The Enviable Attractiveness of the Magazine Format

Flipboard had a great introduction a few weeks ago”A Prettier Way to Browse the Social Web” (NYT). Robert Scoble went overboard “Overall this is an extraordinary iPad app and one that will shake the media world for quite some time”. Scoble may be partly to blame for the amazing user response which promptly swamped and downed the servers which drive this clever and rather beautiful app. For a while new subscribers have been filtered and phased in through rationed waves of invites. My invitation arrived a couple of days ago, and after a few sessions and hours of enjoyment I share Scoble’s enthusiasm. It is a lovely app, and really a new thing that can only work in the iPad ecology (crisp colourful images, touch, speed, cacheing and that lovely screen).

Flipboard so far only runs on the iPad (but there must be ways to bring it to the iPhone 4 with its fabulous screen) and if you have an iPad I advise you to get it. It is to this point entirely free. Here is a short video that gives you an impression of its smooth and seductive operation. The company describe Flipboard as your ‘personalized social magazine’. It certainly feels ‘magaziney’ in a very good and attractive way. It should also be very interesting to magazine publishers in showing how it might be feasible to integrate magazine content with social networks. How magazines can integrate with social networks is really the next big challenge for the digital magazine industry and Flipboard have taken a crack at the problem. At this point Flipboard only directly supports feeds from Facebook and Twitter. But that is enough to be getting along with; in my opinion, Flipboard is very Twitter-friendly, even though it may not become my favourite iPad client for tweeting (I dont have a favourite on the the iPad at all). Flipboard is actually rather more disruptive of the RSS-feed market and professional blogs than it is of the magazine industry. Interesting, because in my view RSS feed apps look rather thin and uninspiring on the iPad, and Flipboard has jumped in and gone beyond the RSS feed/reader approach to create a rich smorgasbord (images, YouTube, Tweets, as well as extracts from web articles) rather than the text-heavy RSS drip feed. If you thought that RSS feeds might be disintermediating old-newspapers and magazines, you maybe thought wrong if newly Flipped magazines and newspapers start re-intermediating familiar layouts and formats. Some commentators have suggested that the ‘aggressive scraping’ that Flipboard does is a substantial breach of copyright (it will for example, take cues from your Twitter feed and cache lots of images and stories overnight that you might want to click-through to when you wake up to read your Twitter stream, this cacheing is in most/all cases done without permission from hosts).

We don’t know what the legal issues with such pervasive, background, ferreting and cacheing may be. But if I were a magazine publisher, I would start figuring out some partnership deals with Flipboard and tell the company lawyer to calm his aggressive and injunctive instincts and keep quiet whilst we watch what could be going on here that interests magazines. The deals should involve advertising revenues and/or subscription services: there is already an Economist collection, a ‘section’ in Flip-speak (more magazine lingo), taken from the Economist’s free web services, why not have a full content-stream available through a Flipboard subscription? Flipboard is going to be a great host for iAds. Free and curated collections should have great promotional value for the magazine brands behind them. Flipboard is definitely a vessel which magazine publishers should aim to climb on board — rather than sink the ship through charges of copyright infringement. The way Flipboard manages to co-ordinate and mix pre-packaged content selections from established media with the randomness of Twitter or Facebook feeds is truly impressive. And the Flip metaphor in both borrowing from and breaking the magazine paradigm, is much more attractive and compelling than the simplistic grid of Google’s Fastflip (itself perhaps a source of inspiration/exasperation for the Flipboard founders).

So, I really like Flipboard. But the thought that really stays with me is that its conception and execution is an enormous compliment to the magazine industry and the quality of the illustrated magazine format. Users and technical gurus love Flipboard because it combines social agility with the extraordinary attractiveness of magazine layout on the iPad. The remarkable and delicious touchability of magazine stories and picture callouts all this with page sliding, or flipping. Heck, Flipboard even has a table of contents which you make for yourself as you work with it. But it really is a table of contents and the sections within it are also organized hierarchically in good old magazine style. Hear this magazine publishers and editors! Magazines look fantastic on the iPad. iPad developers who want to make their apps look truly elegant and readable ape the style and layout of a magazine. The iPad is made for digital magazine go to it!

I find it strange that many magazine editors and publishers want their magazine to look less like a magazine on the iPad. As one of our more go-ahead magazine publishers said this to me the other day: ” I want to do something different with the products other than just serve them up in a different format – what are your thoughts?”

Exact Editions have quite a few thoughts on this topic. Starting with the observation that putting magazines to work as apps is NOT just serving them up in another format. But the big news from Exact Editions this week is that we have started serving digital magazines to the print subscribers of one of our most long-established magazines. The subscribers have been learning from the address label which accompanies their weekly magazine that a complementary digital edition is theirs, as soon as they choose to log in. They can in fact use this Shared Access Code with their personal subscription account on either the web, or in their branded magazine iPhone/iPad app.

More about this in our next blog. But in the meantime I leave you with this poser: if the coolest app in the Apple universe is trying to look as much like a magazine as possible on the iPad, why are not more publishers trying to make their digital magazines or their magazine apps look even more like a magazine on the iPad? Rash prediction: I think that the best digital magazines in the next few years are going to be more interactive than the ones we commonly see now. But they are going to be even more magaziney than you imagine. Getting digital magazines right is a matter of making their format entirely magazine-like but totally appropriate for digital delivery. Flipboard may be borrowing ideas and architecture from the magazine industry, but it is also pointing the way in which digital magazines can steal back some of that innovative glitter.

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