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Too Many Magazine Apps Are Still Walled Gardens

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When Wired launched its magazine app for the iPad in May, it got a wave of publicity — in part because it was the first, and also because it released a gee-whiz video pointing out how the ads actually moved, and so on. But now there are more and more iPad magazine apps every day, with Esquire’s only the latest example from the Hearst empire, and one thing is becoming clear: publishers mostly just want you to look at their content, and are hoping that you will forget all about the Internet and social media and all of those irritating things that get in between you and the consumption of their wonderful content.

Everyone talks about how what publishers love about apps is the ability to charge readers for their content again, especially now that Apple says it will allow them to charge subscriptions. But the app economy marks — for now at least — a return to the good old days when the walled-garden approach to publishing was the norm, and the Internet was just some pesky chat room for nerds. Wired’s app provides a slick interface to the magazine, but no way of actually sharing it, or of linking it to related content somewhere else — not even to Wired’s own website. It’s like an interactive CD-ROM from the 1990s.

The new Esquire app also has plenty of “interactivity,” if by that you mean the ability to click and watch an ad for a new Lexus, or listen to cover boy Javier Bardem recite a Spanish poem, or swipe your finger and watch a timeline of the construction of the new World Trade Center. All of those are very cool — but if you are looking for the kind of interactivity that allows you to post a comment on a story, or to share a link via Twitter, or to post anything to a blog and then link back to the magazine, you are out of luck. In fact, if you like the app or any of the stories within it, your only option is to close the app completely and then email someone to tell them that you liked it.

Esquire editor David Granger admits in his editor’s letter for the inaugural iPad issue that magazine apps are “a mixed bag” so far. “They’re convenient, I guess, but boy, some of the added features are either stupid or annoying,” he says — while assuring the reader that the Esquire app is “pretty good [and] it’s certainly not annoying.” I’m going to have to take issue with him there, however; I found it quite annoying in a number of ways.

To take just a few examples, it isn’t clear that you need to tap on the screen once in order to remove the table of contents, which obscures the text and can’t be moved. And whenever you click on the cover image, you have to watch a Lexus ad, or click the “close” button, even if you have seen the ad already. Also, when you click on the Bardem story, it’s not obvious that you have to swipe down to see the rest, rather than swiping to the right (which moves to the next story). If you swipe right and then go back, you get the ad again. And the ad itself, which is a movie clip, first appears as a tiny square, so you have to tap on it and then use the pinch-expand motion to enlarge it — and while the magazine is only viewable in portrait mode, the ad is designed to be viewed in landscape mode.

But even those are mostly just design irritations — the biggest flaw for me is the total lack of acknowledgment that the device this content appears on is part of the Internet, and therefore it is possible to connect the content to other places with more information about a topic, or related material of any kind, let alone any kind of social features that allow readers to share the content with their friends. Some magazines have made some tentative steps in this direction, but so far they are few and far between. Meanwhile, Flipboard and Pulse have taken Twitter and Facebook and RSS and turned them into magazines — and much more appealing ones in many ways.

About the only magazine that has taken any kind of creative steps in this direction with its iPad app is Gourmet magazine, which used the services of Anil Dash’s Activate design consultancy to come up with an interesting experiment: the Gourmet Live magazine app is what Dash calls a “massively multiplayer magazine.” As you read the contents — and share them via Twitter and Facebook — you gain points and thereby “unlock” new content, in the same way a player would in World of Warcraft. The content that is unlocked in some cases is a profile of a specific person or a set of related recipes.

