The Times of India* has launched apps for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smart phones, in addition to a tablet version for the iPad. The apps are free downloads, available in app stores of the respective platforms. There is no subscription fee for access to content at this time. The smartphone apps offer standard features allowing readers to access stories classified under different sections, as well as videos and photos.

The iPhone app also allows downloading of complete sections for offline reading. The best part about the apps are that they are free of ads. So how would TOI monetize them? This might be an initial phase and ads will make their way sooner or later. Paid subscriptions are not likely to work in India.

Smart Phone Apps

The interface differs since the apps make use of native UI elements, and so does the terminology at times. For example, one can save articles in the iPad version, while one Favorites them in the iPhone version. A carousel is employed in the Android and BlackBerry version to browse different news sections, while there is no such option in the iPhone or iPad versions. One reason for this heterogeneity might be that each one has been designed by different developers.

The BlackBerry app is developed by Converse Today, while the iPad app is made by Robosoft Technologies, the same company that designed NDTV’s apps. Android and iPhone apps don’t credit any specific app developers. iPhone and BlackBerry apps do not take advantage of push alerts for breaking news. We know these can be irritating for some, but most news apps, including NDTV incorporate these.

Our take on the iPad app:

Interface: The interface is clean, close to a newspaper, with varying number of columns (depending on portrait or landscape mode) featuring news articles, speed news or top stories, in addition to video and photo streams on the home page. The news articles do not show up full screen(some people prefer this to avoid distraction) and a side column featuring the top stories in the particular category accompanies it. The buttons to save story, change the font size and sharing it on social networks or e-mail are integrated with each story, with arrow buttons to switch to the previous or next story. A black bar at the bottom  features buttons for different news sections, and accessing settings or saved stories. This is a redundant element since the header also features a Sections drop-down menu, just next to the back button.

Content: Like other TOI apps, the iPad app is also ad free. Content is constantly updated and the USP of the iPad app is the integration of Speed News. Speed News features as the right most column on the Home page. It is scrollable and can pop out as a separate box. As we reported earlier, Speed News consists of real time, ‘twitter like’ updates from TOI reporters across the country. However, Speed News has little functionality in the app apart from the updates. It doesn’t allow users to filter news by cities or categories.

The app offers content across all categories including City, World, Business, Tech, Cricket, Sports(yes Cricket has been given its ‘due’), Movie reviews, Entertainment, Life & Style and Opinion. Video stream features videos from the group’s news network, Times Now and is also classified into categories. Same goes for photos. I was disappointed by the fact that the app does not offer weather or stock updates, although the iPhone app does in a limited way.

Suggestions

– TOI should take advantage of OS features like push alerts to update users who want them (Yes, these can be turned off).

– To cut distraction, and unnecessary scrolling, a full screen view can be offered in the iPad app. Also removing the black bar at the bottom can improve the app’s appearance.

– Only the iPhone app features stock and bullion information ticker on the right hand side of the header. Why can’t the same be integrated with the iPad app which has more screen real estate? Why not introduce a dedicated ticker for breaking news, weather and stock updates in place of the black bar at the bottom?

– Speed News is a feature that is exclusive to TOI. The iPad is the perfect platform given its dynamic nature. Why not devote a complete section to it? In fact, let the reader customize it according to categories and let him receive push alerts.

– We would prefer a more uniform interface across all platforms. Nomenclature and browsing interface needs to be homogenized.

The Times of India app for the iPad is a good beginning. Although, India is still at a nascent stage when it comes to tablets, news junkies are increasingly embracing them for the sheer usability they offer.

Nikhil adds: We’d also like to see some element of personalization, the way the Zite app for the iPad allows. Zite scans a users twitter and facebook network, identifies tags for stories, and subsequently allows users to like or dislike content, get more news from specific news sources, or for specific tags, and essentially learns more about your news preference from you. The intelligent personlization features make it more useful than other apps. There’s no reason why the Times of India app shouldn’t allow personalization either, given the amount of content generated daily across their network.

*Disclosure: Indiatimes is an advertiser with MediaNama