Why the iPad is Still Really Good for Magazines

It seems that quite a few of the big magazine companies are unhappy about the way that Apple is managing, ‘controlling’ if you like, the app store. First there was an article in Folio magazine, then this was picked up by All Things Digital and then the blogosphere erupted. According to Folio magazine:

…. getting an app approved can be a frustrating ordeal, especially when publishers find out at the 11th hour that their proposal has been rejected (in what increasingly seems to be arbitrary fashion). Condé Nast famously had to rework its iPad apps when Apple announced that it wouldn’t accept Flash. The iPad is Great But Remember—It’s Apple’s Way or the Highway

This is loose reporting. First, developers obviously hear ‘at the 11th hour’ (which just means ‘at the end of the process’) that their app has or has not been approved by Apple. Do you think that they would be happier to be told before they submitted it that their app was going to be rejected? There is no timetable involved, there is no guaranteed outcome to the process. It is an ‘approval’ process. Second, the Apple approval process is certainly getting to be more predictable and less arbitrary. There are some reassuring signs that it is loosening up somewhat. Third, it is ludicrous to suggest that Condé Nast were caught by surprise that Apple would not support Flash. This was clear well before the iPad was launched and should have been obvious to anybody who was following Apple’s strategy for the iPhone in 2009. Apple would have had to change tack significantly to support Flash and if Condé Nast were listening to Adobe whispers, rather than Apple directions, they were clueless. Adobe …. words fail me. It is not doing a good job for the magazine industry.

And Peter Kafka at All Things Digital says:

Time Inc. executives “have been going nuts,” trying to figure out how to get Apple (AAPL) to approve a subscription plan. One of the more desperate suggestions, which apparently didn’t get traction: Pulling the publisher’s apps out of the iTunes store altogether.
Subscriptions, whether they’re for ink-and-paper magazines or their digital editions, are a big deal for Time Inc. and every other magazine publisher. They value them in part because they provide recurring revenue, but primarily because they provide a treasure trove of data. Time Inc’s iPad Problem is Trouble for Every Magazine Publisher

Some bloggers have turned this into a generalised fact. The e-consultancy blog reports it as a universal truth that magazine subscriptions are not allowed: “So far, no other publisher has been able to sell subscriptions through the iTunes store either.” This is completely false. Exact Editions has been selling subscriptions to magazines through iTunes for nearly a year. Plenty of other developers are now doing so. Exact Editions may have been the first developer to help magazine publishers sell subscriptions through iTunes, but there are now dozens more. Peter Kafka has got it wrong in suggesting that Time Inc does not know how to sell magazine subscriptions through the iTunes system. The problem is, as he hints in his next sentence, that Time may want to develop its own in-app subscription service and its own analytical reporting on customer usage. Both of these are no-no’s with the Apple iTunes terms and conditions.

Apple is being more explicit and more open with its policies and its directions to the market than it was a year ago. The terms and conditions for app development are now published. If Time is not reading the developer agreement that it has signed up to, that is not something to “go nuts” about. Apple should not be blamed for objecting to magazine publishers trying to re-invent the wheel on in-App subscriptions. iTunes already supports in-app purchasing on magazine subscriptions and the market will get very messy if there are lots of different terms and conditions for buying stuff through iTunes. Nor should Apple be blamed for not allowing publishers to invent and deploy any form of spy-ware or tracking software that they attach to ‘their’ magazines when deployed in iTunes. One of the snags with the still nascent Android app developer market is that there is not yet a recommendable and standard method for deploying in-app subscriptions. I hope that there will be soon. But, when it comes it will have arrived because Google or a major Android player deploys it. The Android market-place will not work if each participant re-invents all the commercial rules. Apple is doing us all a service in trying to establish solid and consumer-trustable e-commerce standards. Apple is also, in my view very rightly, jealously guarding and defending the privacy of its users. If the magazine publishers (or the games publishers) were allowed to deploy all the intrusive and malevolent data-collection services that can be devised for mobile e-commerce we would all be the losers. I am not suggesting that Time Warner will put intrusive tools in its apps, but I am saying that we need a gatekeeper to make sure that rogue publishers and developers do not abuse the system. On this, I trust Apple more than I trust Time Warner or WPP. Apple has to do some of this for the apps market if it is to be trustable, and Google will have to do something similar for its Android market it its going to work.

