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Tablets spur news aggregating mobile apps

Content aggregators not new, but increasing mobile device ownership, especially tablets, spurring demand for apps with similar functionality, which analysts say won't be short-lived.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Online news content reading and aggregating tools are not entirely new to the market, but thanks to growing mobile device ubiquity, particularly tablets, there has been emerging of late a tidal wave of consumer demand for content aggregating apps.

These apps boast a richer reading experience with magazine-type layouts and visuals, and social media integration, and their popularity is unlikely to be short-lived as companies keep tabs on and tap this emerging revenue opportunity, according to analysts.

Michael Kauh, a Singapore-based research analyst at Canalys, said he expects to see more content aggregator mobile apps in the near future, what with the market for mobile devices increasing and consumers more accepting of mobile devices armed with large screen sizes such as iPads.

In an e-mail interview, Kauh noted that these aggregator apps appeal a lot to consumers because they have an improved user experience, bringing in a "nice visual flow and layout that maximizes the smartphone or tablet's real estate".

Another attraction is social media integration, he noted. "We have seen in the past how effective social media integration has been across all categories of mobile apps. This case is no different."

Tim Renowden, analyst, consumer impact technology, media and broadcast, at Ovum, concurred. There is "certainly a trend toward richer news reading mobile apps", spurred by the emergence of tablets that can deliver a more "magazine-like" reading experience as compared to older RSS readers, said the Australian-based analyst. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) readers are Web-based software that collates content--in the format of RSS feeds--from various sources including blogs and news sites.

He also predicted that there will be "a lot of activity" over the next couple of years, considering interest in news reader and aggregator apps from Web giants, publishers and startups alike.

Tablet boom responsible
According to Renowden, the recent surge in the popularity for content aggregator apps--and companies keen to tap it--can be almost singlehandedly attributed to one catalyst that is "tablet computing boom".

Tablets have the combination of screen size, touchscreen support and processing power, all of which have encouraged app developers to experiment with new ways of delivering news content and "refining the experience to take advantage of the specific capabilities of tablets", he explained. For instance, these tablet-optimized apps aim to provide a better reading experience than a Web browser by automatically reformatting the text and images, while at the same time retain the social features of sharing and discovery that people are used to when online.

Renowden said while these mobile apps are not new since they share same functionality of the RSS reader, they are actually extend the concept in two ways--one, by making the reading experience more pleasant and two, making it easier to find and share good-quality content.

Kauh similarly pointed out that although RSS readers have been "around for ages", they have never taken off much in the non-tech consumer space. But now with the era of smartphones and tablets, there is now a "new platform" and opportunity for companies to generate revenue.

Whichever way a company decides to monetize this trend, Kuah noted that the underlying strategy is to get the app widely adopted among users. "With greater adoption, they will have a better chance and more opportunities to expand their scope of ways to becoming profitable, be it with advertising, subscription or premium membership," he said.

Jayesh Easwaramony, vice president, ICT practice, Asia-Pacific, Frost & Sullivan, said several companies are already or expected to jump on the bandwagon to create content aggregator mobile apps, because it is "point-in-time need that they are serving".

But it will soon become a "scale game", meaning only aggregators will the ability to collect a massive volume of content will be successful, he added.

No flash in the pan
Easwaramony noted that another reason why these apps have seen their usage spike is the extent of customization being offered, as opposed to RSS readers.

"News reader apps are created to be customized, and this maximizes the user experience on mobile devices. Mobile users value that customization."

The trend of mobile content aggregators also points to stage of market evolution that is being driven by an increase consumer sophistication and news consumption, he said.

News content in all its forms, ranging from current affairs to entertainment, is "by far the most commonly consumed content on the Web" and today, that readership is shifting to mobile devices. Therefore news reading apps are "not revolutionary but an evolution", Easwaramony pointed out, when asked if the trend--and demand--will be short-lived.

For Ovum's Renowden, the rise of content aggregator apps is part of a broader trend in the publishing industry toward providing digital content on touchscreen devices. "We've seen a lot of professional publishers focusing on selling digital editions of established print magazines, and consumer adoption is finally starting to pick up."

And with tablet adoption becoming mainstream, it becomes a "very competitive space" as content aggregators as well as mobile editions of publications jostle for users, he highlighted.

Content aggregators have received much media attention in recent months. One of them, Flipboard, which originally started out with an iPad application in 2010, reportedly received 1 million downloads of its iPhone app within a week it was released on Dec. 7 this year. Another one, Zite was acquired by news giant CNN in August last year.

In addition, Web giants have also joined the fray, with Yahoo launching Livestand in November, and Google setting up Currents on Dec. 9.

A Google spokesperson said in an e-mail statement that the reason behind Currents was to give users a "beautiful and intuitive way to browse and read content from their favorite Web sites on their mobile devices", as well as give publishers a platform to showcase their content.

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