More on iPad Magazines

I want to thank everyone for the overwhelming response to my post from yesterday, “My iPad Magazine Stand,” in which I laid out my thoughts on why most of the current crop of iPad magazine apps have dim prospects for long-term success. The thoughtful comments left here on the blog as well as the steady stream of RT’ing on Twitter have been terrific. It reminds me how lucky I am to get consistently intelligent and lively conversation in response to what I write. For a blogger, there’s nothing better. (It also makes me glad as heck that I didn’t follow my original instinct; when I finished my first draft of that piece on Monday, I actually decided not to publish it, fearing it was too shapelessly reasoned.)

In fact, I had wanted to jump into the conversation myself earlier but I’m under two deadlines at the moment so life is kind of hectic. Plus, I often like to see comment threads play themselves out without my interference before I engage — I find that the general direction of a conversation evolves more naturally if I hold back from potentially derailing it too early. After following along for a while though, there were a few quick things that came up that I felt I should respond to. So this morning I started adding a comment at the end of the thread but, as it got lengthier and lengthier, I decided to publish it as this blog post instead.


Correction

First, my apologies for incorrectly (and unintentionally) implying that the Popular Science app was a part of Adobe and Conde Nast’s recent collaborations. As Matt points out, the magazine is owned by Bonnier and the app runs on the mag+ platform.

Zinio

Commenters Scott G. Lewis and Anne both mentioned Zinio, another digital delivery platform that many magazines have been using for the past several years that essentially replicates issues as DRM-encrypted PDFs. I find Zinio a little bit quaint, but I can’t argue with how logical the idea is. For an audience that truly wants the magazine, why not give them just that, the way Zinio does? Why expend the enormous time, energy, talent, money and publicity that go into wasteful iPad apps when you can very directly and simply translate your print product into exactly what you say people want?

If publishers really feel it’s critical to satisfy that dwindling market of people who can’t get their hands on the physical magazine but who will settle for a PDF, then Zinio or similar products are a great solution. In fact, that’s what we did at The New York Times in our redesign of T Magazine late last year.

The bulk of Tmagazine.com was a re-imagination of the print edition’s content as a kind of blog — which greatly improved the site’s overall usability, as well as page views and time-spent metrics. But we knew there were users out there who could not get their hands on the printed edition and who really wanted to

So alongside the blog posts and all the video, audio and interactive pieces, we offered them the next closest thing to print: every single page of the magazine just as it appears in the magazine — but in a browsable UI powered by Issuu. It’s been a big hit for that audience; you can see a sample over here, and I think it’s a fine solution. It’s not a game changer, and by itself it would have failed the test of extending the T Magazine franchise online. But for what it was, it did the job very well — and cheaply.

On Innovation

In case you missed it, reader David Sleight added some smart thoughts to the comment thread (at 10:44 pm; sorry, I really should have anchor links for all comments, I know). In response to another reader who insisted that the Adobe method of magazine-to-app translation was a legitimate form of innovation, David wrote:

“…translating print magazines to iPad apps which merely treat them as ‘digital replicas’ (actual industry quote) is actually a rejection of genuine experimentation by publishers, in favor of something seemingly safe and familiar.”

That’s exactly right, in my opinion. David is expanding upon the idea I alluded to in my post: the strategy that these apps are following is a stand-in for true experimentation. True, it gets something into the market that can then be learned from, iterated and evolved. But in truth it’s really just stalling.

The default reaction of most print publishers since the advent of the Internet has almost always been “Let’s make it just like print.” It’s been tried again and again and it never works. So the fact that publishers are trying it yet again on the iPad doesn’t strike me as experimentation at all. There might be a grain of truth when we say that this is “an experimental year” for publishing on the iPad, yes. But that doesn’t mean we also need to repeat the same mistakes that we made when Flash promised that we could make Web sites flip pages like print magazines, or when the Web was still so new that the only model we had to understand it with was print publishing, or when CD-ROMs tried their best to recreate magazines in ‘multimedia’ form. Those lessons have been learned already.

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  1. Khoi, well said and to rehash one of your premises from the 1st post that I wholeheartedly agree, paraphrased, the “ipad is too new still” and we must wait and see where all this digital reprinting is headed. At the moment, I feel that its a just one big race and no one wants to stay behind. The Print Media is just jumping on the band wagon not to seem antiquated and also let’s face it – to be hip. These are just ideas besides the more obvious and financially related decisions to go digital. Cheers.

  2. Does Apple have any responsibility for publisher’s attitudes? I can’t help but think that Apple is encouraging this “it’s just like print” attitude in the way they pitch the iPad to publishers. They’re also trying to sell lush, print-like iAds, which they hope will command print-like CPMs and not web-like CPMs.

    Or am I totally off base here?

