My iPad Magazine Stand

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.

Reading Habits

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.

Thick Issues

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.

Right: Heavy, man. The New Yorker app for iPad reads great but works not so great.

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.

  1. Exteemly insightful. Adobe’s solution reminds me of the task that OS companies faced: provide a recognizable platform for consistent navigation. These are the early days and the magazines are afraid to stick their necks out too far.
    It’s also evident that they feel the need to rush, poorly thought out apps, to market.

  2. Shouldn’t the premium always be on content? Not on presentation, not on experience. If you’re favorite author’s work appears only in print or paid digital versions of the publications, won’t people pay for that. Seems like everything is free and available on the internet now, and they’re trying to sell the presentation and experience.

    If the market shrinks, it shrinks. Then the industry shrinks. I think that’s the biggest problem, and it’s not something design will solve.

  3. I think your right about just about everything here.
    This post mirrors conversations I’ve had with many colleagues/editors/designers on this subject. The Conde Nast/Adobe direction is just wrong and I’m amazed that so many seemingly smart people there don’t seem to understand this.

  4. Nicely put. I’ve been extremely dismayed of late to find out several major publications are simply bootstrapping their iPad app design and development onto their existing print design/management flow (ie, handing their iPad apps to their print departments and essentially saying, “Hey kids, while you’re at it just crank out another copy for that shiny widget thingy over there.”) Not only does this result in gross negligence when it comes to understanding the medium on its own terms, it’s irresponsible from a business perspective as it simply won’t scale as this universe of devices continues to expand.

  5. Excellent essay, well-written and thoughtful and totally dead on. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for taking the time to write it and post it. I’m a long-time editorial designer shifting into design for digital applications, and all of this rings true. To survive, publishers must innovate and rethink everything about how they tell a story.

  6. I agree, and the overbearing single-window iOS model has been cause for much of my claustrophobia on my iphone and ipad. While I understand it on the phone because of the screen real estate, I was disappointed when the ipad mimicked this OS model. This will indeed be seen as primitive in the years to come, and from an IA perspective really shows the limitations of the iOS design framework.

    Because as you said before, every magazine would have to design a way that the user could interact with their email, and social networks a la Flipboard. And granted, this might be relatively simple to have an email panel pop up like in Flipboard, it blocks the user’s view of the “outside world” and inhibits parallel program using that is so familiar to the desktop and laptop world.

    I do think the future lies in the direction of a flipboard or a pulse because it gives the user greater visibility, creates a magazine feeling, while still allowing the user to customize the information that they are reading.

    Pressing on in this direction will probably yield an entirely new platform, but this whole pdf magazine on an ipad mess is doomed to fail.

  7. Very insightful. I agree with most of it given my experience with them so far.

    But as the single, full-screen experience aids the basic magazine experience which is to read the material is this not a positive? Although I agree these things should have social widgets built in, I like reading on my iPad precisely because the rest of the world is (briefly) blocked out. This is why im reading this via Instapaper, so the content is front and centre (although for a site like this instapapering isn’t really necessary)

  8. First of all, commenters who bitch at print designers doing design for the iPad – eff you. It’s a new medium and who knows what will work. Just because it doesn’t use Verdana and a box of Flash doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.
    Second, hey, app advertisers are giving them money. Yes: money. Where’s the ads on Flipboard? Any publishers making money on that?

  9. Sharp observations, Khoi.

    “More likely, they will waste too many cycles on this chimerical vision of resuscitating lost glories.”

    Yep, their approach to the iPad reminds me of the DVD ROM era. (Lovely turn of phrase, BTW.)

  10. I agree and wish magazines would create a sustainable model instead of churning out proof of concept feature packed magazines.

    Aside from that the elephant in the room is scaling to other devices. With the rise of other tablets with Android, Blackberry, that are different screen sizes and screen ratios, how will people scale content to this market?

  11. Excellent points. I’m using a Droid phone and finding the same frustrations in Android news apps, including the Times and USA Today — especially lack of copy and paste if I want to quote in a blog, Delicious bookmark or notes.


  12. Overall, agreed. I also share Jon Parker’s sentiment about the parallel between this and early DVD development. In a way, we’re in a Wild West again, a new frontier for publishing and nobody knows their heads from tails. I will not fault them for trying–and trying everything they can–at this moment.

    We are all experimenting with new media, and most of the experiments will fail. Khoi assumes that it is likely that many will waste too many cycles, and I concur, but that is unsurprising. Facing (and embracing) technology has been a challenge for every industry out there and I can’t think of a single one that has made the transition smoothly and without struggles. The record industry and the labels have gone through the same cycle, and many of the players in that field are still clutching at yesterday’s straws. And they’re still coming up with “rescue plans” that are completely disconnected from reality.

    I’m pleased to see that Flipboard is getting a mention in there, as I think that it is a brilliant concept which is in tune with and attuned to the way we consume information. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great start. It’s both personal and curated, it’s relevant and, I would assume, increases in relevance as you continue using it and development keeps on going.

    Colin says above “Shouldn’t the premium always be on content? Not on presentation, not on experience.” — I’ve recently heard something I will paraphrase here: Conversation is king, everything else is just something to talk about.

    Think about it for a second, it really is true. That’s how people interact with information, and with one another. It’s the social aspect of the information that has lasting power. Content in a vacuum, or that is known only to you (or worse, the author/publisher) is not useful. To spread, one or both of these need to happen: either the content itself, or the experience around it will start (or continue) a ripple effect.

