Students and faculty across three departments at the 4,800-student ACU have just finished mockups of their app and plan to have it ready to launch when the iPad goes on sale –- even though at most only 50 faculty members will have iPads by the start of the fall semester.
"Really, we want to be part of this national, international conversation of how does news look in the future," says Colter Hettich, the editor-in-chief of The Optimist.
Apple announced today that the iPad debut will be delayed until April 3, with pre-orders being taken March 12.
Students and faculty see the development of an app for The Optimist as almost a purely educational (and history-making) pursuit, not one to make money or attract new readers. The university offers classes on iPhone app development and the student newspaper has a mobile version of its Web site.
"If we looked at it only as 'We want to serve our audience, we want to get the news into the hands of our audience the quickest way possible,' I think it would not be worth the effort," since so few people on campus will have iPads to start, says journalism professor and student media adviser Kenneth Pybus.
For the last two years, incoming freshmen at ACU have gotten either an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch courtesy of the school. There's been talk, but no definite plans, about making the iPad part of that program, too. Teachers have been integrating iPhones into their curricula, and Pybus expects students to eventually start loading textbooks onto iPads.
If anything, the iPad app project is a worthy educational undertaking that will help students as they start their careers, says Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. But don't hold your breath that college paper apps will become the next big thing, or the next big moneymaker.
"One thing that is great about the iPad is it gives a bunch of smart people a chance to rethink how they organize news, how they present news and how they share news," Benton said.
In other words, while ACU's app may end up being merely a blip right now, the students developing the app are among the first to do so-there are no preconceived notions about what a "good" iPad app for newspapers looks like.
Creating ACU's app requires the combined resources of the school's journalism, design and business departments, with teams of students working on the user interface, programming, database and other issues that come up.
Hettich appreciates that students have taken the lead on the project. Early discussions highlighted the importance of an app that lets users "flip" the pages of the paper, but that can also integrate videos, commenting and other features.
Since there are no physical iPads for students to use as they write the app, it's that much harder to anticipate how it will work when using a simulation on a computer screen.
"At times, it's actually really frustrating, because the programmers don't have all the answers right now, and so we've had to come up with Plan B's for lots of things," Hettich said.
Since most students won't have iPads, Hettich figures its early users are more likely to be other media companies checking it out to see how well The Optimist's app works.
And Benton points out that while the iPhone App Store has proven there's a market for turnkey "shell" applications that a customer can tweak for their service, other papers would be unlikely to buy ACU's app knowing that students graduate and tech support might be spotty.
Then again, if the app is good enough and students or faculty spin off a company to handle future development, there might be some potential. Small and mid-size papers that wouldn't be able to justify the staff time to develop their own iPad apps in-house might be willing to take a pre-existing app that they can easily customize with their own fonts, colors and menu options. Ad some advertising, as Hettich says The Optimist's app will support and papers could get some revenue – though it's unlikely to be enough to save papers.
"The iPad is an excuse for a lot of creativity," Benton says. "I think if you're a smart media company, you're going to be watching that creativity, wherever it comes from."