Adobe’s Magazine Solution for the iPad

Here is an informative video podcast from the Adobe evangelist Terry White: “Adobe Digital Publishing to the iPad: A First Look”

It is a 15 minute overview of the solution for building iPad apps that Adobe is building for magazine publishers. As you might expect there are some neat software solutions in the package, especially notable are tools for placing video in a document page, for interactive/panoramic 3D photos and model rotation, and for full integration of a web page in the document. Cool stuff.

But the thing that really struck me with this overview is that Adobe is taking a big, and surely quite a risky bet on the way that we are going to read and interact with digital magazines. Adobe have decided that the information architecture for the digital magazine will be very different from the conventional paginated, linear, sequence of the printed magazine. The Adobe solution is entirely built on the proposition that digital magazines should have a matrix style of layout, with pages arrayed left/right in the horizontal plane, and also up/down in vertical ‘stacks’. This concept seems quite natural for a ‘story’, or a set of photos, or a collection of cartoons, which can be read in the vertical ‘drop’ whilst the ordered contents of the magazine move along in the horizontal mode. This sounds like a logical way of planning a magazine issue and there is apparently no reason why a digital magazine should not be so arranged. We have seen quite a few early magazine apps already employing this, washing-line, information layout, by no means all of them from Adobe’s developers. I am not convinced that users really want to read magazines in this way; but if they do, Adobe will be in a very strong position because they now have a direct set of tools for bridging magazine publishers from the InDesign package with which most high-end magazines are now produced, directly to a file format and an information architecture for the iPad to which Adobe are building an extensive and complementary set of tools.

On the other hand, there are several reasons for thinking that this big bet on the next stage for magazine architecture could be the wrong way for magazines to go digital. Here are some:

  1. Each magazine issue has to be precisely designed for the iPad, perhaps page by page, with adjustments and tweaks. The automatic layout tools in the package cannot guarantee a 100% result. This means more work in the publishing/design stage.
  2. Twice over. The magazine on the iPad should really have two sets of pages adjusted for the different aspect ratios of the landscape and the portrait mode of viewing the device. Terry White suggests in the video that the digital magazine could be designed for presentation in only one orientation, but that really is not a good option for the iPad. Magazine apps, or even ordinary documents, that can only be read in landscape or portrait mode on the iPad feel very lame.
  3. And then the magazine has to be re-engineered again for the iPhone (if that is supported) which has different proportions to the iPad.
  4. Redesigned, or re-tweaked, many times more (it is probably much worse than you think) since magazine publishers will need to review and tweak the magazine layouts again (twice) for as many alternative devices as will require magazine apps with different aspect ratios.
  5. Multi-page, multi-column, layouts work better in the horizontal plane than when read in vertical scroll mode. What do we do about that if the whole of the magazine is being matricised?
  6. This bi-valent, matrix, layout is arguably not a good solution for magazine users, because the arrangement of a digital magazine not only changes in potentially confusing ways as one switches a device between landscape and portrait mode, but it also confuses the reader as one transitions between different devices, or from print to digital. The overhead imposed on a publisher in needing to refine designs for different versions on different screens, is bad enough, but it is outweighed by the cognitive ‘overhead’ for users who need to relearn how to navigate and understand a magazine which is being presented in different ways on different devices.
  7. Are readers going to be happy with a reading style for magazines which is completely different from that used in reading newspapers or books? Are digital books meant to work as well in matrix mode as magazines? What about newspapers?
  8. Will this matrix layout work efficiently when you have magazine apps, book apps and newspaper apps on the same screen; for there will soon be bigger touch screens? Or when we wish to consult two issues of the one magazine? Matrices hog space in both dimensions.

Adobe need to have an app-building solution for the magazine industry where their software is an essential and highly regarded creative tool, but there are reasons for doubting the generality and flexibility of their current approach. If there are a score or more Android hardware devices in the next year — three, four, or five of which achieve some level of consumer acceptance — Adobe’s decision to couple the design of a digital magazine so closely to the screen size and the hardware spec. will be sorely tested.