    And that is why I will disagree with you, Khoi, regarding Adobe’s role. I do not think Adobe is doing such a disservice to the industry. They are providing a technology (which, from the MX presentation the other day, is actually quite impressive, especially the dynamic paging and fluid layouts which could be a boon for multi-screen development) but at the end of the day, they are just enabling content, not providing a solution.

    Do they lack foresight or vision for the platform/medium? Perhaps, but so does pretty much everybody else. For the moment, they are delivering a simple “enhancement” on magazine reading, which is interactiveness. Basic interactivity, but one that at least has some novelty factor and is being enthusiastically received. For now.

    I consider this version 0.1 of digital/interactive publishing and as such, I want to see as much trial and error, but the experience has to be polished enough for it to hold an appeal, and Adobe is helping to deliver that aspect.

  13. This is absolutely dead-on. Magazines as they are now aren’t the future. (Though they have some characteristics, e.g. “finishability”, that might be worth porting to digital.)

    The issue of scaling to new platforms is a tough one, but Adobe’s strategy is ass-backwards. High-level, reflective, capital-d Design can’t be standardized across a wide-range of media with good results. Period. What needs to be standardized are the technology platforms and, perhaps, some of the more formulaic aspects of Design, such as making a usable layout (the NYT already does this in its iPad app and treesaver is attempting to do at a larger scale).

    However, I’m confident that all this will work itself out; fundamentally, I agree with @Colin: as long as publishers are making good content, they’ll be able to make money…even if the “how” takes some experimentation to figure out. (Micropayments?)

    A bigger problem in my mind is what the public defines as “good” content. To me, and this might very well be an inaccurate perception, the average American seems to be consuming much less non-partisan news than in the past. If true, this is not only a threat to our country, it’s also a bigger threat, I think, to serious news providers than most everything else.

  14. To some degree, I think the lack of adoption is a function of publishers missing the pricing sweet spot. For example, I read the sample issue of ‘Der Spiegel’ from cover to cover, as it were, and would have purchased add’l issues, if the price hadn’t been the equivalent of the hard copy price. Sort of a shame, because they’ve done a really nice job with the iPad edition– nice multimedia features, and very intelligent links.

    I’m not quite sure why, but I feel as if it should cost less– perhaps because I assume that it costs the publisher less to distribute (which may not be true at all). And I concur that subscribers to the print edition should always get the electronic edition free (‘The Nation’, I’m looking at you). Sure, publishing to tablets is in its infancy, but I feel as if a lot of content providers have unrealistic expectations around pricing, and are thereby supressing adoption unnecessarily.

  15. I completely agree. Publishers need to forget “magazines” designed for tablets just as they have finally begun to forget trying to make “magazines” for the web. Iits the wrong metaphor. No one wants to read out-of-date week-old content. I don’t really want websites translated to the iPad experience either. What I want is content: images video and text, made for the iPad. That’s not to say that content traditionally found in magazines/newspapers/websites can’t be repurposed for the iPad, but to think of it as a literal translation from one medium to the other is to ignore the opportunities that the iPad creates.

    Publishers need to gather their best creatives, their best content, and deliver a compelling way to experience it in fresh and innovative ways.

  16. I agree with Eyal that it’s best to take the long view—that there will be many failed experiments on the way to success. Trouble is, 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.

    It’s coddles feral instincts (still clung to at some surprisingly high levels in the publishing industry) that what they were doing all along actually still works, that their business models aren’t hopelessly broken, that they can stop worrying about the “problem” of the Web and go back to the good old days, amidst high fives and triumphal cheers of, “Finally, someone made an iPod for books! Back to work, boys!”

    All of which makes this phase a particularly wasteful (and needless) distraction.

  17. Interesting – particularly as I read several magazines with my iPad, but I do so with the Zinio app, and have used the Zinio Mac version for several years. The app works well, the magsazines vary in their adaptation – they all look pretty much like their print versions, but some have more information linked off the magazine into Safari etc. In the end, I read the magazines because I value their content, I like that they don’t take up physical space when I have them on the iPad and I can keep them all, rather than gutting and growing away, and the subscription models are usually comparable – if not cheaper – than a print subscription. Plus Zinio allows you to get at the underlying text to cut & paste, usually.
    No, I don’t work for Zinio, I just like it – and I’ve just found that if you type too much into one of these comment boxes on an iPad, getting at the text that’s scrolled off is … difficult. Scroll boxes have disappeared!

  18. short addition because the lack of scroll boxes (inevitable but irritating) was making me twitchy.

    I’ve also tried the standalone apps for a couple of magazines, and find those more frustrating – nicer to look at, particularly the New Yorker, but they’re bloated (see Abode, which use) and too expensive because they don’t do an end run around the AppStore for subscriptions.

  19. Some great insights, Khoi. I agree with your overall dissatisfaction with the current offerings as well as the sentiment of other commenters regarding content. I think the most successful media apps will come from organizations that can re-imagine themselves as simply content companies (not newspapers, magazines, TV stations/programs, radio, etc,). The app IS the medium and content needs to be created and designed specifically for the form factor and its technological capabilities.

    It’s interesting that you brought up Flipboard. While a great app, I see them as a company designing content that others are creating. And there are numerous others doing interesting stuff too (Pulse, FLUD, SkyGrid, Times, River of News, etc.). But I’m much more interested in the evolution of companies that create content themselves. Highly produced, exclusive content with the intended purpose of temporarily locking me out of the outside world. Also I’m not convinced FlipBoard would be too interesting if all the old media companies ceased to exist. It would just be a pretty way to consume gossip (bloggers, twitter and friends’ photos).

