Blog Post

Magazine Apps for the iPad: “Bloated and Unfriendly”

The former design director for the New York Times (s nyt) has written a blog post giving his thoughts on magazine apps for the iPad (s aapl) (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 (s adbe) 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.”

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rego Korosi

30 Responses to “Magazine Apps for the iPad: “Bloated and Unfriendly””

  1. Magazine publishers would be well advised to leave their online platforms to the experts. PageSalon is a great resource that I’m using to read magazines online and share articles with friends. I hear an iPad app is in the works, too — can’t wait!

  2. Hi Matthew,

    I read your post about about magazine iPad apps and the lack of usability. And the part that caught my attention was Vinh’s quote, “I couldn’t email, blog, tweet or quote from the app”. I know you are familiar with Flipboard and I wanted to bring your attention to another free iPad app called YourVersion that offers a great way to view tailored content that will also let you easily share that content from within the app.

    YourVersion is a Pandora for your real-time web content. We bring you the latest, recent tailored content by your specific interests. This is all done without having to manage RSS or multiple sources.We have built a suite of products for YourVersion including a destination website, free iPad, iPhone and Android apps and browser tools for Firefox, Safari, Chrome and other browsers.

    YourVersion launched last year at the TechCrunch50 Conference where we won the People’s Choice Award. We have a website, browser tools and a suite of free mobile products including our free iPad , free iPhone and Android apps so our users can Discover, Bookmark and Share on our site or on the go.

    I invite you to try YourVersion and I look forward to hearing your feedback,

  3. dennisvjames

    If you want to try different apps, go into a Starbucks where you can try them for free. I have also used Zinio over the last couple of years. Hate it. It’s limited and does not conform to what I like to do on a computer to read. USAToday takes a Zinio approach. I hate it and won’t read using it. But if you try the New York Times, you have a more a more Web-like experience where you go to a particular section, see a list of articles you can read, you can click on an article and read the whole article. Not very newspaper-like but it offers a glancable newspaper-like experience where you browse to the articles you want to read and read them. This also gives the newspapers a way to lock down their content without locking out twitter and other social tools if the read cares to use them. But like all new technologies, some companies pick the right interface and ome companies pick the wrong interface. No matter what we personally like, the consumers will flock to the ones they like and will avoid the ones they don’t like.

  4. Rhonda Rice

    I have used Zinio for a few years now, starting on my laptop and now iPad. I use it mostly as a solution for travel and to get International Magazines.

    I also have MagApps like Wired, Dwell, and Women’s Health. The main drivers for me here again was travel and I live outside the US. What I prefer more are the exact replica of the magazine content with the addition of interactive features live videos, slideshows, and other digital add-ons. Gourmet Traveller , Wired, Women’s Health, People, and Glamour have much more to their interactive offering like polls, digital-only features, ‘tap here’ to buy or view from retailers, ‘save item’ of interest viewed in the issue, step-by-step photos, videos and slideshows, ‘view all posts’ to connect with their social presence. I’ve always flagged or bookmarked my print mags and it’s quite handy to do that now in the E-version and actually find it a month from now. This is not present in the traditional magazine.

    I also use Flipboard and love it. What I really find value in is how I can personalize (aggregate), consume and share content through Flipboard. Oh yes, and I too still buy print magazines from time to time.

    Lastly, I find digital magazines to be a more eco-friendly option over print copies.

  5. The iPad apps are version 1.0, people!

    In a few short years the “bloated” versions of these “iPad apps” will be experienced on the 60+-inch TVs in the home. Svelte versions of these apps will run on 2nd- and 3rd-generation tablets. And they also will be chunked for use on smartphones.

  6. Certainly the applications are an issue, and particularly since most were built from systems meant to design web applications. When we built a CMS system to feed such products, and unfortunately focused on music experiences first, we thought of three capabilities that were necessary to these publishing scenarios. And, they are publishing issues rather than design issues…

    The apps need visually oriented templates, just like the web or print. The content needs to continually move towards user customization in content and advertising. And lastly, Everything needs to be automated. How does a magazine or book publisher, a record label, or a video producer automatically create content objects, and lots of them? If you could take assets and automatically build 100,000 album apps according to a dozen templates, that would describe our approach.

    We are at a point were the web is better in most of these cases. Apps can have better experiences as the new Amazon iPad app demonstrates. Go back to the web site after that! But, we don’t have tools for publishers yet. We also don’t have much customization. In between a magazine built from blog feeds and Sports Illustrated lies the future of magazines.

  7. For a magazine to maintain iPad and Android apps in addition to their Web sites seems like a huge hassle, particularly since Apple makes it difficult to use cross-platform tools. The most sensible approach is to deliver all this content in a Web browser. Apple is doing their best to kill cross-platform browser add-ons such as Flash and Java, but they will find it harder to kill JavaScript.

    • That’s a great point — I would much rather that some magazines and newspapers spent more time turning their websites into fully functioning HTML5 app-style sites than producing some walled-garden app. But that probably wouldn’t satisfy the business side, which wants control over content and subscriptions if possible.

    • Couldn’t agree more. In the coming 6-12 months, there will be more tablets – some using Android, some using Windows and some others using something else altogether. Wow, how cool!

      But that was just tablets. Now add similar mutant versions for other devices – mobile phones, TVs, Bluray players, ebook readers, game stations.

      As a content publisher, your life just got _interesting_ !
      You need to open multiple store fronts – to serve Samsung Bada, Apple iTunes, cydia, Google Marketplace, Non-Google Android stores of a dozen different hues, etc etc. And then add cloud based aggregators (Rovi, vudu, yahoo, i-dont-know-who) and top that with regional variants (Europe’s Babel, China’s parallel internet, ..) and life is beautiful. The days of the humble browser look so boring in comparison.

      What the world needs is not more or better app frameworks (ex, with more and better social integration or feature). It needs a way to monetize content using _standard_ technology. no doubt app frameworks will fight it out for survival – but in the interim, content and consumption will be the casualty.

  8. This certainly seems like something Apple will jump into, it would explain their data center as well. Apple was probably hoping somebody would come up with a decent magazine reader but since it doesn’t seem to be happening I wouldn’t be surprised if they cook up something similar to the iBooks store that utilizes the cloud a little more heavily for all of their platforms.

  9. P. Douglas

    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?

  10. 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.

  11. Gazoobee

    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.

  12. 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.