It was probably inevitable: The New York Times announced Tuesday it will produce one-sentence stories and other content on various topics for the Apple Watch, the day the device first goes on sale on April 24.
The Times was also early to appear with its content on both the iPhone and iPad. Still, there's something decidedly different this time -- even a little scary to some -- about producing short text, photos and other content for the small Apple Watches that come in just 38mm and 42mm sizes. Analysts said it's inevitable that Times content will eventually appear on Android Wear and other smartwatch OSes -- along with advertisements.
"This sounds like truly snack-sized information," said Kevin Burden, an analyst at 451 Research. "When I first heard of this, I thought, 'You don't even get just enough information to be dangerous anymore....' I'm not sure how this is going to catch on."
Others reacted with less concern, partly because the content will be coming from a highly-regarded news source that first began as a print publication in 1851. A one-sentence story isn't really much different than a text message or a short tweet via Twitter, some pundits argued. Remember, they said, the transition from print to digital was confusing to many at first, followed by the move from a large desktop display to a laptop to a smaller smartphone or tablet. Almost every news junkie with a smartphone has squinted through a long story on it now and then, though they might have preferred a larger format.
'All the news that's fit to print' gets a new mission
The Times said it has taken into account the small watch form factor, as well as the delicate task of delivering news in tidbits. A free app for Apple Watch will serve as an extension of NYTimes on the iPhone, according to Linda Zebian, director of corporate communications for The Times.
"One-sentence stories are accompanied by The Times' award-winning photography and short, bulleted summaries," she said via email.
Using Handoff, an Apple feature available with iOS 8 since last fall, it will be possible to continue reading any story on the Apple Watch or a person's iPhone or iPad, and users can tap "Save for Later" to build a personal reading list, Zebian said. The Times didn't describe whether or how it plans to allow Watch users to see the same stories on Apple's desktops or laptops, although that seems likely.
Zebian also said that the paper's breaking news alerts, now hitting 15 million devices, will extend to Apple Watch. Editors on three continents are dedicated to providing content to mobile apps, including the Apple Watch, 24 hours a day.
As an indication of how involved the preparations for smartwatches have been, the Times ambitiously called its Watch entries a "new form of storytelling to help readers catch up in seconds on Apple Watch." There will be content on business, politics, science, tech and the arts, among other topics.
Portable journalism explained
"One-sentence stories are a first for us," Andrew Phelps, senior product manager for the Times, explained via email when asked about the plans by Computerworld. "We created them exclusively for Apple Watch, but they turn out to be a highly portable form of journalism. We will explore whether to adapt this approach for other platforms [such as Android Wear] in the future where it makes sense."
Phelps said that the content will come from NYTimes.com and mobile apps. "They are the same stories, but we've refashioned them as one-sentence stories to accommodate the device's small screen."
He said that a "cross-functional team" comprising journalists, engineers and a designer worked together to create the product, calling it "an unusual challenge, even for the most skillful headline writers."
To be sure, the Times will compete against other bite-sized news and feature headlines from other sources already appearing on watches from Samsung, Motorola and more. That means the Times will need to differentiate its content with intriguing photos, unusual fonts and in other ways. While it might be possible to show on a single Apple Watch display a new dinner entrée from another country, there won't probably be room for a full recipe, Burden speculated.
Explaining topics like nuclear disarmament negotiations could pose an even more difficult challenge.
"We're designing the app to provide a mix of the news of the moment, sad or happy, hard or soft," Phelps said. "That's not to say we won't also have a bit more fun, too. But the Times always will bring the most important stories front and center. Our challenge is making those stories meaningful on a small screen."
The challenge is indeed far-reaching. "This idea gets to social issues more than technology," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "What is it that users will want? I would want to read the headlines and click through if a story is of interest, but others may not. That doesn't seem to bother many, [but] it is indicative of the often superficial understanding of many things in our society and their broader implications."
Gold and others said the Times, with a long tradition for in-depth coverage of complex topics, will probably be able to pull off its entry into smartwatches. One-sentence coverage can eventually, in some way, maybe, lead to longer coverage and, hopefully, reader insight. Well, sort of.
"When it's coming from a serious news source, these one-sentence stories will have a more serious tone than Twitter," predicted Marilou Johnson, a professor in the school of media arts and design at James Madison University. "The key is giving the serious news consumer a mechanism to save for later, more in-depth reading and the ability to hand it off to a larger device to immediately read the full story. "
Perhaps it will come as a surprise that the Times built its Apple Watch concept without a lot of audience research partly because the market for smartwatches is so new, Phelps said.
"More importantly, there was not a lot of time," he said. "We decided to have an app ready for Day 1 of the Watch, so we relied on our own product design instincts to build this app. Once the Watch is available to consumers, we'll study the way our readers use and react to it. And we'll almost certainly refine things as we go."
Content 'anywhere eyeballs are'
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said all the big media brands, including the Times, "are trying to be everywhere and anywhere that eyeballs are" including in cars, on highway billboards, on TVs, desktops, tablets, smartphones and now smartwatches.
"Their goal is to have you touch the story on the Watch and direct it to the smartphone or wherever," he said. "They do this because they know that being out of sight is out of mind." Advertising will definitely follow, but not at first, he said.
Burden first experienced short-form content back in 2004 on a smartwatch running SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) developed by Microsoft. The watches, from several watch makers, were discontinued in 2008, but Microsoft gleaned early insight into user needs.
SPOT smartwatches received data from various websites over a free FM radio signal, Burden recalled. "You could get news or sports score in little bite-sized bits and there was no place-shifting to a larger device. It actually created more work for you because it gave you just enough information to make you curious, yet made you mad that you couldn't get the whole story."
If the Times smartwatch app produces anything like Burden's experience with the SPOT device, he won't be too thrilled. Content will be king, as it is everywhere else in the computer era.
"All the news I got on the SPOT device tended to be about homeland security that Microsoft got from partner news outlets or wires," Burden said. "I used to call it the terrorist watch because 90% of the stories that I came across had to do with terrorism.... It made you feel you were missing out on something."
Ryan Reith, an analyst for IDC, said the entire experience of using a smartwatch, even one made by Apple, to get news tips could fall flat, even when done by the Times.
"If the goal of scrolling through headlines [on the smart watch] is to find interesting news and if the way to get to the last mile is pulling out your smartphone [to read the fuller story], then you'll quickly get tired of the middle man," he said. "The smartphone is already so personal that most people don't mind carrying it in their hand. Just look at anyone you pass walking down the street."