IDG's mobile app incubator

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Ulla McGee is VP-business development at International Data Group's Macworld and PCWorld. She oversees the creation of mobile websites compatible with devices such as smartphones or Apple's iPad. The development of these websites is critical not only to McGee's brands but to IDG as a whole, because Macworld functions as a laboratory, experimenting with what works and what doesn't for mobile websites and applications. In an interview with Digital Directions, McGee discussed her philosophy in developing these mobile products for IDG.

Digital Directions: What were your first steps in developing mobile applications?

McGee: The first thing we did was develop mobile-friendly websites. We found that a lot of users are using their phones to get news from our site, and our site wasn't really a friend to those kinds of browsers. So we worked with a third party to develop a stripped-down version of our site so that smartphone users could access our site and read our news and our blogs. Next, we created in-house a WebKit-friendly version of our website. A WebKit version is used by Android phones from iPhones and Palm Pre. It's a much more sophisticated mobile browser, but it's not like a standard Web browser either. It's a second version of our site that can accommodate those kinds of browsers that do have some flexibility in terms of displaying images and navigation.

Digital Directions: Tell us about your iPhone apps?

McGee: We have right now three iPhone applications out right now. One is an iPhone application that [delivers] constantly updated [news] that we sell for $1.99. Then we have two other applications that we have sold as books in the past and have converted them to sell as stand-alone applications. One is an iPhone superguide and the other is a digital photography superguide.

Digital Directions: And what are you doing for the iPad?

McGee: You can read Macworld on your iPad via the Zinio app. In addition to that, we're about three months away from launching our own iPad app that we're actually building in-house with a third-party developer. We're launching that under the Macworld brand, but the way we're building it and the way we've structured the deal with the developer is that we are going to be able to use the code for all of the other IDG publications. They can then reuse the code and make the additional changes. We'll add a sort of cookbook with it, and then one of the other IDG publishers can create their own iPad app. It's going to be a best-of-both-worlds app. On the one hand, we do appreciate people who say I just want to see the exact same thing as the magazine on my iPad; but then, at the same time, we think there are people who are interested in the visual and tactile experience of the iPad and want to get more than just the magazine in electronic format. It's going to be a middle path between a magazine and the website where it's very interactive, very tactile, very visual—but sort of have more features that are Webby features like Twitter feeds or video.

Digital Directions: How are you working with the third party designing the iPad app?

McGee: We decided we wanted to have a third party build this for us. And then they're going to actually do training for our internal development team so that, once the app is built and launched, there's going to be a code walk-through and some training so that we can then take it in-house. If people want to make changes to it, or improvements or updates, the plan is to have all of that in-house at that point. But at the start, we'll work with a third party that has experience with applications.

Digital Directions: How many users visiting your websites are using mobile devices?

McGee: It's just shy of 10%.

Digital Directions: How are you handling the advertising for this 10%?

McGee: What we found so far [is that] it's been more of a sponsorship-based deal. When we did not have a sponsor and we used ad networks, the revenue was fairly small. The CPMs on the ad networks were a race to the bottom. But the sponsorship model works pretty well. The click-through rates on average [are] higher than they are on our website.

Digital Directions: It seems that you are acting as something of a laboratory for the rest of IDG?

McGee: What we've learned when we had to go from print to online is that we don't just put the magazine online. Online has different user requirements, different user needs. There are different functionalities you can take advantage of. We've taken that learning and are now applying it to mobile devices. So again it's not, “Let's just put the magazine on the iPad.” We really need to make sure it's unique to the device that people are using. And one thing that I'm finding out: It's a ton of work. It really takes a ton of work to create [mobile apps]. It's almost like creating a new website if you want to do it right. Even though we're outsourcing the actual coding, it still requires a lot of work from our design team, our editorial team, because these are the people who know our users the best, so they are very involved in making decisions on the branding and the information architecture. It makes quite a lot of sense to have a business like Macworld do the heavy lifting and then have the other business units take advantage of what we learned.

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