There are ways of selling subscriptions to magazines in iTunes; there are ways of selling subscriptions to digital magazines on the web that can then be read with a free or paid for iTunes app; there are ways of doing most of what magazine publishers want to do. Some of it can be done within the Apple e-commerce system. Some of it has to be done in another way. But the fact is that the iPad is a wonderful device on which to read a good magazine and the big magazine publishers need to get on board quickly and with subscription services that users will buy. Apple is not stopping them. They are reluctant to sell through Apple to consumers whose identity they cannot track. But the plain fact is that this is always the way they have sold single copies through the news stand, nobody knows who buys a news stand copy. iTunes is the digital equivalent of the kiosk. It is the way publishers can sell magazines to the general market, without getting much feedback on who is buying. That is a good start, but iTunes is not a good way of selling annual subscriptions at the prices that publishers would like to charge for annual subs to magazines or newspapers. iTunes is not a good way of selling to a highly targeted market. B2B publishers will sell some magazines through iTunes but it is not the way they are going to nurture their core audience (precisely because the publisher will find it hard to determine exactly who the readers are). If the big publishers want to sell annual subscriptions to consumer magazines they will need to figure out how to sell them direct. They will need to build their own digital circulation and not expect Apple to do it all for them. It can be done and is being done. The best place to start will be by converting the existing print subscribers to digital subscriptions (not ‘instead of’ print subscriptions but ‘as well as’). Furthermore, magazine publishers should be careful for what they wish. To hope or expect that Apple is going to solve all their distribution and platform problems is to bank on a solution that would be uncomfortably monopolistic and threatening to their long-term interests.

Get cracking on the iPad, but look also to what you can do with the web to sell subscriptions to your services. This is the direction that magazines should be taking.

The WIRED app — Who is in Charge?

I recommend the WIRED Magazine app. If you have an iPad (it will not run on an iPhone) and have been a Wired reader do get the app ($4.99) to make up your own mind about it. These are some of the things I most like about it:

  • Gorgeous graphics and ‘interesting’ design — we will get on to that.
  • Excellent and pithy articles on topics that any iPad owner will find interesting (lots of stuff: eg Steven Levy on why and how tablets will work)
  • Helpful navigation through the ‘layout’ mode for viewing the whole magazine in article strips (icon at top right)
  • I liked the interactivity in the Mars article (but its hard to read/navigate because a bit lacking in stability – patience!)
  • Great ads and they are all there, sometimes with links

There is already quite a bit of controversy about the Wired app and it has had a painful birth. Originally, Conde Nast and Adobe were working together on a prototype that would have used Flash and the expectation was that Apple would support Flash directly on the iPhone OS, or that the Adobe cross-compiler solution would do the business. Steve Jobs shot down this idea. So they have clearly had to cobble together something pretty fast, abandoning a framework that must have cost them a lot of time and effort. The resulting app is massive (500 Mb) and has some obvious misses — no search! But they will surely be able to improve the delivery when they move forward. Here are three important links if you want more insight into the reactions and the controversy:

  1. Adobe’s blog, welcoming the arrival of the app: ‘The future of magazines is now – and it starts in a tangible way with the WIRED Reader.’ (They must know that isn’t right, they know that this version of the Wired app was a rescue mission and pretty much lashed together when they had to come up with something fast. Adobe do not come out of this whole affair at all well. They do not have a ‘road map’ for magazine publishers and had better come clean on that. See Bill McCoy’s comments).
  2. Interfacelab (Jon Gilkinson) has many astute comments and insights. Its also rude verging on insulting: “Sure, it’s a print designers wet dream – but it really should be a consumer’s wet dream. And it most certainly is not that.” Gilkinson’s answer is to put the business back in the hands of the web designers at Wired HQ and deliver the whole thing in HTML5. The circulation director or publisher is going to reject this proposal as there is some sign that users will buy apps, but not so much that they will buy ‘urls’.
  3. Print designers wet dream? Well try Oliver Reichenstein’s blog at Information Architects to find out why it isn’t that. This blog even brought in some thoughtful comments from one of the type designers consulted by Wired over the design of this issue of the magazine (Jonathan Hoefler)

