More Thoughts on Magazines and Publishing on the iPad

My takedown of the poor iPad experiences offered by major magazine publishers resonated with the audience. It is obvious that many people are not happy with the current experience offered in the tablet space. What is also apparent is that they want to be. I am not the only want who looks forward to the day I can stop receiving paper versions of the magazines without sacrificing and being frustrated while trying to enjoy a leisurely read.

The iPad is a unique opportunity that doesn’t come along often. It offers the chance to evaluate, experiment and, most importantly, disrupt a variety of markets — publishing included.

Publishers know they need to be on the iPad, but they don’t understand how to successfully get there. Instead they rely on the traditional layouts and experiences that have served them well in print.

There are a few key attributes that any iPad reading experience needs to offer its users and subscribers. Just offering the content in a swipeable interface is not enough.

iPad only

There isn’t a tablet market right now. There is an iPad market and I can’t envision that changing in the next few years. Instead of recognizing this, it seems publishers would rather hedge their bets that Android or another platform will catch on and steal some of Apple’s thunder. This is why you end up with subpar experiences on multiple platforms. Rather than mastering a single platform and learning from it, the focus is on put on being everywhere and cutting as many corners as possible to make sure the experience is universal no matter the device. Jack of all platforms. Master of none.

Ditch the odd looking custom user interface designs, awkward view transitions and the prevalence of PDF-based renderings of pages in each issue. These are things that look and feel platform agnostic. Instead focus on building something great that is designed for where the customers are now: the iPad.

Don’t just export PDFs from InDesign and then slap them around an iOS app wrapper. Instead invest in the tools and resources necessary to render those articles using a hybrid web view and native controls and overlays. Web views get a bad rap because they are misused so many times1, but they are the best way to render rich, detailed text on iOS. Even better, that HTML can be rendered on an Android or other kind of tablet as well should those markets ever take off.

Support Newsstand

Look at the reviews of apps like Sports Illustrated, The Economist or any other magazine that is not yet in Newsstand. The biggest complaints from users is that the apps are not currently supporting Apple’s Newstand functionality in iOS 5.

Newstand offers a single location for periodicals and newspapers to reside on your iOS device, fetches new issues in the background automatically without user interaction and updates the app’s icon with the cover of the most recent issue.

Apple puts Newsstand front and center on every iOS device, so subscribers expect the content they download to appear in there now. They don’t care about the technical challenges or frustration it causes your team behind the scenes. They see their issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek or The New York Times in there and wonder why other apps aren’t.

Text Should Be Selectable

The first thing I do whenever I check out a new publication on my iPad is try to select a row of text. If I can’t, I sigh in frustration. The iPad is a device built around the concept of touch and users expect to be able to perform the same functions in a magazine or newspaper app as they could if they read the article in MobileSafari.

Why?

  1. I have a fairly good vocabulary, but I do run into words I don’t know sometimes. iOS 5 has a built-in dictionary that pops up whenever you select a word and tap “Define”. If I can’t select a word in your app, I can’t define it.
  2. When I want to share a portion of a print article I read with a friend or colleague, I usually highlight it and cut it out of the magazine. With the iPad, I want to do the same thing by highlighting a paragraph and sharing it and a link to the article via email. I usually can’t short of taking a screenshot and annotating it in a third-party app: something I refuse to ever do.

Embrace Multitouch While Respecting Taps

Buttons are a temporary hack to guide us into this next generation of computing devices. The future of tablets and mobile is pinching, zooming and swiping. When I see a photo in an issue of Sports Illustrated, I want to tap on it, see a larger version of it and be able to pinch and zoom to look at the even finer details of what it contains.

If an article has multiple photos, I want to be able to swipe through each one and read a caption just like I can on a photo my friend uploads to Facebook.

Design Multimedia For 2011, Not 2001

I’ve never set in on a pitch meeting for a company that is hired to build these digital versions of publications, but I am pretty sure the first feature they sell is the ability to embed multimedia content like audio and video. It is absolutely a natural fit for the medium, but so often is it handled improperly.

The best use of supplemental multimedia I have seen in recent times is on The Verge. The Verge offers great written reviews of new smartphones and other gadgets on their site, but also offer a short video review of the device for those that just want to get in and out quickly without reading a two-thousand word review.

In the case of many apps, embedding multimedia means having a video link that launches a browser and a YouTube page. How immersive an experience does that offer? Exactly.

Multimedia content should extend the written word, offer a behind the scenes look at the story with the author or even offer a follow-up on the story if appropriate. Tapping a video should open up a player in on the app itself, not in a separate browser view or to a YouTube page.

Oh, and it should support AirPlay. I know media companies love AirPlay.

Share The Content However Users Want

Reading no longer has to be a solitary experience. These devices should make it easier for to share the content we love with the people we love.

  1. Email
  2. Facebook
  3. Twitter
  4. “The Next Big Thing”

Whether its a full article, a great photograph or even just a snippet of an article, being able to get your content to your network of friends is not only a good experience for the users, but a good way to indirectly market your content to even more users who may not be existing subscribers.

iOS has built-in support for Twitter, so there shouldn’t be any debate about whether or not to implement support. No, this doesn’t mean using your own custom built Twitter posting interface. The iOS 5 framework is more than enough and its user interface is what users are coming to expect.

Suck It Up And Sacrifice

I don’t know anything about the profitability or intricate business details of running a publication, but from my outside perspective it feels like many publishers are cautiously approaching tablets and smartphones by putting a toe in the water, but making sure they don’t do anything to canibalize the print subscriptions.

It also feels like many balk at Apple taking a 30% cut of their subscription revenue for any subscription that goes through iTunes. While I don’t agree with Apple’s policy, it is what it is. More importantly, your users do not care that you are only getting 70% of the revenue from their subscription.

Supporting the new subscription functionality in iOS is imperative to offering a good experience to your customers. When I download your app, I don’t want to have to figure out how to get to your website, pull out my credit card and then sign up for an account on your site. I want to click a button in the app, enter my iTunes password and have it all managed for me by Apple.

These may not be things that the bean counters want to hear or embrace, but it’s what your subscribers expect.

Hire Smart

The iPad is popular. So popular that people look at it and see dollar signs. Those dollar signs bring in an influx of less than stellar talent who are looking to cash in on the wave, but don’t have the design, development or user experience chops to build something that Apple would be willing to feature at WWDC or a Tech Talk.

For every Black Pixel or Martian Craft there are ten other firms that do work that looks and behaves like a high school programming assignment. If you hire good people who know and understand Apple’s platform ethos, you’ll get something that feels like it belongs rather than the convoluted missmash of half implemented ideas that many of these apps are today.

It’s crazy to think that a small startup like Flipboard, which has far fewer resources than Time Inc, can build a far superior magazine-like experience on the iPad. It’s all about talent.

Software development is relatively easy. Taste and user experience, on the other hand, are hard things to teach. It’s easy to find someone who knows how to launch Xcode and throw together a few views. It’s much harder to find people that know how to do that and give it the pizazz and style that delights users.

  1. I am looking at you and your Gmail app, Google.

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear, makers of Glassboard. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.