    Most media breaks down to story-telling and/or encapsulating a specific lifestyle. A combination of photography, video, audio, written text, and social elements into an app seems like the best way to do this. And that’s not what we’re seeing in any apps today. I see the TV news networks pump out videos (produced for a TV), the newspapers pump out articles (written for paper or web), magazines using photography and text centered around the idea of a page, and only the start-ups really embracing social features. And while a logical conclusion might lead one to think this is exactly what a website is for, I don’t. There are too many existing expectations on how a web site should work (e.g., free to read and to repost). Plus it’s also too hard for designers to package a consistent experience with technology fragmentation (WebKit/Mozilla/Flash/Mobile/30″ & 11″ Displays/etc.,). I do see how tablet fragmentation may introduce this same problem in the future but right now there is only the iPad to worry about.

    The big question is how long will it take to see some of these great apps? And will it be from one of the established brands, that is today tied to a specific “old” medium, or will it be from a startup? At the end of the day, it’s clear the iPad is truly a disruptive technology and will force several industries to rethink the way they present content. This is just the beginning.

  20. I think trying to put “magazines” on tablets is a dumb idea, sure, I agree with that assessment. I don’t own a tablet and prefer paper magazines, so I really have no horse in this race. But, if you’re going to do it, it should at least have the balls to try to be as much like a magazine as possible. I completely disagree with the idea that they should have any shred of individuality stripped away and replaced with a notepad document or an antiseptic news site layout; it’s missing the point of what the experience of reading a magazine (at least the good ones) has always been about. If you want generically formatted, plain text content then go surf the web, just about every magazine worth reading presents this way in the browser.

    Not only that, but saying a magazine isn’t worth the extra space it takes up on the device is sort of rhetorical: if you don’t value the magazine as much as, say, an album of music or a TV show, both of which are subject to similar problems, then why download it? All of them are designed as media experiences, not robotic mechanisms for content consumption. Personally, I welcome this attempt to present content beautifully whether it works for everyone or not. Though, nothing they do will make digital magazines a success story on the tablet format. I think we can all agree on that.

  21. The issue is neither the digital replication of the magazine, nor the tablet as a device; it’s the nature of information in 2010. With almost every web site having an RSS feed and internet denizen spewing forth news and opinions via the Twitterverse, much of the way we now consume data is in smaller, more concise bursts. In fact, many articles written can become irrelevant as soon as the last period is typed. Many print magazines seem out-of-date by the time they hit the shelves (especially in the tech arena), because the world has already moved on during their lengthy print cycles.

    Magazine cover article about a new iPhone? I’ve streamed the keynote from Apple, read a review from Walt Mossberg and MacWorld, witnessed tens of unboxings on YouTube, scrutinised the specs, hit the Buy button and watched someone blend it, by the time I even see the printed headline.

    I believe that whoever can tame the phenomenal information chaos we can so easily tap into and make it easy to find items that we are interested in, items that are important to us, relevant, timely and enjoyable to read, will ultimately deliver the magazine’s replacement.

  22. Hi Khoi – just a small correction – Popular Science is not a product of an Adobe toolchain, but instead the fledgling ‘mag+‘ platform, which our company BERG worked on early stages from concept to launch for Bonnier.

    It’s now being developed further by Bonnier and there are 5 different magazines available in 3 different languages.

    All of which has nothing to do with your points above, most of which I agree with, and also – bonus points for the use of the word ‘chimerical’…

  23. My colleague and I at have built a ‘finishable’ newspaper app precisely because we weren’t happy with a lot of the ‘extras’ and bonus chrome provided by many news apps and lack of ‘finishability’.

    We’d be delighted for people to download and give us some feedback on our experimental project. Today’s News app

    More on-topic: I like the curated experience of a magazine or newspaper, the obvious example being the Economist’s approach of ‘if you read this once a week you’ll know what is going on in the word’, I’m interested to see where the digital delivery of the ‘monthly issue’ of something will take us.

    I think the future lies somewhere between the web, Instapaper and the alleged Apple newsstand. I do think that finding a way to make money is the key issue. Cross platform micropayments? Is the UK Times paywall model right? Is the open approach of the guardian sustainable?

    This does come down to the reliance on large ‘brand’ advertising, once you can measure the effectiveness or ROI of an ad it’s real monetary value can be calculated with much more precision and this seems to me to be much less than the previous cost of a printed ad – hence the issue.

    I’ve slightly rambled here… so I guess I should stop. But definitely a fascinating area to watch, but most likely a little terrifying for those in the publishing industry.

  24. For me, the long view has been a very long time coming (like a decade) doesn’t matter whether we are talking about E-books are E-mags. So I must say I am very pleased to see it starting to take shape in whatever form possible. That said, there is certainly room for improvement.

    I don’t really care so much to have a exact replica of the magazine on my tablet but in some cases this is enough. I presently live in Eastern Europe where I have almost zero access to magazines in English. In this case, the exact for and the pricing is quite okay for me. I get access to Dwell Magazine, National Geographic Traveller, and Vegetarian Times in this way. I recently read an issue of SHE (UK) and admittedly it was not so easy to read online. It did have brand links but could certainly use the interactivity to add value.

