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MWF’s Stories Unbound app – a world’s first?

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By Kaye Blum

Don't be afraid of the sadness

An image from my Ambient Literature series.

Researching emerging technologies as part of my Masters/PhD can really suck sometimes. Technology changes at such a rapid pace, it’s a challenge to stay on top of it. So ideas formulated and documented but not yet developed can very easily get pipped to the post by those with greater means (read: ‘money for development’).

This happened to me not so long ago as I was perusing the Melbourne Writers Festival program in search of sessions addressing new technologies. A tiny little article on page 26 titled iPhone apps announced two freebies. One was the “official MWF2011 app” which enables ticket purchase and program browsing directly from an iPhone. The other was called Stories Unbound, which the article claimed as “the world’s first social platform for stories”, enabling readers to access geo-tagged stories and writers to publish their own stories.

A loud sigh escaped when I read about the second app. It sounded quite similar to the one I have planned as part of my creative project. I headed straight to the iTunes store to check them out. I found the MWF2011 app (which proved extremely useful throughout the festival). But I couldn’t find the Stories Unbound app anywhere. This was on July 31. I posted a comment on MWF’s Facebook page enquiring about it, but got no reply. I signed up to their Twitter feed to watch for future announcements.

It wasn’t until 5th September, the day after the festival finished, that I stumbled upon an article on The Guardian’s technology blog reviewing 10 new apps, including Stories Unbound.

So I checked iTunes and there it was. The published release date was 31st August – six days into the festival and long after I’d given up on it actually existing at all. I searched back through the MWF Twitter feed to see if I’d missed an announcement, but found nothing. Then I went through my emails and found buried at the bottom of the Day 9 e-news bulletin (2nd September, two days before the festival’s end) a little news item titled Stories Unbound… Forever? It introduced the app as “the world’s first social-media platform for writing, publishing and of course, reading stories.”

Dammit I must have missed that article altogether. Or possibly didn’t even open the email.

Ironically, the Stories Unbound app was created by JWT Melbourne, an ad agency I’d done a long freelance stint at quite a few years ago. Obviously there must have been major delays in getting the app launched in time for the festival, which is a real shame.

It’s an interesting claim that Stories Unbound is a “world’s first”. I conducted extensive research last year to compile a list of locative media poetics and found projects such as textopia (Løvlie 2009), a mobile app which enabled the user to walk through a city and access literary texts relevant to certain places; Ourplace (Hamilton 2009) which converged locative media and online participation; and Neighborhoodnarratives (Iversen 2009), which used mobiles and the web to produce stories reflecting a particular city or neighbourhood. But these are not the only ones. I’m finding more all the time.

The advantage of finding MWF’s Stories Unbound app is that it’s not just research, it has been released to the big wide world and it’s actually local, unlike other publicly released apps which rely on a location across the globe to activate. So I can give this one a thorough road-test. Here goes…

As a reader, I have several options on how to choose a story. I can enter a title or author into the search box; or select the Search icon at the bottom for options such as searching by most popular, most recent, nearest me. Or I can filter by genre or writer. A quick way to find stories about my current location is via the pin icon, which brings up a Google map with book symbols denoting different stories. There’s also a list icon which enables you to scroll through story titles. Readers can rate stories out of five stars and share them via Facebook or Twitter, but can’t leave comments.

To write and upload a story via the app is relatively easy, reflecting a well-designed user interface (UI). A character count keeps tabs on the 50 character limit for the title and 4000 character limit for the body of the story. The only drawback: entering a story that’s a couple of hundred words or longer. A 4000 character limit is around 700-800 words – a decent length for a short story. But who wants to spend hours tapping in 4000 characters with one finger? Not me. I’d prefer to touch-type on my laptop and upload it from there. So I go to the Stories Unbound website to see if that’s possible.

From my laptop I discover lots of issues with the website’s UI and I can’t seem to upload my story. I switch from Chrome to Safari – same deal, so it’s not a browser issue. After a few hours of fiddling, it seems several scroll and submit buttons fall below the fold, which I can’t access on my laptop even though I have the screen open as wide and long as I can get it. Frustrated, I abandon my mission and decide to try again the next day when I can access a bigger computer screen to see if that resolves the issue.

It does. Well, most of the UI issues, anyway. I’m able to upload my story, but sorting out the location proves difficult.

Curiously, the world map on the website isn’t a Google map and the country and city names aren’t shown. So dragging and dropping the book icon becomes a little like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I tried going back into the app to see if I could modify the location with the more detailed Google map, but edits aren’t possible from the app – you can only edit from the website. So I tried again on the computer, opening a Google map to try matching up roughly where Frankfurt might be in the great black land mass of the Stories Unbound map. I’ve almost got it, but it’s still not accurate and it took ages.

There are a few other glitches with uploading from the website, such as selecting the genre. I did this several times, trying travel, then memoir, but it kept defaulting back to Children and Young Adults.

Overall, it was a great experience to try it and I really like the app. I just hope they can get the UI sorted for website access via a laptop to encourage a few longer stories to be uploaded. In terms of how it compares to the app I’m developing, there are several key differences. To find out what they are, keep an eye out for future posts J. And if you find any similar apps, please be kind and share – just leave a comment.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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A newbie’s quick road-test of The Age newspaper’s iPad app

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By Kaye Blum

Attending yesterday’s Cool New Toys session at MWF2011 has provoked further reflection on some of the comments that were made by the audience, including myself, regarding Fairfax Media’s newspaper apps for tablets.

