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First Look: Slick SI App Matches Expectations With One Exception: No Subs

The Sports Illustrated iPad app hit the iTunes store overnight with lots of glossy features in place — and without an anticipated subscription option. SI still could wind up being the first Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) publication to offer subscriptions through the iPad but, despite a vendor’s assertion last week that the option would be included, Time Inc. and SI are not quite there yet. For now, SI is being sold by the single copy at $4.99 from within a free SI app. The free app includes access to live news and scores from

SI Group Editor Terry McDonnell wouldn’t go into the reasons for the delay when I met with him for a demo earlier this week. But it’s clear Erik Schut, the CEO of software developer WoodWing, jumped the gun when he showed a version of a subscription page during a presentation at a tablet conference I took part in last week and talked about the app launching with it this week. But the structure is being built for subscriptions and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the option crop up for SI and other Time Inc. titles this summer once they finish herding cats.

First look: McDonell wanted this first version to be as much as possible like the video he used in December to show off the tablet concept developed with David Link and The Wonderfactory. That pre-iPad video, which made a splash that kept rippling, and a variation last month that showed the tablet version of SI adapted to HTML5 for a *Google* Chrome OS web app drew suggestions that they were just that — gimmicky videos for show that couldn’t translate in real use. The only high-profile feature from the videos that’s missing is the video animation that makes the cover to life. They haven’t abandoned the idea but there’s no time table or guarantee it will show up.

But this version includes other video that may not have the visual punch of a video cover but showcases one of SI‘s real strengths — storytelling. In this case, it’s a TV magazine-quality feature on the Macon Ironmen to go with an SI bonus. As we’ve seen with Time and other apps, it also shows off SI‘s photography and provides space to use more of it. For instance, instead of the singular image that might show up on one of its trademark “Leading Off” print pages, the iPad version might include several images from the same event. A three-page panoramic spread of Pebble Beach’s Cliffs of Doom shows the potential for expanding the way images are used.

What McDonell and his team (including Chris Hercik, just promoted to creative director of the Sports Illustrated Group) have delivered is one of the first magazine apps to take close-to-full advantage of the platform while keeping the reader — and the reader as user — in mind. Two sets of iPad template pages line a corridor in SI’s offices in the Time-Life building, each showing the full edition in either vertical or horizontal view. Turning the iPad changes the way the view comes across but either way, it keeps the same design and navigation. That’s a switch from Time, which literally changes to the way you enter the magazine from ext to visual when you turn the iPad sideways. It’s a nice design touch but can be confusing.

McDonell wants the reader’s focus on the whole package, not on figuring out which way is up. The SI wheel showed off in the first video comes up on every page with a tap and hold. (I had some problems making it come up on the landscape page.) The wheel is very much a work in progress. Some of the actions a user can take will change depending on the kind of page or the type of feature. Touch the bottom nav bar, and pull up a page viewer that shows the whole magazine in a strip, allowing visual navigation but also including section titles so you can jump by text, too.

To get to SI’s iPad editions, users first download a free app that includes access to a sample issue and one-click buying for the real thing. The app includes a shopping cart that shows what’s available, a library to store issues, and a live newsfeed, much like Time — the first Time Inc. mag with an iPad edition even though McDonell played the visionary lead in the tablet project. But SI’s version has some twists: stories filtered by sport, scores, and the popular Truth & Rumors feature. It also includes Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback. All of it is delivered under the banner Sports Illustrated powered by, clearly tying the app and the site together. And, it’s available within the free app without an issue purchase.

Bonus: At the same time, the paid edition includes content you can’t get any other way. This week’s bonus is a reminder of SI’s archival depth: a 13-page Jimmy Breslin article from Aug.13, 1962 about The Worst Baseball Team Ever offered as an iPad Exclusive and laid out like a book in landscape view. The pages don’t turn like an iBook and so far the type size is fixed but McDonell wanted that book feel. One page is a Mets (surely the date was a clue) photo gallery with black-and-white images. There’s plenty more where this came from.

More than downloads: Downloads and subscriptions aren’t the only way McDonell plans to make money. Advertisers can differ between the app and the magazine — and so can ads, leaving room for creativity. From the start, SI is pitching linked commerce. Clicking on a cover image on the Summer Books page leads right to an in-app browser page for Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). When the order is done, close the window and you’re back in the magazine.

I’m still working my way through the actual app. When I was at SI, the iPad edition was closing (the magazine closes on Monday, the app version on Tuesday) and I had to look at much of it via projector instead of hands on. So far it’s behaving as expected. Will readers buy it? That’s a lot harder to predict.

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