    What I prefer more are the exact replica of the magazine content with the addition of interactive features live videos, slideshows, and other digital add-ons. Gourmet Traveller , Wired, Women’s Health, People, and Glamour have much more to their interactive offering like polls, digital-only features, ‘tap here’ to buy or view from retailers, ‘save item’ of interest viewed in the issue, step-by-step photos, videos and slideshows, ‘view all posts’ to connect with their social presence. I’ve always flagged or bookmarked my print mags and it’s quite handy to do that now in the E-version and actually find it a month from now.

    This is not present in the traditional magazine. I’ve followed the same path with my bookshelf and have been prompted in this direction by online studies as well (E-textbooks). I tote around an entire print library on my tablet and this I appreciate very much. Not to mention it saves me in the nasty new over-the-limit luggage fees. I board my international flights with the five magazines and two books I plan to read during my journey with no problem at all.

    And what I really find value in is how I can personalize (aggregate), consume and share content through Flipboard. I do agree there is nothing new here from the content point of view but on personalization and the method of consumption, it is unique for now. I could build in Flipboard my 5 magazines, 2 books, 3 social sites, and 10 fav blogs and enjoy the experience.

    Lastly, when I moved out of country last year I was aghast that I made a trip to the recycle center with an entire carload, trunk and all, to drop of YEARS of print subscriptions! I do feel my iPad presents a more eco-friendly approach for my magazine fetish.

    Just some thoughts from a consumer of these iPad rags with a different perspective.

  25. Agree with much of what you say. BUT I think you may be being a bit hard on the early developers/experimenters. The New Yorker app does in fact link out to the web. Take a look at some of the small ads to see very rich linking out from the app (eg Swan Galleries). Now I am not sure that the New Yorker developers are doing this in a totally scaleable and sensible way, but they are doing it and some of the ads are very information rich as a result. Also it is in fact very easy to tweet or blog from the New Yorker app, you just need to use some of the tools on your iPad. Here is the opening of the review of the Facebook film that I just tweeted at you.

    Magazines apps have to become more social and more communicative but it is not obvious to me that this has to happen by building a lot more proprietary machinery into the magazine app framework.

  26. For now, I remain solidly in the Zinio camp. You can subscribe to magazines for the year at prices comparable to the print editions. You get nothing much more than a DRM-encrypted PDF, but with some cut and paste abilities to boot. But all the magazines appear in one place, and they load much faster then these 500mb apps. You can also store them on Zinio’s server, by deleting them off your app, and download them again months later if you need. Or download them and store than permanently at home with their Mac or PC software.

    I’ll switch to dedicated magazine apps… when the premium is on content, ease of use, fast downloading or easy sharing to social networking services. Right now, the premium is just on my time (long downloads) and my wallet (extra money spent).

  27. I don’t buy the social graph angle. Explain how The Economist continues to charge a premium for a monolithic magazine and succeed. Maybe they can because they are principled.

  28. I think part of the problem is that most of the magazines that are being turned into apps aren’t ones that people like you that talk about the design of these apps actually like to read. If you were truly a fan of EW’s content and you want the EW brand on your iPad, their Must List app isn’t the solution (except as an equivalent of a magazine insert).

    With New Yorker, the way they’re inputting the content isn’t very different from filling out a form in a CMS/blogging tool and funneling it into online article and sectionfront templates. The problem is that Adobe’s tool isn’t exporting it into a lightweight format and the producers not taking enough advantage of its linking capabilities (although for me that’s a mute point since usually I’m reading it when I don’t have Internet access on my wifi iPad…).

    For the time being I’m not missing out on anything I’d get in the print version (besides anxiety over adding to the pile of recycles every week) and they are doing a few nice things the magazine doesn’t like audio/video, linking their table of contents, and providing a way to view their comics all at once.

    One of the things that the iPad gets praised for in general is all the focused experiences that each individual app provides, but my problem with it is that if I’m trying to read a book, it’s easy for me to get distracted by the other apps. So maybe it’s not such a bad thing for magazines to be so closed off from the rest of the Internet. If I want to browse around, I have Safari. If I want to focus in on a specific brand’s content, I have their app.

  29. Bart, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that “part of the problem is that most of the magazines that are being turned into apps aren’t ones that people like you that talk about the design of these apps actually like to read.” I’m right in the demographic of Wired readers. And I’m an avid, longtime reader of The New Yorker; in fact it’s the only magazine that I don’t mind paying to subscribe to.

  30. I think that people who are critical of what Adobe is trying to do to help publishers aren’t seeing the whole picture. The technology that Adobe is building is a platform. Heck, when PDF and Acrobat were introduced, people laughed in its general direction. Now PDF drives the majority of documents online and supports far more functionality that it did when it was first out there.

    The UI and the kind of content that can be viewed using Adobe’s solution is what I’d consider unimportant at this stage. It’s a browser that will eventually support much more. But it’s the platform that lies beneath that really — at least in my humble opinion — save publishers. Because it’s all tied into the analytics that Adobe offers through Omniture. So publishers can finally get real-time feedback on how people are reading their content. They will know which articles people read, how long it takes them to read it, which order they read articles in, which ads they respond to, which ones they don’t — it will allow publishers (at least smart ones) to tailer content specifically for their viewers.

    The Adobe platform for UI and the kind of content it can display can change at any time, and will likely improve over time. But I believe that publishers like Conde Nast realize that they can immediately begin gather data that will ultimately lead to their advantage in developing quality content that people will pay for.

  31. This is a really excellent piece. It should be on Steve Jobs’ must-read list. Well-done in all aspects.

    What hit hardest was this concept: The essential reason these ‘magazine apps’ won’t succeed is that their nature runs contrary to the nature of tablets. What is that nature? Interactive… moreso even than computers (more ‘hands-on’ as it were).