I’m not convinced that the Gourmet Live approach is going to appeal to readers, but at least they are trying something different — and they are taking advantage of being connected to social media and the Internet, instead of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

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23 Responses to “Too Many Magazine Apps Are Still Walled Gardens”

  1. Mathew, this is where you really nail it:

    “but if you are looking for the kind of interactivity that allows you to post a comment on a story, or to share a link via Twitter, or to post anything to a blog and then link back to the magazine, you are out of luck.”

    what you are describing is taking a publishers content and creating something greater than that original content using the readers input, in the form of comments, tweets, mentions, trackbacks, blog post reactions, criticisms etc…

    The publisher that finds a way to make their content not only look stunning and employ the power and beauty of the iPad, but who is also willing to cede a small amount of control by enfranchising readers to BUILD upon that original content, that is the publisher that is going to win.

    Imagine one of these apps curated and edited a story’s comments, blog posts, tweets into some kind of infographic or data visual similar to what MTV did with the VMA’s. And then they could HIGHLIGHT that visual after the fact, in the story from then on…

    That is obviously only step 1 and to even get to that they would have to even open up the darned thing to comments and tweets.

    Even Flipboard, which I really like but isn’t a content creator, has that comment area for each story. It isn’t heavily used, at least by my followers and friends, but its THERE!!


  2. Great post… Being way to close with magazines building out Ipad versions I can second everything here; and on a daily bases am annoyed how print still wants to ignore the other side of digital… but a couple comments.. The Ad Annoyance with it appearing all the time…that is actually an issue with DoubleClick or what ever ad delivery method they use… I havent found one that can actually limit how many times an ad is shown… for me who is involved with User Experience its a hot topic that we keep pushing… as for ignoring the other side of digital… Print folks still do not want to have anything to do with digital… too bad; if they did they actually might have more interesting Apps

  3. All these things have already been considered 15 years ago at the start of the internet and at the height of the CD-Rom/CD-i era by the IEPRC together with major magazine publishers. What changed? Nothing.
    Magazine publishers are poorly equipped for dealing with new technology and its interactive opportunities. I’m betting the major magazines will probably stay pretty simple for some time while new players enter the market and finally start implementing concepts that were conceived over a decade ago.
    (mmm, sounds the internet all over again…)

  4. Jamie Bloomquist

    I enjoyed reading Esquire magazine on the iPad. It was everything I love in a magazine reading experience. My biggest criticism is their attempt to get fancy with an ad for Lexus, shoving the video down my throat each time I happened to pass by the main article, even if I wasn’t reading it. Why don’t they just put ads in-between sections just like in print? Most of the time I’m interested in the ads that are in the print magazines I subscribe to. That doesn’t change on the electronic version.

    I agree that some sharing options will be essential and magazines need to start to leverage some of the powerful features of the social graph but I found it quite enjoyable to “disconnect” for a while and really dig into the content. Just because you CAN have motion and interactivity doesn’t mean you should go overboard with motion and interactivity. There’s something simple, clean and nice about just moving through the pages the way I do with my favorite print magazines with a simple swipe of the finger. Why over complicate it? A subscription model will be essential and that needs to happen soon. I just love the idea of having all my magazines loaded onto one device and I’m waiting for the push notification that says, hello Jamie, your next issue of Esquire is ready for download.

  5. So i can take it then that the author is not aware that the gourmet app is a radioactive disaster right now – one that completely crashes the iPad requiring a hard reset every time you close it? There are plenty of reviews up highlighting the mind bogglingly awful execution problem.

  6. I think the whole walled garden approach is wrong and that publishers are too stuck on the traditional print models. These companies should be taking advantage of tablets, internet and their print sensibilities to provide a true hybrid. You can’t be scared to let a customer follow a link.

  7. Mathew is right: these apps are neat stuff for cool kids but the real promise of the Internet is being forgotten as the digital divide deepens. The question is how can apps be used to strengthen our citizenship first and make some money second. And in that order. As mainstream media pays the price when they forgot about their obligations to the public, so social media keeps providing more and more toys for fewer and fewer rich folks. History repeats itself – first as tragedy, next as farce.

  8. True, when I hear of Magazine App I expect to get quality content integrated in my device so that I can do with the content all I want – by far, these apps seem like providing scanned pages of the magazine with a little flash embedded, not a real interactive experience.

