Are Magazine Apps like Games on the iPad or more like Books?

Bloomberg Businessweek produced a pretty effective and straightforward app for the iPad earlier in the week. And it got predictably mixed reviews from the magazine app critics. Grudging and faint praise, at best. Here are some typical gripes from Techcrunch:

It is a perfectly serviceable magazine app. But it is underwhelming. There are no extra photos beyond what’s in the magazine, or even much in the area of additional multimedia other than a video intro every issue by one of the editors about how cover they chose the cover, and a couple audio interviews to accompany columns by Charlie Rose and Tom Keene. Erick Schonfeld Bloomberg Underwhelms with iPad App (Demo)

Erick Schonfeld’s reaction here is very typical of the criticism that magazine apps tend to attract. The critics seem to assume that a magazine app should really be something else. Its got to be more than a magazine. Heck, otherwise what is the point? No extra photos, not enough additional multimedia, just the magazine….. It is as though the magazine app needs to be specially designed and uniquely conceived for the iPad platform. In much the same way that computer games need to be adapted and versioned for the hardware platform on which the game will be played.

We should look more closely at this question of what else a magazine app ought to be, other than the print magazine. But, first, consider how unusual this approach is. Content publishers do not, for the most part, look at the iPad and say, “How can we become something completely different on this device?” Hollywood does not think that films on the iPad need to be a qualitatively different entity from the film that one might see in a cinema or via a DVD. The point is rather that via the iPad the consumer gets an experience which is in someways pretty much as good as having the art-house experience (or not quite as good as, which is why we still like going out of an evening). Book publishers are not expecting books on the iPad to be qualitatively different from the books that get published on paper. Can you envisage the fury that would result if the Stieg Larsson books were not the same in their iPad editions as they are in print? Throw in an extra chapter? Have an extra deviation in the plot, an optional app-loop with more time in Australia or Poland, or additional detail on how to apply or remove tattoos, handcuffs, ride motorbikes etc? Publishers and readers are pretty sceptical about iPad app books that merely chuck in various bits of video/visual over-matter, or even passages with the author reading the book. These so-called ‘enhanced editions’ have something of the air of cosmetic surgery. Messing the book up is not going to do anybody any good, the sag lines show up pretty fast. Why should we not expect magazines on the iPad to be magazines? Just as we expect films to be films? The Exact Editions platform does support and facilitate bonus media for publishers who wish to make their magazines more interactive and use multi-media elements, but it is not clear that this is what readers expect from their apps. Most magazine publishers are sensibly enough avoiding the gimmicks, but many self-appointed app experts, consider that magazines should be something different. Qualitatively better on the iPad and radically different.

There are things magazine apps can do better than print magazines, for the most part these are qualities that come from having a digital magazine. They are not specifically iPad/appy tricks and affordances. And Bloomberg Businessweek certainly gets some of these things right:

  1. The app carries with it an archive of previously published issues
  2. The app supports search across the archive
  3. The app is free to existing print subscribers (for its loyal customers the iPad app is a jolly good bonus — making that work for your readers is simply good publishing)
  4. The app has significant potential for sharing and commenting (email, Twitter and Facebook)
  5. Bloomberg provide real-time news and share price feeds linked to mentions in the articles, for all the major corporations with stock ticker labels.
  6. This is an app with the potential to grow and evolve in interesting ways

Bloomberg have done a pretty good job with their first iteration of the iPad app of the magazine. Bloomberg Businessweek should not be judged by the standards of Angrybirds or Mad Skills Motocross. There are some problems (yes, mistakes) with the Bloomberg Businessweek app, but a lot of magazines would do well to take a good look at the solution they have come up with.

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