AdAge is carrying a story that suggests that Conde Nast is pulling back from its out and out commitment to iPad apps. With hints and whispers that its initial forays have not been working too well. An anonymous company source opines:

“It’s a shift,” one Conde publisher said. “The official stance was we’re going to get all our magazines on the iPad because this is going to be such an important stream. The new change is maybe we can slow it down. In my opinion it makes Conde look smart because we have the ambition, but we’re not rushing.”

“They’re not all doing all that well, so why rush to get them all on there?” the publisher added. AdAge: Conde Nast Taps Brakes….

The piece has a sufficient concrete detail on Conde Nast’s plans and intentions to suggest that the story stands up. So what has gone wrong? Nearly everything.

Conde Nast’s mistakes can be divided between mistakes about the direction of the technology, and mistakes about the kind of success that digital magazines should be aiming at on a new tablet platform. First, mis-taking the direction of the technology:

  1. For no good reason at all, Conde Nast assumed or hoped that Apple would back-track and embrace Flash before launching the iPad.
  2. Conde Nast has relied too much on an alliance with Adobe and a fallacious confidence that Adobe’s knowledge of the design and content management process in print production would somehow enable Adobe to come up with a winning magazine app work-flow. But Adobe’s Creative Suite software solutions for building apps seems to be unreasonably cumbersome. Too slow and too complicated and in most cases the finished article is disappointing as an app.
  3. Conde Nast (and most of the other big magazine publishers) have expressed the hope that Apple would gradually ‘loosen up’ and provide publishers with access to consumer usage data sufficient to support the existing advertising revenues that magazine publishers depend on. The idea that digital advertising revenues and metrics will be controlled by the magazine publishers is a major delusion (incidentally even less likely to be realized in the Android tablet market which many consumer publishers are gazing at fondly).

Although Conde Nast made some very rum bets on the technical direction that the iPad platform was headed; the worst mistakes they have made have been strictly publishing gaffes. Here are three:

  1. It is tempting to think that you can charge your existing subscribers MORE for delivering an iPad app. Tempting but fatal. First, because your existing subscribers will feel that they ought to have free access to stuff that they have already paid for in print (see the comments on the iTunes page for the New Yorker iPad app). Second, because publishers who price their digital offerings as though they were competitive with their print offerings will lose print subscribers: if a publisher treats his print and digital editions as though they were ‘substitutable’ purchases and prices them accordingly, he will find that the market treats them as substitutable. Above all, publishers have to look at this from the subscriber’s point of view. The point of having digital and print editions is that you capture your subscribers from two different directions, not that you force them to choose between print and digital.
  2. Like most consumer publishers, Conde Nast have been looking at the apps market as though it was a completely new opportunity. When fundamentally a magazine app has to be the magazine, and this gives the publisher real strength if they can leverage the resources in their back issues and the archive. Far too many consumer magazines have ignored their archives when producing apps. Yet the archive is something that can most easily be given new impact and immediacy from a digital perspective. Since Conde Nast already has a fabulous archive for eg The New Yorker and Wired, they should have designed their apps to take advantage of this richness.
  3. Conde Nast is still not selling its iPad apps on subscription — now presumably as a mark of its displeasure with Apple for not providing sufficient access to consumer data. However much Conde Nast may be irritated by Apple’s firmness/intransigence, it should be selling subscriptions to iPad and iPhone users, not selling one issue at a time. The iPad is most certainly and obviously a market for selling subscriptions. Music companies know this, games companies know this, film and TV companies understand this. Magazine publishers are good at selling subscriptions and they also know that it takes time to build subscriber momentum behind a magazine. If the Conde Nast management wastes two years from the launch of the iPad in not-selling-subscriptions their successors and heirs will pay a bitter price for this intransigence and this slow start.

Final thought. The next iPad, call it iPad3, will come out next year. The chances are it will have much better graphics and a screen with higher resolution (‘retina display’). There is a growing perception that Apple is getting to a kind of ‘escape velocity’ with its iPad offering, so that competitor tablet platforms, lacking manufacturing volume and the pressure hose of iTunes, will find it very difficult to compete with Apple. The effective competition, when it comes, may well be from the low end, or from quarters other than the mainstream media experience epitomised by consumer magazines and iTunes. But Conde Nast wants to play at the high end, which is where Apple will probably be the strongest player for the next few years. Conde Nast needs to have its magazines on the high end tablet platform when it moves to the next level in 2012. It needs to wake up fast.