    These magazines tell themselves they ARE being interactive. “Look! This video activates when you run a finger over it! Look! You can change the configuration of this chart!” But that’s not what ‘interactive’ means, not anymore. (Maybe 10-15 years ago, it did.)

    Interactivity means the creator giving up a measure of content control. That requires more than a change in delivery systems, which is how magazine and book publishers (and their authors!) see things. It requires nothing less than a complete change of mindset. Most publishers and content creators aren’t quite ready for that. It could even be that most of them who are in business today will never be ready for this change – and so it will be implemented by the next wave.

    I’m bookmarking this page for future reference. It (along with the comments!) is practically a white paper on this subject.

  32. “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.”

    This cul-de-sac sounds kind of nice, actually.

    My own personal pendulum is swinging back to spending more time with substantial writing in a distraction-free setting, sometimes even with those tombs of prose called books (electronic or paper). I find it more rewarding than spending all my reading time flitting from 2-minute-article to 5-minute-article to 30-second twitter scan, etc. etc.

    I have a feeling there are other pendulums swinging similarly, enough that this magazine idea just might survive.

  33. Much of your criticism of magazine apps seems to be of the magazine medium itself rather than the apps.

    As for the apps themselves, it is a mixed bag, but should that be a surprise considering that the iPad was only launched on April 3 of this year? As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    The iPad syncing problems is real, however. As someone who downloads and looks at tons of media apps for my website, my sync times can get ridiculous — I’m always cleaning out apps in order to make my iPad workable.

    In the end, the question is this: should publishers build apps that exactly duplicate their print products (with enhancements and added multimedia material) or should publishers create new ‘native” publishing products? Right now I think the answer is “both”.

  34. I believe if you condense your analysis and follow it to its logical conclusion, everything that is happening makes sense. The well-paid and high-status people who make the decisions have two choices: embrace the new world in which their pay and status decline sharply, or double-down on keeping the current system going as long as they can. From their perspective, the first choice is unthinkable — it’s professional suicide. Mostly they will refuse to acknowledge its existence to anyone, including themselves. It would take an owner or powerful CEO who was more interested in his mission than his profits, and willing to fire his most loyal lieutenants en masse, to really embrace the new model. Adobe is positioning itself perfectly as the kindly funeral home director — just sign right here and we’ll manage all the messy details; we recommend a solid platinum coffin to show you care (that’s not quite the right metaphor, but its close). If they tried to lead current VPs into a world with no place for them, who would follow? They might as well make a buck off the doomed.

  35. I would say I’m also in the right demographic to read Wired, but I never read the print version, I don’t read their blogs unless someone links to something interesting, and I didn’t stick with the iPad version.

    I have bought several issues of New Yorker, though, and I think as long as they work out their pricing and Adobe continues to improve on the output (maybe provide an option for the audio/video to not be available for offline viewing to decrease that file size, plus tie it into a commenting/sharing system) they’re on the right track.

    I wouldn’t want New Yorker’s content to be mixed into a Flipboard-type experience. It can stand on its own, even in digital form.

  36. The distribution cost to publishers is much less on the iPad and they need to pass on that savings to the consumer in order to flourish.

    I think consumers are ready and willing to pay for editions on their iPads, but are unwilling to do so at an equal (or in many cases higher) price than the paper version. Same goes for eBooks.

  37. Excellent analysis of the issues facing the magazine industry.

    I would like to see trade associates such as the Magazine Publisher Association – recently renamed the Association of Magazine Media – take a substantial role in leading the discussion around the User Experience with content on mobile devices. Currently they have a directory of Apps but no analysis of best practices or the showcasing of innovative approaches.

    Print, Web, Phone and Tablet (and soon iP TV) allow brands to distribute their content to readers/viewers – while every medium has strengths and weakness I feel very strongly that the digital replica model (sometime enhanced with a bit of multimedia) is not the way of the future. Instead, they are an example of publishers wanting to protect a legacy print model that has been very good to them.

    Yesterday the Digital Magazine Awards announced their winners – com – as a service to the whole industry I’d have liked to see them discuss on their winners’ site the ground breaking approaches that resulted in the winners receiving their awards. How many of these digital magazine winners had iPad apps ?

    The MPA will have their awards event for Digital Media in Feb 2011 But, why an annual event when our industry is changing daily ? I’d rather have daily/ weekly/ monthly examples of the leading innovation in our industry.

    Yesterday Condж Nast announced a re-organization to focus on digital Link

    as I noted in a comment to the article – mobile was not mentioned in the memo.

    There are a bewildering array of platforms for publishers to choose from – including Scroll Motion, Zinio, Woodwing, Adobe, Texterity, Pixel-Mags, ZMags and many others. Next Issue Media is reportedly working on one too. Technology will help but the industry needs to focus less on the backend and develop experiences that truly engage the reader no matter where they are consuming content.

    There are some excellent discussions going on regarding the future of the magazine that are worth checking out in the LinkedIn Magazine Group

    Apple wins by putting design and U/UXI first – great content is the foundation for success but how it is displayed to the reader is critical.

  38. The Conde Nase/Adobe partnership smacks of ignorance. Applying the old formula to a new paradigm is shortsighted. I like the concept of Flipboard and agree that the traditional magazine format will need to evolve to survive.

