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Summary:

Khoi Vinh, former design director for the New York Times, says he can’t stand most magazine apps created for the iPad, such as the ones from Wired and The New Yorker, because they are too big and don’t take advantage of being connected to the web.

iPad

The former design director for the New York Times has written a blog post giving his thoughts on magazine apps for the iPad (something he clearly gets asked about a lot). The bottom line? He hates them. With a passion. Why? Because, Khoi Vinh says, they’re “bloated [and] user-unfriendly” and because they are largely a result of a “tired pattern of mass-media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms, without really understanding the platforms at all.”

The new app from New Yorker magazine comes in for particular derision from the designer, who says it took too long to download, cost him money even though he already subscribes to the print edition, and was a walled garden without any connection to the web: a point I made in a recent post about the new Esquire magazine app. As Vinh describes it: “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.”

It’s unfortunate that Vinh doesn’t say much about news apps like the one his former employer has for the iPad. The designer says that news-based apps “are really a beast of a different sort, and with their own unique challenges. There is a real use case for news apps (regardless of whether or not any players are executing well in this space).” Magazines, however, are in danger of losing the battle for readers in a digital age by making their apps so closed and monolithic, Vinh argues.

Even with an Apple-operated newsstand, I’m just not sure I believe these people will turn to publishers’ apps to occupy their tablet time. It’s certainly possible that a small number of these apps will succeed, but if publishers continue to pursue the print-centric strategies they’re focused on today, I’m willing to bet that most of them will fail.

Too many publishers, he says, are looking at media consumption in the old-fashioned way (something Om described in a recent post), rather than taking advantage of the more social forms of media available online. This makes virtually no sense at all on a digital tablet that is connected to the web, he says.

In a media world that looks increasingly like the busy downtown heart of a city — with innumerable activities, events and alternative sources of distraction around you — these apps demand that you confine yourself to a remote, suburban cul-de-sac.

Vinh doesn’t just blame publishers though — he blames Adobe as well (which recently took over production of all of Conde Nast’s magazine apps) for “doing a tremendous disservice to the publishing industry by encouraging these ineptly literal translations of print publications into iPad apps.” Who comes in for praise in Vinh’s review? It’s a short list, including one of the few apps to take a creative tack on the iPad magazine: Gourmet Live, which has turned the magazine into an interactive game of sorts. In the long run, says Vinh, traditional magazines will lose out to apps like Flipboard, which are “more of a window to the world at large than a cul-de-sac of denial.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rego Korosi

  1. The Flipboard is one he’ll of an application. In fact I’m using it now.

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    1. I can tell that you are using it because it converted the word “hell” into “he’ll” — I hate it when that happens :-)

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  2. I personally use Zinio to read magazines. I know it has all the problems that this post describes, but the subscriptions are cheap and I have all magazines in one app.

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  3. I just read my magazines in print form and I rarely have any problems with them. Shock!

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  4. I’m using flipboard right now as well. I agree with most of what khoi had to say, I just think that it’s going to come down to a combination of elements- user customization from apps such as pulse and flipboard.

    I think it’s foolish to try and copy the magazine directly as print is a completely different beast.

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  5. [...] was reading an article about a former designer for the New York Times who was talking about iPad Magazine Apps. Bottom [...]

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  6. I’m glad someone hates them besides me, but his criticism is a little thin. All he’s basically saying is that they suck because they don’t include the latest fad (social media buttons everywhere). This is true, but I’m sure there are other ways to explode the old-fashioned print paradigm besides putting twitter buttons and endless lame comments on every article.

    Also, FlipBoard basically doesn’t work if you live outside the USA. If you don’t like US sports and Politics, it quickly runs out of content to suggest and starts telling you to read the “Irish times” or some other nonsense. At best it’s like the free papers you find on the bus with free reprinted news from the top five websites.

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  7. I find it kind of amusing that everyone blames the publishers. Many of the limitations of iPad apps are also limitations of iPads. If a lot of the great features of an iPad app are about connecting to the Internet, how does someone with a WiFi-only iPad access that content away from a connection? And if you share a link with a friend, what does the link go back to? The publisher would have to either put that same content on the Web (likely for free) just for the sake of linking to it or limit sharing to iPad users. Talk about a walled garden.

    Fundamentally, Vinh should walk his walk and design a better app rather than just bitching and moaning. Complaining doesn’t lead to innovation–action does.

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    1. That’s a fair point, Nicole — it would be interesting to see what kind of app Vinh would design if he had control over the whole process.

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  8. [...] Magazine Apps for the iPad: “Bloated and Unfriendly”: Tech News « The former design director for the New York Times has written a blog post giving his thoughts on magazine apps for the iPad (something he clearly gets asked about a lot). The bottom line? He hates them. With a passion. Why? Because, Khoi Vinh says, they are “bloated [and] user-unfriendly” and because they are largely a result of a “tired pattern of mass-media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms, without really understanding the platforms at all.” [...]

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  9. I’m not sure what the problem is. It is the nature of business to have people be interested in a business, and not have them jumping off to competitors. E.g. if you have a store, you want to keep people in your store and coming back to your store. So the basic approach of these iPad apps seem sound to me. The great thing about embedding information like video in the iPad magazine apps, is that you will be able to keep the apps for a long time, and be certain that the entire experience will be intact. In other words, you won’t have to worry that a video is still online a year or two from now, when you reread a magazine article. That said, many magazine apps could be augmented with live data that offer superior experiences over web sites, and could be packaged to together so that many users would be satisfied to get most of their news from these magazine apps – for the price these apps are asking. So I find the basic approach of iPad magazine apps sound, and I believe they can be improved, to drive people to pay for content once more. Is paying for content, something that people work hard to produce, such a bad thing?

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  10. I agree. In the 90s I produced numerous CD-ROM applications with lots of interactivity, video and graphics. Now it is 2010 and I love my iPad, but I feel that the first crop of magazine apps are a return to the closed format of CD-ROM.
    I expanded these thoughts in my blog post “iPad media apps: CD-ROM revisited” http://alfabravo.com/2010/07/05/ipad-media-apps/

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    1. I completely agree, Henrik. They have a very CD-ROM feel to them.

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