Khoi Vinh’s Indigestion and the iPad

Khoi Vinh published, last week, a damning and severe critique of the current state of magazine iPad apps. Here are a couple of extracts:

My opinion about iPad-based magazines is that they run counter to how people use tablets today and, unless something changes, will remain at odds with the way people will use tablets as the medium matures. They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all…..

Take the recent release of the iPad app version of The New Yorker. Please. I downloaded an issue a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed every single word of every article that I read (whatever the product experience, the journalism remains a notch above). But I hated everything else about it: it took way too long to download, cost me US$4.99 over and above the annual subscription fee that I already pay for the print edition and, as a content experience, was an impediment to my normal content consumption habits. I couldn’t email, blog, tweet or quote from the app, to say nothing of linking away to other sources — for magazine apps like these, the world outside is just a rumor to be denied. (My iPad Magazine Stand Khoi Vinh)

In fact Khoi is pretty gloomy about the prospects for the magazine industry:

The fact of the matter is that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in, that is making less and less sense as we forge further into this century, and that makes almost no sense on a tablet. As usual, these publishers require users to dive into environments that only negligibly acknowledge the world outside of their brand, if at all — a problem that’s abetted and exacerbated by the full-screen, single-window posture of all iPad software. (My iPad Magazine Stand Khoi Vinh)

There are some excellent responses to Khoi’s depressing account of the magazine industry prospects in the comments which his blog has attracted. The best full-out response that I have seen comes from Mike Turro.

Without a doubt the future of magazines–both as an industry and a publishing framework–is uncertain. However, to write off the reading experience provided by a good magazine as a relic of the print world is extremely shortsighted. When Khoi offhandedly and anecdotally declares “that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in” he is assuming (though he does give a slight nod to the contrary) that the current use patterns of the web’s most emphatic users (also iPad’s early adopters) are an indication of the eventual use patterns of the population of tablet users as a whole. Khoi is certainly a smart guy, but it may be a bit early to make that call. (@Khoi Vinh’s Beautiful Mistake Mike Turro)

Mike Turro calls Khoi Vinh’s mistake, “beautiful”. I am not so sure about that — it could be a blunder, attributable to his indigestion through consuming too many unripe apps. It seems to me that ‘magazine designers’ are particularly excited and in many cases particularly disappointed by the possibilities of the iPad, because they have been thinking of the iPad as a new medium and a new design challenge for their typographic and layout skills, as though magazine publishers could own or control the device the way they control paper stocks and printed colour choices. But the iPad is not the medium but a digital device. Magazines will grow and change as they work out the potential of digital media, but they start this adventure the way they are. That is nothing to be ashamed or worried about. The excellence and remarkable quality of the iPad is that it is really a very ‘neutral’ digital enabler and any virtual, digital, media object should be able to thrive in its embrace. We should not be designing magazines (newspapers, books, films) for the iPad but for their audience, an audience that is increasingly digital and which will now have Galaxies and Droids as well as iPhones and iPads, and this means we should now be designing digital resources which can gracefully leap into different devices and across various media platforms. So if there is a reason for sticking to proven formats (pages, paragraphs, layouts, inserts, wrap-arounds, even belly bands and overlays, indices, cartoons, charts and tables) this is not because these formats are inherently digital, they are not, the reason for sticking with them is that the users/readers understand and enjoy this traditional ‘grammar’ of type. Too many of the magazine apps that we have seen for the iPad have been designed and engineered precisely for the iPad in a way that will make them impossible to deliver for the iPhone or the successful Android tablet which will surely appear in the next 6/9 months. A publisher or designer who crafts their magazine app specifically for the iPad is building in obsolescence and writing in tablets of stone a message that should be digital, transferable and evolving. The challenge which the iPad and other digital manifestations of the magazine will present to the publisher is this: how can we make a magazine that works well in print and in a range virtual manifestation on tablets, games consols and many other digital gadgets that we have not even considered yet? As Khoi Vinh and Mike Turro both recognise, this is very early days for the iPad and for tablet apps.