    I used to subscribe to several magazines and I let my subscriptions lapse for several reasons – the main reason being by the time I received the information, it was dated. I believe as the transition from print to digital continues to evolve, magazines will need to become more flexible in when and how their content is delivered. They will be competing not only against other traditional magazines, but also against blogs, news and entertainment sites, apps and other assorted content providers.

  39. I’ve always felt that the promise of “Design once, publish everywhere” that companies like Adobe always peddled was a complete mirage. Furthermore, I’ve never met any designers who actually used things like InDesign’s “Package for Web” (or whatever it’s called this version). Everyone knew that if you wanted a web version then you got someone in who knew web design.
    The output from print-based tools was invariably unusable.

  40. I think the author may be missing the point of magazines on tablets. sure, pricing is an issue if you’re being charged twice for the same content in print and digital. Bloated; not so much. compare your download times to the US Mail or driving to your local book store for a copy. I have faith that digital magazines’ file sizes will shrink (especially if Apple has a say). As far as imbedding hyperlinks, enabling cut and paste and opening up the magazine’s content to the whole world of social media, I think that depends on the magazine and the audience. There are magazines that are meant to be consumed without distractions. The content isn’t ‘old’ or ‘outdated’ if it’s a week, or a month old. These magazines will thrive in the digital age because the content typical of these magazines begs for the extra dimension that the tablets will allow. I’m thinking of magazines like Architectural Digest. Although I am an occasional reader, AD is known for excellent photography. Imagine an issue with interactive photos, video, interviews with the owners. Traditional ads could be dispensed with altogether and replaced with product placement fees. Add links from the products image directly to a tasteful, engaging ad and I think you’ve hit a home run. There are many magazines that would benefit from this ‘style’ of tablet exposure. Gourmet may not have had to shutter its operation with this business model. BMW Motorcycle magazine, Porsche’s ‘Excellence’ magazine, Martha Stewart’s ‘Life’, ‘Wooden Boats’, any premium Photography magazine are all examples of magazines that could thrive on a tablet. All digital content does not have to mimic the current fractured model. Sometimes focus can be good. It’s working for digital books.

  41. Mister Snitch,
    Your comment might carry more weight if you supplied even one specific example of the type of ‘interactivity’ you claim is missing from current digital magazines.

  42. This is an entirely new device, and it’s not surprising that there are failures among the pioneering publishers. As you stated, the faults are not just with the publishers—Apple needs a dedicated newsstand because magazine apps get lost amid the dross in the App store. Prices are ridiculously high, and there’s absolutely no reason an ezine should cost as much or more as its print counterpart.

    And publishers hoping to run their print magazines through some Adobe Indesign plug-in to pump out an app are another problem. The first company that designs a well-designed, flexible template system that can be used by magazine publishers to output cleanly coded magazines that include increased interactivity (including social media and other sharing features) will have a blockbuster on their hands. Magazines on a tablet should look and function differently than a digitized print version with clickable hot spots.

    The NYT app is very well-designed and a model of how content can be presented in an easy-to-navigate and uncluttered interface. I’d buy a LOT more digital magazines if they cost $.99 and weren’t just facsimiles of the print edition.

  43. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Adobe may be producing the tools to create these apps but it’s the publishers who have to want to break the mold set by print periodicals. They’re doing what they know how to do. Someday someone will break that mold with a tablet-friendly publication and everyone will rush to emulate/steal that new idea–and Adobe and others will change their tools to make it easier to produce them.

    I also think many readers do have the focus to read publications like these. RE: “…these apps demand that you confine yourself to a remote, suburban cul-de-sac”–if this is the case, then reading a novel must be like confining yourself to a collapsed Chilean mine. But people still read novels.

  44. I guess my only beef here is that folks are so quickly dismissing the magazine format and arguing it has to be reinvented drastically. I think readers and consumers tend to port experiences onto new devices. Google Maps still looks like a map. The play and fast forward buttons on my iPod still look like the buttons on my Walkman from 25 years ago.
    If I buy a magazine app, I probably expect it to be – wow – a magazine. Should it be an evolution in functionality? Sure. Should it be designed like a web page? No.

  45. The problem with the Adobe of 2010 and this approach is they are trying to corner the market as quick as possible. It is like a gold rush and has all the same drawbacks. Compare this to the Adobe of the early 80’s and desktop publishing for print. Yes, they had one eye on PDF as a platform, but they also let the designers and typesetters lead and contribute to the development of the technology. So the needs of the designers informed the technology, not the other way around.

    Now Adobe has so much invested in their publishing “platforms” that they cannot possibly be nimble, brave or humble enough to throw out what they think they know and let the needs of the developing mobile platform inform the tools.

  46. This conversation is of particular interest to me, given that I design magazines (the dead-tree ones) every day. A while back, I got into a long-winded debate with my colleagues over at SPD when Oliver Reichenstein at iA kind of ripped WIRED a new one over their first app. It’s been fun to participate in the dialogue and to watch from the sidelines in the months since as mags have rushed to Apple’s AppStore market.

    I see this as a problem that is at once about the platform (paper, screen, TV, radio) and about the packaging (magazine, insert, ad), but a long time ago innovators in various corners of journalism proved that you can make a package platform independent, but you have to rethink everything you know about your content to do it. The only part of the experience that translates across media is the storytelling part. The example I use again and again when I have this conversation with colleagues is the 60 Minutes one. Unlike a 20/20 which is purely an investigative journalism broadcast, or a Situation Room which is purely an analysis broadcast, 60 Minutes was a truly straight adaptation of the magazine idea to the television broadcast. Some pieces are profiles; some are investigative. Andy Rooney’s just annoying (like a columnist who’s always butted up next to your jump material because no one wants to fire him and occasionally he’s funny, but mostly it’s just mothballs). But there’s some light-hearted service journalism in the first 15 minutes and then a twenty five minute exposж on the hunt for Osama. This is a platform that’s proven itself, just as its paper brother did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    So as a magazine art director, I see the challenge publishers face as more about finding the methodologies that translate from the iPad experience to their storytelling, and how we utilize that.

