Mon 05 Apr
Though I opted for a 3G-enabled iPad that won’t be delivered until later in the month, I was able to get my hands on a Wi-Fi-only model today, one of two devices that we bought at the office. In my limited use so far it feels terrific, though until I’m actually in possession of an iPad I can call my very own, it’ll be still too early to decide how much I like or dislike it. Without really being able to customize a machine like this for my needs — installing my preferred apps and loading my personal data onto it — it feels a little bit like a model home; attractive enough, but not really cozy just yet.
In playing with iPad-optimized apps, I’m watching with particular interest to see how content publishers are approaching the platform. One that has gotten a fair amount of exposure is the Popular Science app, a digital version of the longstanding print magazine that has put forward an ambitious, visually rich attempt at embracing the things that only a tablet device can do.
I can’t decide whether I’m distressed or excited about what experiments like this represent. It’s actually not the idea of a digital magazine that I’m talking about here; I’m lukewarm at best about the notion that periodicals will be able to re-create the experience of newsstand issues on a tablet device. Rather, I’m talking about something more narrow: this inaugural issue of Popular Science on the iPad, while gorgeous and impressive, is also gimmicky, repetitive and unusable. It’s a noble attempt, but it’s also a disappointment.
At heart, it illustrates a collision point between interaction design and traditional publication design, one in which the latter prevails. To be sure, the sensibility that governs this particular expression of Popular Science is decidedly print-like; images are luxuriously large, beautifully rendered — and largely static. And to look at the app even for a moment is to recognize immediately that the images are privileged over nearly everything else.
What little interactivity there is on offer is minimal at best. I find it hard to believe that real readers and users are going to be interested in this particular mode of visual expression and interactivity that is neither a static image nor full-motion video, but rather something like primitive animation — think of early Hannah-Barbera cartoons, and you get a sense of how constricted are the interactions here.
And they’re repetitive, too; over and again, it’s the same basic format in which a layer of type slides pointlessly against the backdrop of a fixed image. That repetitiveness does little to counter the general feeling of placelessness throughout the app; the navigation is well-meaning but fussy at best, but honestly much closer to incompetent. (As we get out of the gate with iPad publishing, can we just very quickly impose a moratorium on displaying instructions on how to use reading interfaces? If you need to explain it, we should all agree, then the design isn’t doing its job.) I got lost and frustrated repeatedly, and then I got bored.
So, I don’t know whether to feel distressed that so much apparent effort is being invested in something that I think is a fundamentally ill-advised idea, or, on the other hand, to feel excited that, finally, print designers are going to have to face up to reality and learn how to design for real users. They’ve complained for years that the Web offers precious few opportunities for doing really beautiful design, and many of them have been waiting with great anticipation for the iPad as a chance to finally show the digital world what good design looks like. Well, time to man up, folks. I hope you can do better than this.
I should be fair here, though. Publishing’s future — on the iPad, particularly — is a complicated issue for me. Over the years, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty cynical about the ability to monetize digital content, as much as I desperately want it to succeed. So it’s hard to fault Popular Science for trying; their app is at the very least a bolder gesture than the app I’ve been involved with at The Times, that’s for sure. No further comment on that.
Anyway, I’m only touching here on a little bit of what I’m thinking and feeling about publishing on the iPad here. I’ll be writing more about it in the coming days.