I only recently bought an iPad2 and have barely had the chance to give it a thorough road-test. I did, however, download the free app for The Age from iTunes. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was very pleasantly surprised. With sponsorship from Telstra, they’re offering a free trial (for a limited time) of the daily plus weekend editions and most of the supplements. There’s no indication of how long the free trial lasts or when users will be asked to subscribe, so I’m making the most of it and am thoroughly enjoying the experience as an iPad newbie.

I’ve never been a daily newspaper reader – too time-poor, broadsheets too big and difficult to read on a packed peak-hour train – but I do love browsing the weekend editions. When I’m living in Melbourne, I also buy The Age on Thursday for the Green Guide, an excellent supplement with a critical guide to the week’s television programs; and the EG (Entertainment Guide) in Friday’s paper which provides a comprehensive listing of all the live music gigs and other interesting happenings in Melbourne for the week.

I was impressed to find both supplements provided in the iPad app. However, the Green Guide doesn’t provide the full TV guide that comes in the printed version, which is disappointing. Yet the EG provides a full gig guide listing as per the print version. As a live music fan, this really got me in.

I’ve used The Age app the most often out of the 20-odd apps I downloaded in my first week with an iPad. The interface is reasonably intuitive; I love the scroll and swipe format and that I don’t need my glasses to read the text. I appreciate the occasional video content added to a story which is relevant and enhancing rather than superfluous and unnecessary. I also like that I don’t have to go to the shop to buy the paper and that I don’t have to deal with a broadsheet blowing in the wind or taking up too much space on the coffee table. And no more inky fingers. The advertising is minimal and unobtrusive (so far). Then there’s the whole environmental can of worms of not using paper; although I’ve raised the issue of energy consumption for the production of e-books at previous conferences and there doesn’t seem to be a cut-and-dry comparison of the environmental impacts of e-publishing that I’m aware of – I guess it’s still early days.

So, at yesterday’s Cool New Toys session, I expressed my enthusiasm for The Age app and asked Stephen Hutcheon, tablet editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (sister publication of The Age), how they managed the formatting process from print to app on a daily basis. He said they’d retrained some of their print designers and they work from 6pm until 2am re-formatting the print content into the interactive version for the app.

Another audience member completely disagreed with my enthusiasm, stating that the app didn’t seem to have all the content of the paper version and was not updated as quickly as the website. So in his view, as a news source, it was disappointing and he was not interested in subscribing. In my view, the app isn’t meant to be the kind of instant news source that the web delivers. Tablets are a ‘lean-back’ device (as opposed to leaning forward to view and interact with a computer). This term was used by a panelist yesterday, but I first heard interactive media specialist Jennifer Wilson use it several years ago at a new media conference in Byron Bay.

I’m using my tablet on the couch and in bed. I don’t use it for writing – the keys are too sensitive; the return key is where the colon key should be which I keep hitting by mistake. I can’t type fast enough on it. I was hoping it would replace my notebook in lectures but I’m not sure I can master touch-typing on it, so for now I use it mainly for reading. And I love it for just that. Any serious research or work can be done much quicker on my laptop, with two hands. For now, my iPad is a ‘one-hand’ device: tap, touch, swipe. My other hand is free to sip my cup of tea. As William Powers said yesterday, it’s difficult to multi-task on the tablet and that actually allows us to focus more on the material we’re reading. I see that as a real plus for my easily distracted attention-span.

Today I’ve revisited The Age iPad app with a more critical eye. I’ve chosen an article from the Daily Edition, Editor’s Choice. Two taps and I’m there. The article is from the Good Weekend supplement and is titled The Old Spice man cometh. Written by Bernard Lagan, it’s a feature article and interview with the video director of last year’s viral marketing sensation for Old Spice, Tom Kuntz. At the top of the article is video footage – a snappy show-reel of Kuntz’s most prolific commercials, including the Old Spice man ad; another award-winner, the Cadbury Eyebrows ad; and a few I haven’t seen before. Excellent – I get to watch these entertaining clips in crisp digital quality without having to leave the app.

There are four photographs accompanying the article. Three are stills from some of the video clips, the other is a shot of Kuntz on set filming his latest ad. They’re reasonably small (about 3x4cm) and I want to see a larger version of the Kuntz image, which is quite an interesting but busy location shot. I tap the screen hoping it will enlarge. It doesn’t. Disappointing. Tablets provide a stunning platform for good photography so it’s a shame it isn’t enhanced in this format. But I guess there’s only so much a small team of designers can do to turn a daily paper into an app overnight.

In the article, Kuntz’s website is mentioned but there’s no hyperlink. I’m assuming this is an editorial decision to prevent readers from leaving the app. If I want to check out his website I’ll have to jot down the URL (or copy and paste it into a memo) and check it out later. It’s probably a good thing – I’m not distracted from the article, I keep my focus.

At the end of the article there’s no ability for readers to leave a comment. This was a point raised at the panel session yesterday by an audience member. But it seems this is another feature that newspapers are choosing to leave to the web. The iPad app enables me to share the article via email, on Twitter or Facebook and I can even add it to a list of my saved articles which is easily accessible back on the main menu. Is this enough? It is for me.

Do I think it’s worth a subscription fee? Absolutely. The reading experience is enhanced and I will actually consume more content in this format than if I had to go out and buy the printed edition.  So now I’m going back to bed to enjoy reading the weekend papers on my iPad, without the inky fingers.

Have you road-tested any newspaper apps on a tablet device? Let me know what you think.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Written by Kaye Blum

August 27, 2011 at 7:01 am

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