Reichenstein’s critique gets very detailed and very nerdy, but it is truly surprising that he focuses on the typography, not on the images, illustrations and navigation. His key point is foreshadowed in this objection:

But text is a different story. It needs a lot of rhetoric skill and typographic care to do what it should: to communicate. On the screen things become even more complicated. While WIRED journalists and graphic designers are still at the top of their game, the typography and the interaction design of the iPad app doesn’t come even close.

So Reichenstein presumably thinks that magazines should be root and branch re-designed for the iPad. “You can’t design iPad apps in InDesign and export them as flat files. That’s nothing short of amateurish. ” But of course you can design magazines in InDesign and then export pages to an app, and this is a very strange comment unless you believe that magazines need to be re-designed in precise and granular detail for iPads. InDesign does not exist to design iPad apps, it exists to design magazines and other forms of document. But it is equally inevitable that most documents will now need to be read, used and presented on iPads (iPhones, Android devices etc). So a modern magazine, newspaper, book, catalogue etc better look good or ‘reasonably OK’ when it is rendered on some of these devices in widespread use. The transition has to be automatic. No text designers involved. Does anybody seriously think that text in magazines needs to be designed and then redesigned for each and every piece of consumer computing technology that comes along. Will magazines need to be ‘redesigned’ for next year’s Android and then again for the 2012 super-iPad? So that they can support different screen resolutions or styles of ‘text flow’? Magazines do not need to be redesigned for the iPad, their use and their usability as digital objects has to be understood before they are transformed to an app platform. This is not primarily a task for text designers, or even for magazine designers.

Wired has always had a deliberately various, bold, edgy, contrapuntal visual design. It has been a notable strength of the print magazine. The variety and confusion has worked so well in recent years partly because it apes in print the choice and chaos of the web; each Wired story carrying its own design conventions or layout, as though we were tipped into another web site as we turned the page. Each article node with its own style-sheet. I suspect that the post-modern jokiness and anarchy of Wired’s visual design, which works so well when it is a print-only magazine, may be something of a weakness when it comes to its digital existence. Perhaps, as it heads to a new digital existence on the iPad and whatever comes next, Wired will need to forsake the promiscuous hurly-burly of the designer’s chaise-longe for the sobriety and solidity of the app store.

Reflecting on this Wired app, which it has to be said is a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’, I have been asking myself who has been driving this project forward? Adobe may have been at one stage, but they seem to have driven this proposition off the road (see Bill McCoy Wired is Tired). Conde Nast appears to have given the leadership role to Wired’s distinguished designer Scott Dadich, but getting the digital strategy right is not merely a design decision, it is not just a technical decision. The project should now be driven by the publisher, even better it should be driven by the circulation director of the Conde Nast group. One can understand why Wired would be one of the first magazines from Conde Nast to have its own app, but whatever solution or platform is chosen for Conde Nast’s magazines should really be one that can deliver across the group. Si Newhouse must have expected his premier publishing company to have chosen the best strategy for digital magazines by now. The solution is overdue and I think/hope they will get it right soon.

Making Life Difficult for Android

I am sure you noticed that Steve Jobs was reported as really going at Google, and particularly targeting Android. There has also been a good deal of discussion on the Apple:Adobe kerfuffle over Flash. Some of the best points are being made by John Gruber at Daring Fireball:

Here’s what I mean about Flash Player’s performance being a distraction from the underlying story: Even if Adobe solves Flash’s performance problems, I still doubt Apple will want to include it in iPhone OS.