  3. “The Adobe promise, as I understand it…”

    With all due respect, I don’t believe you do understand what Adobe is indeed trying to do. Although admittedly, to your point, the publishers themselves seem to be the desperate ones to run and make a point of how they have successfully adapted to this “new world of media”.

    My point isn’t about the publishers themselves – I totally agree that the onus is upon them to develop and deliver content that their customers want. However, claiming that Adobe is leading them to their graves is not a fair statement to make. I believe that such statement come from a misunderstanding of the whole story.

    First of all, Adobe released their tools in Beta form this week at Adobe MAX. That means the publications you are already seeing on the iPad (and are criticizing) were built on what would be considered Alpha software.

    The complaints about large downloads are mainly due to the fact that each page in the publication is an image (there is no live or searchable text), with an overlay layer that contains interactive content such as movies, slide shows, web links, etc.

    That’s a lot of data, and one can argue it’s no different than a few years back when people built websites using tons of images in order to achieve a specific layout or appearance. That’s something the magazine publishers hold dear — not the static content of the page — but the emotional aspect of a beautifully-designed layout that values attributes such as fine typography, photography, layout, and experience (and if you don’t want to believe Adobe or the publishers, ask Steve who recently touted the ability to order letterpress cards from iPhoto).

    One can argue that Adobe already has a platform that can display all of these elements perfectly, and perhaps most importantly, globally. The Flash Player with its multilingual and global text support would allow publishers to take advantage of typographic features that they expect in print, and that would also allow for global localization. In other words, images wouldn’t be necessary to display hi-fidelity content. Done right, publishers could indeed create hi-fidelity lightweight issues that are optimized for display on mobile devices.

    But Apple won’t allow Flash Player to run on their devices, and since iPad is the only real tablet that is currently available, Adobe needs to provide a solution — which currently is to rasterize all pages, making each issue heavy and web 1.0 ish. But again, this stuff is still in Beta.

    At their MAX conference this week, Adobe also showed a magazine layout on a tablet device that was composed in HTML that allowed for dynamic wrapping of images. Perhaps even more impressive is that Adobe announced they were going to donate all of their work on higher design fidelity in HTML to Webkit. That doesn’t sound like a company that is trying to lead publishers in the wrong direction. You can even argue that Apple’s anti-Flash campaign has spurred Adobe on to help push HTML even further.

    So it’s obvious that, in due time, magazines built on Adobe’s platform won’t be the kludge they are now. If anything, Adobe is guilty of trying to bring a product to market that maybe isn’t ready for prime-time. But it’s the publishers that are pushing the “issue” here (sorry for the bad pun) — not Adobe.

    In addition to these tools, Adobe is offering publishers additional services that include hosting, fulfillment, e-commerce, and powerful analytics. That gives publishers the tools they need to – one would hope – deliver the kind of content their audience wants. There are also plenty of capabilities built into the tools – just because you view a publication that doesn’t take advantage of them, doesn’t mean that it’s Adobe’s fault.

    And finally, the overall promise of Adobe isn’t to create a single piece of content and distribute it across every possible device. That’s the promise for developers who are building apps or even websites. Develop an app and be able to deliver that app so that anyone in the world can view it on any device. One assumes that content delivered to a mobile device would differ from content that is displayed on the desktop, or even on a TV set, and CSS is a good tool that developers can use to make that happen. But that’s all digital content.

    I don’t believe Adobe’s intent is that you can use their tools to create a direct mail campaign and instantly turn it into a social media campaign and an email marketing campaign. They are different mediums with different requirements (and audiences). Again, you can blame the publishers if all they are doing is making a linear transition between a print and a digital version of a magazine, but Adobe provides powerful tools to allow these publishers to go in any direction they so choose.

    So exactly how is Adobe doing a disservice to the publishing industry?

  4. @Frank: I do think you’re off base regarding Apple’s responsibility for what we’ve seen. First, there is no “Magazine” category in the App store nor a subscription model. I think that is very intentional. Second, if you’ve seen any iAds, I don’t know how you could think they resemble print ads at all. They almost all feature rich interactivity and multi-media. The only thing iAds want to emulate from the print world is the highly produced content in order to generate a higher CPM.

  5. A while ago in a discussion of apps at http://futureofthebook.org Bob Stein used the phrase “whatever replaces the book as a crucial mechanism for moving ideas around time and space…”
    http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2010/08/the_future_of_the_app.html

    The “around time” part got me thinking of his excellent Voyager Expanded Books (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,975547,00.html) that I bought — and now can’t read on current computing hardware.

    New media always seem to be in constant “beta,” but I worry that future readers are losing a lot of creativity to “constant betamax.”

    The Times clearly is committed to its archives of the printed newspaper stories, but how will its archives handle multimedia, interactive features or apps? It’s bad enough that I can’t copy and paste a paragraph from my Times Android app into e-mail or a blog post.