The requirement that a magazine should be consistent across a variety of print and digital manifestations certainly does not mean that it should be the same in those ‘editions’; if, to take a specific and local example, you look at Exact Editions apps you will find that there is stuff that you can do with them on the web that you cannot do with them on the iPad, there is stuff that you can do with them on the iPhone that you cannot do on the iPad and there is plenty that you can do with them on the iPad that you cannot do on the web versions. The various digital forms of a magazine will be different from each other but they should have a common core; and a clever designer will make sure that a 21st Century magazine not only looks good in print, but also in its many digital variants where additional layers of interactivity and sociability will certainly accrue. I have been struck by the insistence with which the readers who subscribe to the magazine we support with apps and digital editions want the app to reflect and to represent the magazine that they know. They expect it to be on the iPad and they do not expect it to be something completely different from the magazine they may have been loyally reading for a decade and more.

Why Beautiful Typography is Pixel-Indpendent.

Khoi Vinh a typographer/designer who works for the New York Times has recently delivered some fascinating comments on design for books and magazines and the iPad and the new iPhone. Here is a quote from yesterday’s blog:

LESS-THAN-PERFECT VISION

Creating a beautiful display and patting yourself on the back for having good typography is disingenuous, I think. It’s a little like saying a high-definition television set makes for better television shows; an absurd claim at best.

That metaphor is imperfect, of course, because television manufacturers have nothing to do with the content that appears on their devices or with its production. But that, supposedly, is the unique value that Apple claims to offer: they build the whole widget. Not just the hardware and not just the software, but the divine unification of the two into transcendent commercial products.

Steve Jobs’ vision for Apple, repeated in yesterday’s keynote address, posits that the company operates at the intersection between technology and the liberal arts. I think it’s reasonable to regard fine typography as falling within that mandate, but unfortunately, they are falling short of that promise. Building a great display for typography without building great typographic tools is a dereliction of duty. (Khoi Vinh at Subtraction)

There is a lot more in the post and much intelligent opinion in the comments.

While I can understand the typographers frustration at the way that Apple seems to have made some very funny (ie poor) decisions about typography and book design, and one sympathizes with Khoi in his shudder when Apple marketeers expostulate on screen about ‘perfect’ type, when what we see on screen is a ‘typographic calamity‘. Yes this is all very odd, and very odd indeed is Apple’s decision to embrace the ePUB standard for iBooks and then implement it poorly (that calamitous page would be much better with a ragged right margin). This is odd because the iPad is showing that books really do not need to be as typographically simple and neutered as the ePUB standard encourages or presupposes them to be. But it is important to understand what is going on here. Apple really is just building a platform, they are not, contra Khoi, building the whole widget, or even the whole enchillada, and we notice that Apple are trying to encourage app designers and publishers to work with them. It may be that the most interesting things to do with books that Apple announced at WWDC was its decision to allow iBooks to incorporate PDF files directly (albeit in a different ‘shelf’). With the new higher specification screens that Apple is producing the whole motivation for eBooks and the ePUB standard (reflowable text, translation of tables to ASCII, etc) is being undermined. Apple is belatedly recognizing this and acknowledging that many types of books (and most newspapers and magazines) will be very poorly translated to iOS if we need to rely on a file-text format such as ePUB, or even WebKit as a rendering engine. PDF is making a come-back.

The plain fact is that designers and typographers who work for digital media MUST NOT DESIGN their books, magazines, newspapers etc for display on the latest widget. They must design for ‘resolution independent’ display. Designers should surely notice that we now have 326 ppi Retina Display outputs, but they should then dismiss the fact, retinal displays are here today and gone tomorrow, and designers should be fixing books that will look as good as possible on any of the myriad displays that will be in the market next year, when Apple or one of its competitors will announce ‘Leica Display’ with 652 ppi. That means treating books and magazines as virtual editions which will be read on scores of different platforms, with many different screen resolutions. PDF files will not be the solution to this challenge, but the fact that they are being pushed back into the user’s line of vision is an indication that the way the document looks and hangs together (in abstract, in the clouds, in the database) is still a key consideration. The form in which we virtualise books and documents must capture all the ways in which we might want to read, look at or use them. When we have that right we can deliver the document in as many different resolutions and platforms as we need. When books are virtualised appropriately they do not need to be rendered as typographic calamities.