It boils down to control. I’ve written several times that I believe Apple controls the entire source code to iPhone OS. (No one has disputed that.) There’s no bug Apple can’t try to fix on their own. No performance problem they can’t try to tackle. No one they need to wait for. That’s just not true for Mac OS X, where a component like Flash Player is controlled by Adobe.
I say what Apple cares about controlling is the implementation. That’s why they started the WebKit project. That’s why Apple employees from the WebKit team are leaders and major contributors of the HTML5 standards drive. The bottom line for Apple, at the executive level, is selling devices. It may well be true that Steve Jobs doesn’t really give a shit about the web in and of itself. It’s just good business for Apple to control a best-of-breed web rendering engine. If Apple controls its own implementation, then no matter how popular the web gets as a platform, Apple will prosper so long as its implementation is superior. (Yet More on the Unfolding Future-of-Flash-and-the-Web Saga)

Its all about control. And you could say much the same thing about the recent row over Apple throwing out various dubious bad taste, vaguely ridiculous and smutty apps. Again this is really Apple asserting its ability to control not only the implementation of its hardware, but also the environment in its e-commerce operation. Its all about controlling the environment and the implementation. Of course, iPhone users and iPad owners will still be able to access and play bikini-shaking apps on their iPhone. It is just that they will have to be web apps. There is lots of wicked, I mean really bad stuff on the web and it will run in the browser but it doesn’t go in the catalogue. Users will still be able to access any kind of pornography or worse, but Apple are saying loud and clear that they are not going to have them in their iTunes listings or in their e-commerce mall. It is pretty much the same issue of control as when a shopping centre landlord says: “No massage parlours and no abatoirs in this 5 acre park. Sorry, no boiling of bones here.”

Why does control of this sort, both of the operating system and the environment, matter so much to Apple? It matters because the quality of the consumer experience is affected by these issues and Apple is trying, succeeding, in mapping out a high-end and smarter consumer experience. That is it.

But it isn’t quite all. Have you noticed, how by asserting these standards and insisting on control Apple is parenthetically giving Android a tough hand to play? Android looks like being the number 2 (maybe it will be number 1, but it is starting at number 5 or 6) mobile platform. Apple is giving them some nice assets to start building their consumer experience: here you can have Flash. And a lot of the early Android phones will make much of the fact that they can run Flash. Here: you can have all the developers who produce Apps in lousy taste. Clever developers, ticked off with Apple who have a tendency to produce wobbly boob apps. These are what chess players call ‘poisoned pawns’. There is no way that Android will not be able to welcome these gifts with, gritted teeth, open arms. But could it be that Android’s playing field is being subtly polluted? Google really doesn’t much like Flash either, and I suspect Eric Schmidt is not a great fan of iBoob, still less of BabyShaker. Is Android going to be the environment in which Flash stuff runs not too well? How are Google/Android going to navigate the smut field? Part of the point (a large part of the point) of Android is that it is a much more open environment than the traditional smart phone O/S. A large part of the point of the Android e-commerce system is that it will not have those ‘ridiculous’ Apple controls. Steve Jobs is totally and absolutely delighted that Android will suck up this stuff that he is throwing out of his shopping trolley. Couldn’t be pleased-er when the Android e-commerce mall gets the reputation of having dubious apps.

Why the iPhone is a Better Reading Environment III

The Berkshire Encyclopedia of China in coverflow mode

The Page-turning feature that one frequently finds on Flash solutions for digital magazines or digital book readers, has always struck me as a dire software innovation. Unecessary, slow, boring — because the page turning is always the same experience. Gimmicky: I have even seen versions which emulate turning a creaking page of parchment! An example of software ingenuity which is orthogonal to the direction of travel. I suspect that the method was originally introduced because Flash can be quite slow with large book files and the page turning covers up the download delays.

