Are Flashy iPad Apps What Publishers Really Need?

Adobe may have been stymied at every turn by Apple and its very public hatred of all things Flash, but that hasn’t stopped the company from pushing its vision of interactive publishing for mobile devices like the iPad. Today, Adobe announced a “digital publishing platform” based on its Creative Suites software that it says will allow any magazine publisher to have a snazzy, interactive app just like the one Wired recently introduced (a preview of which is embedded below). But is that really what publishers need as they try to move further into the digital multiplatform world? It’s not clear that it is.

Adobe definitely deserves some credit for finding a way for the Wired app to integrate a lot of cool features without using Flash. Readers can flip through articles with the flick of a finger, scroll through a timeline view of stories, rotate and zoom in on images, and so on. For any publisher whose content involves a lot of imagery — and who wants to appeal to advertisers — these kinds of features are great eye candy. But the big question is whether they’ll convince people to pay for magazine content through an app, rather than just using the web browser on their iPad to consume the same content free of charge. Wired’s app is $4.99, and that’s just for a single issue of the monthly magazine, the same as the print version.

It isn’t just the free vs. paid contrast that publishers have to be concerned about, either. One of the fundamental properties of Flash that many web developers — and web users — instinctively dislike is the fact that it removes much of what makes the web so interactive: namely, the links, the ability to share or remix content, etc. In the same way, Wired’s app seems hermetically sealed off from the rest of the Internet. There are some links (including inside ads) but you can’t share a link to a story through a blog or a social network, and you can’t cut and paste anything.

That may all be great from a publisher’s point of view, since it (theoretically at least) increases the chances that a user will stay with the content and not go elsewhere, and simultaneously decreases the likelihood that a reader will take the content and use it in some unauthorized way. But is it great from a user’s point of view? Because it seems like an attempt to take the kind of control that publishers traditionally had in print and reproduce it in digital form, rather than trying to take advantage of the inherent features of mobile, Internet-enabled publishing.

Not everyone is going to be happy with that trade-off. Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, for example — who recently wrote about his love for the iPad and how his family has adopted it as their new favorite computer — claims he’s come to prefer consuming content through a web browser rather than any of the dedicated publisher apps he has on the device. Among other things, Wilson said this is because:

Many of the apps treat pages as monolithic objects. You can’t cut and paste text, you can’t engage with the content. It is just like reading a magazine or a newspaper. If I wanted to read a magazine or newspaper in physical form, I’d do that.

Which may fit well with Apple’s approach to the iPad platform, which Federated Media CEO John Battelle describes as an AOL-style walled garden. But publishers lusting after their own Wired-style apps had better hope that their readers don’t agree with the Union Square VC’s views, or their apps could wind up being nothing more than snazzy-looking ghost towns.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): With the iPad, Apple Takes Google to the Mat

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