    Do any of these magazine platforms have an open-standards base that would at least give future researchers (or info-archaeologists) a Rosetta Stone? Is PDF supposed to be some digital proprietary papyrus?

    Thanks for an big table full of food for thought.

  6. @Mordy: Well said. I don’t think Adobe’s at fault for anything either, except for being a little tone deaf about the nature of the Web. But they can’t help but see themselves as serving the needs of the people who buy their products, which are mostly geared towards making things *look* visually beautiful (real web developers don’t touch Dreamweaver). Who cares if your magazine’s 500MB? Who cares that the text isn’t represented as text (and therefore isn’t searchable or tweetable)? Most print designers don’t care about these things.

    And that’s the problem. The reason print designers don’t care about the nature of the Web is the same reason the print industry as a whole doesn’t, which is that, before the Internet, print was king, print was the be all and the end all. The Web, therefore, is an afterthought (the point Khoi made so eloquently), not just to the designers but more importantly, it is an afterthought to the publishers and the editors and the authors.

    And now, when the print industry realizes the walls are crumbling around them, and they see the power shifting online before their very eyes, their “solutions” turn out to be desperate half-measures, and the only thing they are doing is putting a finger in the dyke. (Admittedly, Adobe is taking steps towards developing true web publishing tools but right now they’re putting out chimera after chimera — to use Khoi’s excellent term — with their Digital Publishing plug-in for InDesign and their as-yet-unreleased Flash-to-HTML5 converter. I mean, how hard would it be to have InDesign export clean, XML source along with or instead of those gi-normous PNGs?)

    When it comes to online publishing, perhaps it would be best to leave the old forms at the door and start fresh. “We impose the form of the old on the content of the new” (Marshall McLuhan.) “Blog” used to be a dirty word two years ago. “App” wasn’t even really used to refer to web-based applications until the iPhone hit. I propose that instead of “digital magazines” we really should be saying [some word that connotes long-form journalism online]. It really is a different ball-game.

  7. As a web designer, I noticed something in the comments on the earlier post. The folks who work in magazine publishing who are commenting tend to be in agreement that magazines are, in general, doing it wrong when it comes to their approach to tablets. (These are presumably the less dig-in-their-heels members of the industry, given that they are reading Subtraction, and it’s nice to hear their thoughts, which I broadly agree with.)

    However, there is a phrase which several of these commenters used which struck me as somewhat askew: “We need to find new ways to tell our stories.” I understand the sentiment behind this thought, and certainly it stands as an improvement on the idea that magazines can proceed without making any fundamental changes.

    Why do I find that phrase disconcerting? It’s the focus on *their* stories. The industry desperately needs to figure out how to open up to the stories of its readers, to let them actually participate in a meaningful way in the world that the magazine encapsulates.

    I’m not talking about simple bolt-on social media comment/tweet/like/email stuff here. I’m talking about a significant shift in the relationship readers have with the magazine, from consumption and sharing to contribution and conversation with fellow contributors (including you & your writers).

    I know that this would represent a major adjustment in how magazines operated. It might not be possible, even, given how difficult organizational change can be. But I think you really need to rethink the relationship your publication has with its readers (customers? community?) in order to move forward.

  8. In the end, though, isn’t it about the content? An interesting paper would be the contrast between the perceived desire for more this-that-and-the-other in innovation, interaction and so on online, and the apparently growing use of apps/services such as Instapaper which strip pieces back to the content. It can’t all be a desire to remove the ads.

  9. @Irwin

    “I mean, how hard would it be to have InDesign export clean, XML source along with or instead of those gi-normous PNGs?”

    Actually, InDesign DOES export plenty of text-based XML metadata alongside the images. Much is used to drive the platform itself (analytics, interactive content, etc), but I assume the only reason why that content isn’t used for display or searchable text is because that technology is still forthcoming. It will get there, however.

  10. My feeling is that these app/magazines are designed as if the whole world wide web had never existed. If you had given an ipad to Wired’s art director in 92 he would probably have designed the Wired ipad app a bit like their app is today. What we need is someone that takes the 15 years of web experience into account and then moves beyond that!

  11. @Mordy: I realize InDesign exports XML (it even does EPUB). I’m wondering why they didn’t bother to expose it? I wonder if it was a conscious business decision (publisher didn’t want their precious cargo to be copyable or shareable) or if it is, as you suggest, an interim step because they just wanted to get their minimum viable product out the door.

  12. Nice to see the discussion is continuing so nicely here!
    Mordy Golding’s first post reiterates and expands on parts of my comment in the last blog entry; well said.

    Irwin Chen hit on something interesting that I haven’t really considered yet in those terms, and that is McLuhan’s angle. If the medium is the message, what is the message of tablets? Of portable devices and small(er) screens in general? Is there a fundamental change not in the presentation/interaction, but rather in the content itself?