So, I was not overjoyed to see the first Dutch review of Exactly comparing the App’s ‘pageflow’ feature to page-turning Flash catalogues (read the review in Google’s englished version here). The review is otherwise OK, (I think its quite polite, but Google or I may have misunderstood something), but this seems to be a false comparison. Pageflow has some crucial advantages which page-turning does not match:

  1. The context of the book or the magazine is preserved in pageflow because the reader actually sees the pages flowing past in rapid sequence (it will be rapid if the connection is good) This is giving us a lot of information and it is preserving and in some respects enhancing the utility of the print object. The codex was a great invention! With a book you have a sense of ‘how far’ through the book you are. Using the slider button in Exactly you can actually navigate, slide through, the whole package and you can’t do that with the merely serial page-turn in Flash.
  2. Although thumbnail pages do not give you enough detail to read a page properly, they give a surprising amount of information, even in books that are mostly full of plain text. The advertisements in magazines or illustrations in fancy books are clearly very handy in the thumbnail mode.
  3. Connected point: some of the puritanical types who argue for eBooks, seem to assume that the only point of a book is to read it. Perhaps because we have also lived with magazines, we think that skimming is good. There are many ways of reading a book or a magazine, and reading some of it and skimming the rest is OK (in my book). The pageflow mode is ideal for skimming. Please skim with a good conscience using pageflow.
  4. Final point: the ergonomics of the iPhone. Taking advantage of the iPhone’s shape and size, pageflow enables the iPhone to be useful in different ways according to the way you orient it. The portrait mode (right way up) is obviously the right way to read a portrait page. With Exactly the reader has two landscape options, 90° anticlockwise which puts the App and the iPhone in pageflow mode, and 90°clockwise which gives the best landscape mode for reading close text. I hope that this option set (which I have only as yet seen in Exactly) becomes a general convention for iPhone Apps that want to use pageflow or coverflow. Notice that the small size of the iPhone makes this use of orientation as giving alternative modes of navigating the text an even easier and more attractive option. I am sure that the mooted iPhone/tablet will also support these features and gestures, but if Apple had started with a tablet the size of the MacBook Air, we might not have seen orientation as such a strong element in their ‘touch’ interface.

Using pageflow to find a specific page

Swing the iPhone to read the page selected

Once again the small size of the iPhone is, in a curious way an advantage, in that it has pushed Apple and App developers to innovate. The Kindle did not originally offer a landscape mode, but perhaps under the influence of the iPhone it now does. It is a matter of some interest to me that the 4th side of the iPhone (180°rotation), the portrait mode — wrong way up, has not yet been found a use within the Exactly App. Perhaps this should become a way of navigating a library, of switching between books or magazine titles within a subscription? I am sure that the development team will think of a better use and a better solution…. but turning the book upside down surely has its uses?

More Mygazines

The Press Gazette has more about the Mygazines site and its possible business model. They reproduce a lengthy but empty email from the creator of the web site, supposedly ‘John Smith’, but that may well be an alias for whoever has built the service. Here is an extract from John Smith’s email:

The true future of the industry lies in the final stages of our site concept. We can easily transition to the final revenue model quickly with the co-operation of the publishers. We cannot however reveal the full concept at this time as we are saving that discussion for the publishing industry directly………
As per our press release: We have every intention of working with the industry to provide not only revenue streams that are vast, but also an answer for the Publishers in general. Our method will increase current revenue, halt and reverse advertising revenue lost to the internet, and overcome the lack of the ability for magazines to stay current.

There is more in that bombastic and questionable tone.

There was something fishy about the Mygazines claim that these magazines (hundreds of complete magazines) were being uploaded by end users who aimed to share ‘their’ magazines with others. One tell-tale sign, most of the magazines were uploaded in their entirety with Contents Pages clearly identified. If a magazine sharing site, built by the community, was for real it would be chock full of magazines which had been partially uploaded or badly annotated in the upload process. Mygazines content looked far too perfect. Much more probable that it was the work of one or two bodies toiling away with a guilotine and feeding the scanned results into the database system that lies at the heart of the service. There is no ‘safe harbor/user generated content’ defence for doing that.

It all looks like a shameless and pointless ripoff operation, with no under-lying business proposition which could possibly appeal to publishers. What a pity that the ingenuity and effort that has been put into building this ‘service’ was not applied to a more worthwhile and sensible project.