Justin Williams who blogs at Carpeaqua has some fairly trenchant views on the current state of magazine apps for iPad:

Reading magazines on the iPad is an exercise in frustration. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As great a device and, more importantly, platform as Apple has created, magazine publishers have done nothing short of fumble the snap in their own end zone.

I read a lot of magazines. They are great for people with short attention spans like myself, available on a variety of diverse topics and are usually pretty well designed. On paper that is. On the iPad? I wish I never learned to read.

I’m convinced that the people who actually write for magazines, edit them and publish them have never actually tried using their iPad versions for more than a few moments. If they actually did try to use their publication’s app as the actual means to read each issue, things would have to improve. Right? RIGHT?!

There is so much wrong with these magazines that I could write a 5000 word cover story on it. For the sake of brevity, let’s just focus on the actual process of procuring issues of a magazine. We’ll cover the reading experience next time. On Magazines and the iPad

He then pretty much goes to town on the shortcomings of three very prominent apps for major magazines. In the first part of a two-part review Williams focusses on the way in which his chosen magazine apps handle the logistics of procuring issues. He is particularly frustrated that they mostly do not handle the following requirements at all well:

  1. Magazine issues should download in the background, so that you can get on and read the magazine (or work with another app) whilst the full content is sync-ing.
  2. The downloading/syncing system should allow you to download multiple issues at one time (without having to go back to the list to choose another issue for syncing).
  3. If the magazine is in iTunes Newsstand the current issue should download even whilst the iPad/iPhone is not in use.
  4. It should be easy and obvious how you download a set of issues and it should be equally obvious how you delete back issues that you no longer need to have sync-ed to your device.

Exact Editions has all these points covered, though some of them are recent improvements (overnight, automatic, syncing came in with iOS5). The background syncing has been built-in to the Exact Editions service for well over a year, and it is very surprising that many magazine apps still fail to provide this basic element of user support and comfort. The speed with which issues are sync-ed has increased markedly in the last month, but I think this has more to do with the way our cloud service is set-up, and the speed for any sync will vary depending on the speed of the WiFi connection that you are using, a few minutes per issue would be typical on an average domestic WiFi. The issues which are available to a subscriber are listed to the left of the app from a button on the ruler bar labeled ‘Issues’. Once the user hits the issues button, she will see the list of issues (scrollable for potentially 100’s of back issues in the case of The Spectator) which can be synced to the device. Here is a shot of a list with some issues synced:


Synced issues from the Spectator app


Exact Editions has one other important aspect of ‘issue management’ covered. It is really easy to search across the back issues included in a subscription. An individual issue can be searched on its own, (a simple requirement which is not in fact possible with many magazine apps now being sold through iTunes newsstand), but it is also practical and easy to search the complete archive. If the subscriber pulls up the issue list they simply type the search term (or terms, Boolean/Google search logic is supported) into the search box and a scrollable results list pops up.


Searching the Spectator archive for 'Merkel'


Obviously an internet link is necessary for archival search to work, because the app will be searching issues that may never have been synced to the device. Also with a web link the user can immediately jump to the page listed (in red) in the relevant magazine issue. Justin Williams does not consider the necessity for ‘search’ in his review of the logistics of issue procurement, but I think its a crucial requirement for magazine apps that work across a collection of back issues. Procurement is not just a matter of getting hold of the latest issue, if you live with a magazine subscription reading it regularly you will want to return to stuff that you have noticed before…. “Now where was the article about Merkel and Barroso in the Spectator? Did I read it this year or last?” In general the back issues accessible to a subscriber from a magazine app will only be useful if its possible to search the archive.

It is surprising that more thought has not been given to this obvious requirement for in-app searching by magazine publishers and app developers. Digital magazines become more valuable to their subscribers when the archive is available, when the back issues are as easy to access as they should be. But access necessitates searchability. In fact we might question the value of having back issues accessible to an app if they are not searchable. All Exact Editions magazine apps are searchable by issue and across back issues, is it possible that we are the only platform for magazine apps which currently provides this?