    As for standards, I think that I have to agree with you, Khoi, wholeheartedly about Adobe’s meddling here. It’s not all their fault; the publishers have been begging them for this, and they’re just filling a market niche. My magazine was recently sold to another company and I’m eager to begin exploring our iPad/tablet options but my thinking about this and study of what others, like Wired, have done already have only reinforced the thoughts I already had on the matter. We need to be finding new ways to tell our stories for this platform, not just creating a set of tightly-matched cells that we process with a slightly expanded production/dev team and match to what we sell on paper.

    After that, the standards will come. As Mick says, this is about us, the designers, telling them, the software/tool makers, what we need. Screw the boss and his cost-analysis. If someone can build this app, it won’t be necessary to hand-wring over Apple’s insistence upon screwing publishers with sub/consumer data, or single copy sales or any of that pricing/marketing dog fight that’s currently dominating the conversation on the business side. Let’s start telling our stories in ways that work on a pad, and I bet people might be compelled to pay for it. Do it in standards like HTML instead of flash, and maybe we won’t be inundated with bloatware.

    If someone wants to build this magazine app, can we talk? I’m so stoked to do a project like this, but whenever I start down this road, all the eyes in the room at work just glaze over.

  47. “. 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.”

    This is so right, then looking at the fact that lots of social media is consumed on mobile devices you quickly realize that really the mobile web is the future of content delivery or integrated content in social network sites. As you said apps have no notion of an outside. It doesn’t stop here, the outside has no awareness of apps as well, they are not linkable. We recently summed all that app in an article you might like.

    The Future is the Mobile Web (not the Mobile App)

  48. Could not agree more. I was experiencing unacceptable backup time when syncing my iPad to iTunes (26 hours!). After some googling, I removed the Wired and New Yorker Apps, and the backup time was reduced to 4 hours (still too much, but more manageable). Turns out, these Apps consist of thousands of files! Something is horribly wrong with the Conde Nast apps made by Adobe. I fully understand Steve Jobs’ crusade against Adobe, this is crapware!

    I recommend reading this article:

    Is This Really The Future of Magazines or Why Didn’t They Just Use HTML 5?

  49. Erik: regarding a storytelling framework… Marvell comics has already demonstrated this kind of dynamic imagination in App design for the tablet.
    (of course, this ‘Farenheit 451’ approach may be a bit hard to swallow for news, but maybe not for color glossies)

  50. It’s possible that I’ve missed something, but I feel like everyone speaking on this subject is using technical problems to explain why magazines don’t belong on a tablet. I’m not saying they do, but the fact that you have to pay extra for the digital copy doesn’t say anything one way or another about whether magazine content belongs in the tablet space. Syncing, the inability to push content out of the app… Isn’t it reasonable to think that these issues will be ironed out as time goes on?

    I mean, I don’t know if you remember what websites were like back in the mid-90’s…

  51. Khoi, if you spent less than four hours composing and editing this masterful post, then I salute you sir.

    The only thing I have to add is this: Magazine publishers have been attempting to “port” their publications to the web for more than ten years, and their success could be classified as little to none. The tablet arena will fare no better.

    I like Zeldman’s one liner in relation to this latest flurry of magazine apps: “Masturbatory novelty is not a business strategy“.

    Again, great post. I feel educated.

  52. As a 50-ish consumer and long-time Internet veteran (email user for almost 30 years) and now very much interested in what the iPad can do, I have the following list of needs/wants for magazines:

    1) No ads, period. Nothing outside of the story. I will pay to have no ads.

    2) It makes sense to have the app be a window to the much larger collection of stories and connections that are stored and/or generated by the publishing firm, along with links, connections, interest matching, and so on.

    3) Integration with the social network is important but I want to build and cultivate that network myself and relatively carefully, and yet without that task being difficult. It is not clear to me how that will work yet.

    4) Taking full advantage of the dynamic nature of the connected device is great, but not to excess. Sometimes I want to be entertained, sometimes I want to dig into something. When I want to dig in, I want useful, well-researched links. When I want entertainment, I want a different thing. The same layout, interaction model, social network connections, etc., are different. I want to interact with a different subset of my social network for different goals.

    5) Yes I would really like balanced analysis of news and issues, and I will bet the majority of users would like that as well. And I will pay for that.

    I will pay a *reasonable* amount to get my ideal setup. In a perfect and completely implemented world of great magazine apps I would say my annual budget for information is probably in the $500-$1000 range, more or less. That may be higher or lower than a typical budget but I don’t think that’s something to be sneezed at, and it goes directly to the publisher without advertisers pulling off their take.

  53. I’m not a regular subscriber to the The Yorker but appreciate the quality of the journalism – as I’m just about to take a 5 hour plane journey I thought I’d download an iPad issue and was will to pay $4.99 – it’s hard to believe but they don’t allow you to browse the table of contents on the iPad app – although you can on their web site. What is the publisher thinking ? I decided to download a book instead.

  54. @erik (and others who may be interested)

    Just like Khoi, I’m not satisfied with any of those apps we’ve got on iPad now and do think there’s huge room for improvement.

