Forking happens in software projects when a developer or group of developers takes code that has been developed by one community for one purpose, and then duplicates that code and takes it off in another direction. Forking an operating system or an ‘open source’ software project or application may be perfectly legal and within the spirit of the free software. For example, Google launched Android as a free and open operating system for mobile software development and more or less invited other companies to adapt and innovate from it. Since Google had given Android an ‘open’ status, Amazon was perfectly within its rights to use this free and open operating system for its own benefit and chuck out the ‘detachable elements’: Google Search, YouTube and Google Maps, that Google would probably like all Android implementations to keep on board. Amazon’s tablet operating system (which it doesn’t call Android) will now, probably, steadily diverge from Google’s to become a different beast.
Is something similar happening with magazines now that they have gone digital? Are we going to see digital magazines sprouting different manifestations in the different hardware and software environments into which they are launched? It looks as though this is already happening. When the iPad was launched many digital experts assumed that consumer magazines would immediately be forked by their publishers. Many of the first iPad apps were radically inconsistent with the print editions which soldiered along. They had different layouts, different reading orders, contained interactive components for which there was no print equivalent, not even a print ‘placeholder’, and frequently omitted significant parts of the content in the print magazine. Some digital magazine experts still think that the real digital magazine necessarily will be radically and transformationally different from its print ‘partner’. However it seems that this commitment to radically different formats for digital magazines is beginning to fade. Publishers are increasingly of the view that magazine apps need to be recognisably similar to their print parents.
Although there is a growing consensus that digital magazines need to be recognisably similar to, or evolved from, their print ancestors, there is another source of impending divergence. Digital magazine apps are getting more dependent on the particular hardware environment in which they are sold. Apple’s iOS/iTunes environment is the most important commercial channel, but Amazon with its Kindle Fire App store and Google with its Google Play are establishing their own mutually incompatible environments. Google Play is an interesting and probably an important newcomer on the scene. PC Advisor has published a useful review of the Google Play magazine service and they note:
Play Magazines is an Android app that offers up wide selection of magazine titles in digital format. There are literally hundreds of magazines to choose from, in categories ranging from our own technology sector through cooking to travel, fashion, sports, photography, and more. From the app you access the Play Store to buy individual issues or subscriptions. There are a good selection of 14- or 30-day trials, and the reading experience on Android tablet or even phone is pretty slick, offering HD viewing on- or offline. PC Advisor
The solution is both slick and elementary. The magazines are very standardised and very ‘flat’, there are no in-text links (any links in the text are readable but dead) or even email addresses, there is as yet no search, no scope for video or for ingenious interactivity. Its all very plain but it is also simple and it works. It will be interesting to see how the Google Play environment evolves, because it surely will evolve. You would not expect to see a Google product on the market which lacked search, to take the most glaring example. It is surprising that Google have taken a much more ‘managerial’ approach than Amazon (I would have expected Amazon to be much more managerial and uniform than Google), and presents the magazine is a very standard and uniform package. The Amazon platform is really much closer to the Google Nexus tablet and platform than it is to the Apple competition, Amazon have just adapted Google’s Android for their own purpose; and yet the magazine apps in the Amazon App Store are generally closer to iOS apps than to Google Play versions. Apple and Amazon have to a large degree left it to the publishers to decide how their magazine should be presented in their digital format. There are some ironies in the way this pattern of competitive differentiation is working out. Apple is generally regarded as one of the most proprietary and exclusive companies, and yet their magazine environment is more open and more diverse than Amazon and Google’s. Amazon are generally more managerial and ‘closed’ than Google, but the Google Play magazine solution is as standardised and uniform as anything that Amazon have ever done.
It is hard to see how these different approaches will work out, but two things seems to be very probable. There will be more digital magazine marketplaces and any more entries are likely to introduce yet more proprietary variation. These magazine platform are coming from big companies that are trying to create an omnibus digital media supermarket (magazines are only part of a mix which also covers, music, film, games, books and TV). It is unlikely that we have seen the last entrant with global ambitions. Second it seems probable that these digital magazine marketplaces will evolve in different directions. A magazine on an iPad already feels rather different from the sister edition on a Kindle Fire or a Google Play app, the digital magazine proposition has already been forked into three rather different proprietary services.
To the extent that these different players are creating a degree of competition this is all to the benefit of magazine publishers and consumers (but before you cheer too loudly and waive them through the monopolies investigation, note that they all levy a flat 30% commission on all magazines sold, a surprisingly standard charge). Magazine publishers also should be wary of the danger that by forking their digital magazine service they risk losing control of their audience, complicating their workflow and moving their ambitions to a standard of ‘lowest common denominator’.