Fred Wilson’s Shopping List.

Fred Wilson, a vc at ‘a vc‘, always has his finger on the pulse. But he may be missing something with his recent blog, I Prefer Safari to Content Apps On The iPad. Part of his message is that he would rather have free stuff through the web than pay for things through the app store, so you could say he has produced a non-shopping list. But we most of us do buy stuff from the app store and I think he has also craftily compiled a little public shopping list of a different kind. Mind you he certainly makes some reasonable points. Here are most of them:

  1. Content apps treat pages as monolithic objects. No cut and paste.
  2. There are no links to other content apps in mobile apps
  3. No multi-tasking, so no multi-paging.
  4. Every newspaper, or magazine, seems to have to invent a new interface
  5. Sometimes the stuff I pay for in an app is free on the web
  6. No connections with social media
  7. You can’t search content in apps (not with Google, sometimes not with anything)

Rather than get all defensive and point out that some of this is not true for Exact Editions apps (our apps do link to mobile apps, eg postcodes link straight to Google maps, and phone numbers are live to the iPhone. Take a look at the Congleton Chronicle app which has masses of live postcodes and phone numbers that do stuff on your iPhone/iPad. Our book and magazine apps do search their own archives, including issues not sync-ed to the iPad/iPhone). Moving gracefully from defensiveness to engagement, we can admit that he has a good list and Exact Editions already is one of the platforms that newspapers and magazines can use straight off the bat, no need to invent another UI if you pick up this one that magazines and people are already using. That scratches off point 4; we have a mini-platform that others can use!

But take another good look at the list. These are mostly solvable problems. Aren’t these shortcomings obvious and tempting targets for app developers? Does anybody think that we are going to see a static picture of app development here? I have my doubts about Fred Wilson’s blog, he really is a vc (venture capitalist). His blog helps his investing and distills wisdom from his experience of investing. He seems to be half out of love with his iPad and half in love with it. He uses his blog to change his mind. He uses it to think aloud. So he is not really complaining about the state of the app store, he has just produced a list of juicy targets that start-up companies in the mobile app space are going to have to address.

Take if from me, Fred has just given us the shopping list for the technologies and the companies that Union Square Ventures is going to invest in next. I would say that number 6, the interaction between apps and social media, is really a very ripe fruit. For two reasons. First, it is indeed a huge and gaping chasm in the apps universe, for the e-commerce system that Apple are building needs much more social interaction. Sure Twitter and Facebook have produced their first and very creditable apps, but getting beyond the app as ‘account window’ is the next step. Leveraging the plethora of apps out there is the challenge and entrepreneurs will crack it first. There is a lot of disruptive potential in getting hold of that space (software dilineating and inventing the appropriate mobile relationships between Facebook, Foursquare, content, location, music, app e-commerce and advertising). And, second, Apple will not be good at holding on to this territory for itself, much though it may wish to do so. Apple might hang on to mobile content search for its apps and to a good chunk of mobile advertising within apps but it can’t/won’t do the social graph for itself (far too crafted, planned and inflexible, though I would leave to see Steve, Mark and Ev in the same room).

If he hasn’t already done so, I am sure that Fred will turn his list around and go looking for companies that are tackling these problems/opportunities on the iPhone and the Android platforms. But he is also missing the key change which the discovery of apps has thrown in the path of publishers. Once we start thinking of books or magazines as apps that can do, at their next iteration must do, some of this stuff (link social groups, facilitate and reciprocate Google searches, copy content, remind via citation, collect usage and reactions, or work with and through other book-apps and magazine-apps) publishing becomes a much more dynamic relationship between author and consumer. Apps are at the heart of this change and will encourage us to stop thinking of content as format-bound (boring old ‘files’), but rather to view digital publications as media for engagement. Go for it Union Square Ventures. Show Fred how his apps should work!