    I’m a veteran developer with more than 15 years experience dealing with both web and RIA technologies, could implement pretty much any idea that comes to mind, and currently I’m very obsessed with the evolution of digital media, be it news, magazine or book.

    If anyone has got a good idea on how to create a better digital reading experience on mobile devices and need a little help on the technical side, drop me a line please. (forlist66 -at- gmail).

  55. No, I’m not satisfied with magazine implementation on tablets yet either. But the “cul-de-sac” you speak of is one of the reasons I love magazines so much and more recently the “reader” function in Safari. Sure, I’d like to able to share content, but I need to remove all the bullsh*it that comes with looking at a website, especially that of a newspaper/publication. A barrage of banners, animated ads, sound, video all jumping on screen while I’m trying to read is so disturbing to the experience that I’ll take a paper piece any day. It’s not “social” it might not be “up to the second” but it allows me to remove myself from the constant update world for a moment and comprehend & and appreciate what I’m reading. While huge leaps have been made, for me long form articles/journalism and their respective design, layout and reproduction can’t match their paper counterparts yet. And, I’m only 31 years old. Go figure.

  56. Only a New Yorker would consider living in a “cul-de-sac” a disadvantage. Reading without distraction is an advantage not a disadvantage and any app. that designs that as a feature gets my money.

    Being subject to and able to interact with the noise that is twitter, Facebook et al is not something I require in a reading experience.

  57. Really insightful piece – all over the world magazine (and book) publishers are trying to figure out what the future for delivering content looks like. New tech comes around as fast as it seems to disappear (how many e-reader hardware makers have gone this year alone?) and there is a constant need to rebuild and reconstruct workflows and output formats just to keep up. This is expensive and time consuming – both unpopular concepts in publishing.

    So, what’s the answer? Well, a combination of ads, video, subscription, text, photography seem to be the crucial elements (I’d chuck in customization, personalisation, social networking and sharing). We’re describing websites, which all tablets will work just fine with. Websites are timely, universal, easy to make and update, easy to share, bookmark etc… I’m really interested to see if the mix of subs, ads and syndication / licensing revenue is enough to make the best content sites self-funding. I think it will be. People will pay a small premium to access the content they want. Do the massive mags with great quality journalism think people won’t pay for them in a digital format? They will, for sure, especially if it’s then delivered to the device of their choosing. What they won’t pay for is dross or rubbish content.

    Flipboard also works well with websites….

  58. “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.”

    With all the plugged-in social media enabled methods and modules dropped into a page, I feel the uncluttered iPad “cul-de-sac” is a welcome change.

    The reality is that your average iPad user who is browsing Wired does not care and is perfectly happy.

    The problem is that ‘we’ care, we who disagree on so many design details. Its like painting a fence, everyone has an opinion.

  59. publishers are so worried about format ie digital, print, mobile, they are getting away from what really matters…good content.

    most magazine content is so dull and boring and written by people who really are out of touch with what they are writing…so much of it is opinion and not fact based journalism it is off putting

    good content will keep a user coming back no matter how it is delivered. after they get back to good content then they can figure out how to deliver it cheaper and faster or in a profitable manner, maybe get creative on revenue streams etc.

  60. I guess I don’t know the future of mags either, but this jumped out at me: “And it’s a no-brainer to me that content consumption is going to be intimately if not inextricably linked with your social graph.”

    This is in reference to social media playing a role. Do I want to be tied to my social graph? Do print magazines allow me NOT to be tied to my social graph.

    It reminds me of the 1996 prediction that people will be able to and want to chose the plot of a story (enabled by new media). It failed to realize that the beauty of story telling is that the audience does not know what comes next and has no control of the ending.

  61. If publishers and web technologists, and everyone else who owns or operates a website, built their websites with the user/audience in mind, like “” has, I suppose there wouldn’t be a need for apps to read articles, blogs, whatever, online.

    I’ve always admired the simplicity and beauty of Subtraction.


  62. Without prejudice (I’m the design editor at the Times in London) I point you in the direction of our latest iPad magazine app, Eureka launched today. It concentrates on the science of sport and I think starts to do some interesting things on this platform…

  63. Sorry, but all those who are buying into Khoi’s view are being way too idealogical and avoiding economic reality. This argument may be valid a few years down the road when the publishing-to-mobile market has matured but for now publishers must venture into these new waters carefully. Dedicating the kind of resources suggested in this article to creating innovative mobile presentations at the risk of taking one’s eye off the ball is simply foolhardy. I applaud those publishers who are dedicating resources to creating innovative presentations but given the economic turmoil that we’ve all been and are going through, those who can are far fewer in numbers than those who would like to.
    I agree the Wired’s of the world are not perfect but keep in mind for every iPad out there, the Newton had to exist.

  64. Been there, done that.

    … reminds me of the second half of the ’90s when Web sites were a direct translation of magazines & brochures. We will learn how to play the new mobile and tablet medium, I am sure.

  65. It’s history repeating itself. Publishing used to thrive on the fact that the cost of publishing itself was high. In music, video and printed media only a few had the means to produce and distribute content.

    Digital media changed that completely. With the Ipad, magazines feel that the bar has risen again, because the costs for app development are still relatively high.
    But I agree with you that this is just a bubble.

    The real opportunity lies, like the folks at the Vostok Studio in Spain said, in a great diversification of content niches.
    Tablets are a highly personal device. They will give a huge number of otherwise anonymous content producers the opportunity to reach an ever increasing number of consumers.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.