  9. fjpoblam

    They can *count* on me not *paying* for a magazine subscription that contains advertising. The absence of advertising would be the whole purpose of paying for it. If they need monetization, let’em put out the content for free and count on advertising for support. Pot, kettle, black.

  10. MemeRepeater

    I hatez walled gardens. Don’t they understand open unmowed fields are better? So what if I step on a snake or fall into a sink hole. It’s my foot, damn it! I also hate going to movie theater walled gardens, where I have to buy THEIR popcorn and watch THEIR movies. Don’t they understand they will get MORE people into their theaters if they just let them do or watch anything they want? They will make so much more money on advertising, it’s ridiculous. Clearly they aren’t thinking about their business model. Plus I’d be able to check-in on FourNerdz and tell all my peeps about each ridiculous scene on Twitter. Life would be so enhanced. Why don’t these fools get it?

    • Hmmm. There can be a difference between the two, even publishers don’t understand this, though before I pontificate, there is a caveat. Html5 based apps and html5 web blurs the line between the two.

      Web = quick look up of limited but timely info

      Apps = broad reference, unchanging information in depth.

      Whether it was paper books and the web, CD-ROMs and the web, and now apps and the web, there was and is always a need for a stable adjunct to the fast footed web.

      One reason that might be valuable to some people is the permanence of a object whether, it is a disk image, a data CD or DVD, dead trees and now hopefully apps. With the web, anything can be changed and edited and deleted so that you might never know what the original hubbub was about. There is the Internet Archive and people do have local captures of web content, but it is all frighteningly malleable. With just the web, people investigating history might have only a shell of the story.

      Just as magazines published more detailed information on a less frequent schedule than newspapers, apps like Wired can do the same compared to the day’s current topics on the Wired web site. It is a perfect synergistic combination; I don’t see the two approaches as mutually exclusive.

  11. One can get a one year subscription to a digital edition of Esquire for just $8 via Zinio, which basically gives you a DRMed PDF-style scan of the entire magazine. It’s well worth it for me because I live in Hong Kong, where a single issue of the magazine costs US$10 (and yes, I like Esquire magazine).

    While it’s nice that Esquire is trying to raise the bar with a tiny bit of interactivity, but so far based on what I’ve read, what they’re providing isn’t worth an additional $52 per year. How much is a subscription to the actual magazine in the US? I’m sure it’s far less than $60. They’re going to need to seriously up the ante on this.

    And Apple needs to start offering up digital subscriptions already.

  12. Walled Gardens indeed and usability nightmares for readers. Consider that the Kindle has done a consistent job of defining the e-reader model then along comes every magazine art director with an app model and suddenly the very act of turning a page is different from one title to the next. Example: The New Yorker app on the iPad turns pages vertically — not horizontally. Open another magazine and everything is turned on its creative head yet again.

  13. gregorylent

    deleted all my magazine apps, will not buy them .. they are such a crappy simulacrum of the real thing .. and jam the ads down my throat … total overhype

  14. Good post. I like that Esquire is experimenting, but please provide a good consumer experience.

    I took them to task a couple of months ago re barcodes that do nothing except bring you to a story about a fashion show. That’s what I get for interacting with a brand? Not more info about the product, a discount perhaps, anything?

    Here’s the link if that’s cool:

  15. JELorenz

    On my iPod touch (not iPad) I have compared a few magazine / newspaper apps with their mobile-formatted web pages. I can get the latest news and most articles via Safari, as long as the publisher has a mobile site. The individual apps just add to the clutter on my screen, the newish folders not withstanding.

    I have discovered that each Contact can have many URLs.
    Therefore I have added three extra Contacts, each with between six and eleven URLs:
    Mobile – News – English
    Mobile – News – German
    Mobile – News – Tech

    With copy and paste each URL can easily be swapped for a new one.
    This setup serves me very nicely.