many of the dreamers came from the world of print. Web people tended to be much less excited about the iPad than print people were, maybe because they knew they already had something better. The web, for instance, doesn’t need to traffic in discrete “issues” — if you subscribe to the New York Times, you can read any story you like, going back decades. Whereas if you subscribe to a publication on a tablet, you can read only one issue at a time.
I’m reminded, here, a bit of Apple’s iOS Maps debacle. Compared to old-fashioned static maps, Apple’s maps are amazing. They also come with clever 3D views: an impressive bit of technological gimmickry which doesn’t add a huge amount of real value. But while Apple was working on rendering technology, Google was incrementally improving its own maps in much more useful ways, employing a huge team to add vast amounts of rich data every day. The result was that by the time Apple’s maps launched, they were inferior in most ways to Google’s alternative.
Similarly, when the iPad launched, it allowed people to do things they could never do with a print publication: watch videos, say. But at the same time the experience was still inferior to what you could get on the web, which iterates and improves incrementally every day. The iPad then stayed still — the technology behind iPad publications is basically the same as it was two years ago — even as the web, in its manner, predictably got better and better. No iPad publication is remotely as innovative or as fun to read as, say, BuzzFeed, because BuzzFeed has coders who can do very clever things with their chosen platform, and iPad publications don’t. If you’re publishing on the iPad, you’re basically a designer rather than a coder, and you’re far more limited in what you can do. This kind of thing, for instance, works OK in Safari for iPad, but you won’t find it in a downloaded publication.