iPad / Tech Talk

The Optimist iPad app: College media app could deliver more using device's capabilities

As soon as the iPad was announced, Abilene Christian University was promising that The Optimist, the student newspaper at ACU, would have the first college news media iPad app.

A team of faculty and student researchers and developers from multiple departments at the university plan to have the Optimist ready for the iPad by the end of March. Optimist editors plan to employ the new platform to deliver a more converged form of media to the ACU community in addition to the print, online and iPhone app versions of the Optimist.

Sure enough, Dan Reimold reports at College Media Matters, the Optimist app is now available for download.

Here’s a video from ACU featuring faculty and student editors talking about the new app, and some footage of the app in action.

I downloaded the app over the weekend, as I was curious about what was included in this first student media effort on the Magical Unicorn Device.

Before I get into the details, let me give kudos to the students and faculty at ACU who worked so quickly to turn this app out. It works, and for what it does, it’s a perfectly serviceable app.

From the description in the iTunes app store:

Version 1.0 of the ACU Optimist App features:
• Dynamic content selector to allow you to move between sections
• Access to over five years of story archives
• Photo montages
• Updated ACU Wildcat Sports scores

A screen capture from the Optimist iPad app page.

A screen capture from the Optimist iPad app page.

So far, my response to the app has been lukewarm. It looks and feels a lot like a basic port of the Optimist’s WordPress-powered web site. The stories are listed in descending chronological order. Clicking on a headline takes you to the story page, which looks a lot like a standard WordPress single post page.

The text on screen is readable. the full-color photos are gorgeous. Depending on your WiFi, the stories load quickly when you click on the headlines. If you swipe your finger from the right side of the screen toward the left (near the top of the screen), you can also move from one section screen to the next section screen.

At the right side of the screen is a “Contents” tab that slides out to reveal four sections: News, Sports, Arts & Culture, and Opinion. Notice anything missing from that list? A dedicated section for multimedia content. For instance, the store description promises “photo montages,” but, poking around the app, I wasn’t able to find any.

Compare that with the online Optimist web site, which does suffer from a little too much “nav bar creep” (The tendency to add more and more nav bar links to different parts of a site). But prominent in the lower nav bar are links to its multimedia content (podcasts and videos).


And despite the promise of “converged media,” much of the Optimist’s online text content still lacks hyperlinks. Over several days of testing the app, I was able to find one story on the iPad app home screen that had a hyperlink to another web site (to be fair, this isn’t the app’s fault – most of the current stories on the web site don’t have hyperlinks either).

I assume the archive access is primarily available through the search feature in the contents tab. It would be nice to have monthly archive listing available as an option. I typed “2007” into the search engine and came up with nothing.

In terms of iPad capabilities, the one “bug” I found in the app was that it doesn’t rotate to landscape view when you turn the iPad on its side, unlike most of the media apps I’ve looked at recently. This is not an iPad specific feature, it’s also part of the iPhone/iPod Touch user interface.

As I said, having looked through the iPad Software Development Kit, I give high praise to the ACU students and faculty for producing an app for this new computing device.

But my overall impression is that the Optimist development team could have spent more time working on the presentation and iPad feature list and not so much on being first out of the gate.

As this is version 1.0, there is promise for much more innovation out of this effort, and I look forward to see what uses they can make of features like location-awareness.

I hope the development team will look at what other news outlets are doing with their apps – check out the Reuters News Pro app for an example of weaving multimedia content into the home page, for instance – and improve the Optimist app in future versions.

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