As the "death of the newspaper" gets continuing coverage (mostly on television), new apps bring the New York Times, USA Today, and now The Wall Street Journal, to your iPhone.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I used to work for the online edition of the Wall Street Journal as a software architect, and I keep in touch with former colleagues who still work there, as well as several other former colleagues who now work at the NY Times.

As an iPhone user whose commute each morning includes a one-hour train ride, I've found that the NYTimes iPhone app is a great way to catch up on the news on the way into work.

The other day, the Wall Street Journal released its own iPhone app. They already had a Blackberry application, but iPhone users had been clamoring for their own custom way to access the Journal from their devices. I downloaded the new app as soon as I heard about its existence. It's pretty cool, offering the features one would expect from an app that provides mobile access to newspaper content. Now I can easily read Walt Mossberg's columns and all the cool All Things Digital articles. There's just one thing: the app's resemblance in terms of layout and organization to the New York Times iPhone app is... uncanny.

Not that I don't like the NYTimes app--I do. I just expected something different from the people at WSJ. Perhaps my expectations of how an app should display newspaper content on a mobile device are skewed by my experience with the NYTimes app. Or perhaps the iPhone SDK only offers a limited set of options for these sorts of applications. Still, there are striking similarities between the two apps:

  • Both start up with the paper's name (in appropriate typeface for each publication) in the center of the screen, with the name moving to the top as soon as the app is fully opened. The Times is white lettering on a black background, the Journal is black lettering on a tan background. (The Times app animates the movement and shrinkage of its name as it changes position.)
  • Both display a toolbar at the bottom of the screen (immediately underneath an ad) with five buttons linking to various sections covered by the app. (For the Times, it's Latest News, Popular, Saved (to retrieve articles you marked for later re-reading), a Search button and a More button to reach a list of more sections; for the Journal, it's What's News, Markets, Editors' Picks, Saved and a More button--sadly, no search.)
  • The screen displayed by pressing the More button in each app looks almost identical: a list of section names preceded by small icons, each of which can be pressed to view content from an individual section. An Edit button in the upper right displays another screen, containing 16 section icons on a black background, any of which can dragged onto the toolbar at the bottom of the screen to replace one of the default buttons (except the More button, which of course you must have in order to access these More/Configure screens). Aside from the section names and the icons, the one major difference here: the Journal displays headings that say More and Configure, while the Times' heading say More Sections and Configure Sections. (I feel a little like David Pogue sarcastically "explaining" how Vista is not ripped off from Mac OS X, it's not I tell you...)

One place the Journal's app shines: it provides links not just to articles but to video and podcasts as well. The first edition of the WSJ app also has email and article "saving"--Times app users had to nag the paper to provide that functionality in a recent app update. However, one thing the Journal's app lacks is enough information in the list of articles displayed on a given screen. The Times app displays both the headline and a brief description, along with a photo if available, while the WSJ app shows just the headline and (sometimes) a photo. Also, the Times app has a Search function while WSJ's does not.

If you cannot see the side-by-side images above comparing the two apps, you can view full-sized versions of them all here.

I still have to ask: why do these apps look so much alike? And what's perhaps more important: is there a hidden danger that they might be confused with each other?

You might say to yourself "no, don't be ridiculous, it should be obvious which is which." Given the known slants of each publication, it probably should be. But imagine waking up groggy one morning, picking up your iPhone and going into shock as you ask yourself why Peggy Noonan is suddenly calling Obama our greatest president ever, slowly realizing as your eyes unblur that you're actually reading Maureen Dowd. (I'm sure there's a reverse scenario to complement that one.)

Looking for an alternative to apps provided by these long-lived journalistic institutions, I decided to download the USA Today iPhone app to see if they did things any differently.

Sure enough, as one might expect from an upstart, they do. In fact, it appears they use virtually every UI widget in the iPhone application development arsenal. The app opens much like the other two described here, with the words "USA Today" emblazoned in the middle of the screen, followed by a main screen displaying headlines. There are five buttons in a toolbar at the bottom of the screen once again, but they don't appear to be configurable anywhere in the app. USAToday's app substitutes enhanced navigation tricks for configurability.

However, in addition to the toolbar buttons, other widgets like horizontal scrolling menus are used to present subcategories. The toolbar buttons represent broad areas like Headlines, Scores and Weather, and supplemental widgets display appropriate subcategories: for Headlines, you see Top News, Money, Tech, etc. For Scores, you see NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, etc. For Weather, an "accordion" widget allows vertical selection of weather for your current location, weather for other "favorite" locations, and national weather maps. Similarly, under Pictures, the accordion widget displays sets of thumbnails for categories like Day in Pictures, Day in Sports, Week in Weather, etc. (Pictures are displayed using the typical iPhone photo album paradigm, using both arrow keys and cover flow "flicking" for navigation within a set of photos. The captions for photos can be displayed or hidden with the press of a button.)

But wait, there's more! :-) Within each subcategory (e.g., Headlines-->Tech), you can choose a section (e.g., "Products") as the default. If you're beginning to think that this sounds as deeply nested as Amazon's ill-fated (and oft-parodied) home page of multi-layered tabs that looked like the steps of a Mayan pyramid... perhaps you're right.

There's a lot more flashy stuff in the USA Today app. Which is exactly what you'd expect from USA Today, which made its name as a bold colorful alternative to stodgy monochrome publications like the Journal and the Times. Some of it is just flash, while some of it serves a useful purpose, presenting content in an well-structured, navigable fashion. While I wouldn't want to see the Times or the Journal mimicking USA Today's look-and-feel, they could learn a thing or two from some of the advanced techniques that USA Today employed, to make each of their apps a little more distinctive. Perhaps I'm being hypercritical, in that there are only a certain number of ways to present this kind of information, meaning that there are bound to be similarities between these apps. Nonetheless, in all of these apps there is naturally room for improvement, and some of that improvement can take the form of thinking outside the box, to offer unique branded presentations worthy of each publication.