is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Because I recently left a job at one of the most prominent publications in the world, people often ask me about my opinions on the cavalcade of publications rushing to the iPad — those apps designed and developed by newspapers and magazines principally to deliver their print content — and the chances I see for their success. So here it is.
To start, I think it’s too early to say anything definitive about whether these apps will become lasting delivery mechanisms for print content and brands. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about the iPad and its forthcoming competition, particularly about how user behavior will evolve as these devices become more integrated into daily life. So while I may use some definitive language in this admittedly very long blog post, I freely grant that the future is a mystery to me as much as anyone.
Actually, in conversations with people I know at various publications, I’ve been quite surprised by stories of strong advertiser interest in these apps. Anecdotally, publishers report heavy demand for advertising space, and in some cases apps have sold out of their ad inventory through the end of the year or even further.
That’s an encouraging indicator, but I think it may be more a sign of a bubble than the creation of a real market for publishers’ apps. According to Advertising Age, the initial enthusiasm for many of these apps has dwindled down to as little as one percent of print circulation in the cases of some magazines.
Granted, this situation could change significantly when the iPad and tablet market expands further — it’s logical to assume that the customers who eventually commit to tablets after this first year will bring a greater diversity of interests than the generally technology-centric early adopters. If we see a continuing influx of customers in that former category, it might brighten the prospects for, say, Vanity Fair’s iPad app. That, combined with the possibility of Apple adding a digital newsstand to the App Store to help customers browse periodical content in a centralized place (hunting for publications amid software brands is suboptimal, to say the least) could further brighten their prospects.
I just don’t see it, though. For sure, I’m confident that many, many more people will be buying tablets within the next few years, and so there will be a much richer market for a more diverse crop of content. But even with an Apple-operated newsstand, I’m just not sure I believe these people will turn to publishers’ apps to occupy their tablet time. It’s certainly possible that a small number of these apps will succeed, but if publishers continue to pursue the print-centric strategies they’re focused on today, I’m willing to bet that most of them will fail.
Let’s set aside the issue of news apps for the time being, because they are really a beast of a different sort, and with their own unique challenges. There is a real use case for news apps (regardless of whether not not any players are executing well in this space). Magazine apps, on the other hand, are a different story.
Okay Here It Is
My opinion about iPad-based magazines is that they run counter to how people use tablets today and, unless something changes, will remain at odds with the way people will use tablets as the medium matures. They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all.
The fact of the matter is that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in, that is making less and less sense as we forge further into this century, and that makes almost no sense on a tablet. As usual, these publishers require users to dive into environments that only negligibly acknowledge the world outside of their brand, if at all — a problem that’s abetted and exacerbated by the full-screen, single-window posture of all iPad software. In a media world that looks increasingly like the busy downtown heart of a city — with innumerable activities, events and alternative sources of distraction around you — these apps demand that you confine yourself to a remote, suburban cul-de-sac.
Take the recent release of the iPad app version of The New Yorker. Please. I downloaded an issue a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed every single word of every article that I read (whatever the product experience, the journalism remains a notch above). But I hated everything else about it: it took way too long to download, cost me US$4.99 over and above the annual subscription fee that I already pay for the print edition and, as a content experience, was an impediment to my normal content consumption habits. I couldn’t email, blog, tweet or quote from the app, to say nothing of linking away to other sources — for magazine apps like these, the world outside is just a rumor to be denied. And when I plugged my iPad back into my Mac, the enormous digital heft of these magazines brought the synching process to a crawl.
My understanding is that a lot of these apps are being actively encouraged and even partially funded by the folks at Adobe, who are pushing a tablet publishing solution that, unsurprisingly, builds off of the software franchise that they won over the print publishing world with. In fact, Conde Nast has turned over technical operations for all of their apps to Adobe, which says a lot about how they’re thinking about their tablet strategy.
The Adobe promise, as I understand it, is that publications can design for one medium and, with minimal effort, have their work product viably running on tablets and other media. It says: what works in print, with some slight modifications and some new software purchases, will work in new media. It’s a promise that we’ve heard again and again from many different software vendors with the rise of every new publishing platform, but it has never come to pass. And it never will.
In my personal opinion, Adobe is doing a tremendous disservice to the publishing industry by encouraging these ineptly literal translations of print publications into iPad apps. They’ve fostered a preoccupation with the sort of monolithic, overbearing apps represented by The New Yorker, Wired and Popular Science. Meanwhile, what publishers should really be focusing on is clever, nimble, entertaining apps like EW’s Must List or Gourmet Live. Neither of those are perfect, but both actively understand that they must translate their print editions into a utilitarian complement to their users’ content consumption habits.
If Not This, Then What?
Of course, small, nimble apps won’t necessarily solve the long-term revenue problems of major magazines. So is there a bigger solution for magazines, one that will bring in significant revenue along the lines of what they saw in the pre-digital world?
This is an incredibly difficult question and I’ve stopped trying to pretend I have any response to it other than “I don’t know,” or, in less sanguine moments, “Probably not.” There are no easy answers for content publishers right now, which is why in some ways they can hardly be blamed for their iPad enthusiasm — at the very least, they aren’t ignoring the sea change that tablets represent. Perhaps like many of us, they need to fail their way to success. That’s a legitimate strategy, and if they’re nimble enough to recover from these wild miscalculations before it’s too late, then I applaud them for it.
More likely, they will waste too many cycles on this chimerical vision of resuscitating lost glories. And as they do, the concept of a magazine will be replaced in the mind — and attention span — of consumers by something along the lines of Flipboard. If you ask me, the trajectory of content consumption favors apps like these that are more of a window to the world at large than a cul-de-sac of denial. Social media, if it’s not already obvious to everyone, is going to continue to change everything — including publishing. And it’s a no-brainer to me that content consumption is going to be intimately if not inextricably linked with your social graph. Combine Flipboard or whatever comes along and improves upon it with the real innovation in recommendation technology that we’ll almost undoubtedly see in the next few years, and I can’t see how the 20th Century concept of a magazine can survive, even if it does look great on a tablet.+