    I’m reminded of the IDEO concept video for the future of Ebook readers (http://vimeo.com/15142335) — Three new directions for books and specifically book reading and interaction. In particular a combination of the Nelson and Alice concepts is, in my opinion, an innovative way of adapting the content to the new medium, without detracting or limiting the existing behavior of straightforward consumption.
    Is there an analogous example for magazines?

    Another point that has been brought up regarding archiving of the print versions: For now, PDF is probably the best we have, but I believe EPUB could become ideal for this and adoption by libraries in its current standard/version for books and other publications is probably the first step in making that a reality. Hopefully they can improve on the layout capability with the upcoming version update. I would not object to seeing some sort of “dual mode” experience, where whatever we end up with as the format for tablets is accompanied by the actual print version. If only for Nostalgia sake!

  13. Last paragraph of my post was cut off for some reason:

    Lastly, I just wanted to reply to David’s post you are quoting above, as it was my post he started off by referencing: I do not, and hope that my original post did not suggest that, support the “replication” of magazines. I am fine with seeing it as the first step, because right now, we don’t have enough data or experience with the users and medium to say that something does or does not work. The bulk of my post was meant to specifically play down, or put in proportion, Adobe’s “disservice” to the industry, as Khoi put it. Tomorrow we may find out that replicas are what the users want and the more innovative solutions are simply not attractive or appealing. We may go in a different direction, a la IDEO Nelson/Alice; we might end up with something completely new and yet still very familiar.
    Th bottom line, however, is that we are not there yet, but I want as many users to start consuming the content in a digital fashion so we can start learning what they need and how to best communicate it. And for that reason only, as I said in the beginning of my original post, “I will not fault them for trying—and trying everything they can—at this moment.”

  14. @Mordy @Irwin

    “but I assume the only reason why that content isn’t used for display or searchable text is because that technology is still forthcoming”

    Check out the newest issue of New Yorker on ipad, they actually are already using html content in the article, hence it’s selectable and can be copy/pasted.

    I guess all these advanced goodies will be available in next release of the digital magazine suite from Adobe, and before long, I would assume someone will come up with a much better way of presenting these html content, making it reflowable according to different screen sizes, it’s all happening now.

  15. Wow..I cannot agree more. I am so disappointed with magazines and the wall street journal on the iPad. I am a longtime user of Zinio on pc. I should have known better than to continue with them on my iPad. The magazine industry really missed this one. Until I found this blog I just thought I was the only one who felt this disappointment.

  16. I’m not even sure the way in which even printed publications are currently presented is as appropriate for pop culture as it should be (However, look at what The Independent are doing with their new newspaper Љi’). I think the problem with publishers Љcopying’ over their print designs to a digital format is possibly that their traditional approach to providing content to users, when dropped into the digital domain is much less tolerated, it sticks out like a sore thumb, as we’re all so used to designing Љpunchy’ information for the web. I think it’s this attitude toward information which is becoming more and more ingrained in our culture, and it’s something ALL types of designers are going to have to be aware of, wether you’re designing an ipad app or the way-finding system for a bank, as a society we’re all harsh usability critics these days.

    All these new demands we’re placing upon publishers is just a reflection of the new way in which people interact with ALL types of media and technology, with reduced attention spans and high expectations for intuitive delivery of information/entertainment. We keep setting the bar higher and higher, and we’re shaping entire generations and cultural habits to the extent that long standing formats like magazines will have to fall in line or be relegated to that of luxury or nostalgia.

    We can’t expect print designers to take the reigns on this one, for the same reason they wouldn’t expect digital designers to calculate the dot gain on a new type of paper stock. I think digital designers need to step up and offer some serious, fresh solutions before the novelty of reading these magazines on an ipad wears off, and the app buying general public lose interest in a badly translated medium quickly.

  17. I have a feeling some publications will do better on this device than others, and I’d tip Monocle as one to watch.

  18. I ultimately think that many publishers will leave it to the front end (browser/tablet application/phone app/ps3 for that matter) to consume their content and display it however they deem it appropriate. The NY Times is already onto this with TimesOpen. Consumers want content more than anything – so publishers just need to supply the content in some consumable format. The big question is how to include adverts and enforce the display of such adverts in this consumable format.

    Once they learn to monetize the distribution of content (xml/json/some other format), they won’t bother building their own branded devices. Publishers will leave it to others to do the ux/design/development.

  19. @Eyal What troubles me is that this is a first step we’ve seen before, many times, and it has repeatedly failed. So why is it being attempted yet again? “Trying everything,” in this instance is irresponsible as we’re dealing with a class of imperiled institutions skating on thin financial ice. We should be skipping over this step to more thoughtful approaches, ones with better chances of a longer term return on the investment. I would rather see magazines priming their existing websites for these devices and spending the remaining time building real business models for the future, instead of rushing to throw cash at a new market just to be in it.