The New Yorker App: Fabulous but Flawed

One of the best magazines of all time and the acme of American style, The New Yorker, this week they launched an iPad app, and it is in some respects a brilliant effort. There are some very strong aspects:

  1. A sensational front cover by David Hockney, painted on the iPad with Brushes and with a second interactive page where you can see the way he painted it (brush strokes re-played). One might say that this is a very simple idea and a very straightforward implementation. But it is nevertheless brilliant. This will be copied many times by iPad magazine covers and digital magazine art; but perhaps never bettered.
  2. There is a funny commercial for their new app by Jason Schwartzman (directed by Roman Coppola) and you can see Jason taking a shower with his iPad here.
  3. The visuals in the app are mostly fabulous (we have a bevy of design quibbles, but this is very much a first effort and the designers have taken some risks) and the quality of much of the design of the magazine comes through brilliantly.
  4. Some of the ads are astonishingly strong, especially the small ads with links — for example try the Swan Galleries ad with its links through to catalogues for current auctions which can all be viewed with great detail from within the app. This placement gives the right kind of information-dense ad incredible ‘focus’ and visibility.
  5. The cartoons are, as is to be expected, brilliant and can be viewed in place, scattered through the magazine, or together in a cartoon gallery.

We should aplaud a great first effort, and I continue to enjoy the magazine days after downloading it. The creative talent associated with The New Yorker is second to none. However, there are a few ‘buts’ which we notice in a spirit of friendly and constructive criticism.

First, the information design of the Condé Nast apps inherits a matrix-framework built for them by Adobe. The Wired apps were the first to show it, and it seems as though this duplicated portrait/landscape rendering of a magazine layout could become a standard Adobe packaging technique. The app produced in this way is rather ‘portly’ (though much smaller than the Wired apps) and it seems that The New Yorker has some reservations about the approach. We saw the Deputy Editor, Pam McCarthy, noting for All Things Digital, that the Adobe method of scrolling a long story doesn’t work, “It’s pretty clear that when you have a 10,000-word story, smooth scrolling [in the vertical] is not a good option,” she says. For me, the Adobe technique of hanging each story as though they were page proofs draped on a ‘washing line’ through which users can navigate the magazine as a matrix, is not a good option either. Furthermore I am sure that Adobe will have to change their model of what a digital magazine is, because representing and designing a magazine in two different orientations creates more work for designers and, much worse, it creates unnecessary work for digital readers who have to learn about two slightly different digital representations of the magazine both variant in important respects from the magazine as it has been loved and learned in print. Finally, in precisely targeting the screen size and functionality of the iPad (the app is not at all available for the iPhone) Adobe seem to have created an endless design treadmill for their magazine customers who may have to produce subtly different solutions for each tablet platform. The only practical way to solve this looming problem (there will soon be many tablet formats and Android will not help by having variant app standards) is to treat the print magazine as a virtual book (if you insist a ‘page turning’ object) and then build interactivity on top of the virtual book. In that way a scaleable and generative solution can be delivered for a large range of reader devices. You will find more precise questions about the design solutions chosen for the app at MagCulture, but this fundamental issue of order, predictability and information architecture is the basic flaw in the Adobe method.

The second reservation, is that Condé Nast seem to be stuck in a publisher stand-off with Apple their necessary distribution partner for the iPad (no one can get an app on to the iPad without Apple approval!). Condé Nast President Bob Sauerberg as quoted by the Wall Street Journal:

“It is important to the New Yorker that we have offerings that allow long-term relationships with the consumers. Obviously, we don’t have that in place for the moment with Apple. We are very keen to do that.” WSJ, September 26

The astonishing thing about this comment is that Condé Nast already has a broad and a deep connection with its long-term consumers (the last time I looked it had just over 1 million of them), and it could easily enable them to access the iPad app if it adopted the strategy which the Wall Street Journal itself adopts of giving free iPad access to print and existing digital subscribers. There is no need to ask Apple’s permission to do this. If Conde Nast does not switch on its loyal print subscribers — which is perfectly within the constraints of the iTunes/Apple proposition — it is very rich to complain about Apple not allowing the company to connect with its readers. When Sauerberg was promoted he noted

“We want our readers to engage with our brands in a variety of ways, and we feel our success will be based on being able to provide our content seamlessly across every appropriate platform that exists now and in the future. We want to take that engagement and continue to try to increase it and revalue the consumer proposition. We want to do that with our magazines and our websites and our digital applications.” (Folio MagazineTranscending Print Q&A with Bob Sauerberg)

Fine words and correct. But where is the follow through? The iPad could be a seamless bridge to the consumer’s existing subscription (well a small hump of a bridge, almost, almost, seamless). The iPad actually gives Condé Nast a very straightforward way of serving existing print subscribers and were Condé Nast to do this, they would immediately have a much stronger digital connection with many of their readers and one which in the long and the short-term will serve them much better than a relationship mediated and controlled by Apple. To argue that Apple is not letting you connect to your subscribers when you do not connect the subscribers that you already have, and for which Apple will make no charge, is simply absurd.

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