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First Look: Branson’s Virgin iPad Project Frustrates With Complexity

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The future of publishing, if Virgin’s new iPad-only magazine is anything to go by, is messy – Project is a decent-enough male lifestyle title, beset by horrid UI and frustrating Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) delivery…

My iPad wouldn’t install Project wirelessly from iTunes Store this morning, telling me only to sync it to my computer’s iTunes. That application said Project didn’t actually work at all with my iPad’s software, so I decided to update to an iOS 4.2 I hadn’t wanted (unnecessary multi-tasking and a deprecated orientation switch). In order to do so, I first had to update iTunes itself and reboot my computer. After finally iOS updated, I successfully downloaded the Project app, which is merely a library wrapper, paid my money to download the debut edition within, then waited another three minutes for the download.

Total time to get Project: two and a half hours. This archaic process is not a good advert for Apple (severely lacking any helpful pointers throughout the upgrade process or why it’s necessary) or developers who choose to come to market with a big launch depending on bleeding-edge software.

Once inside Project, the animated cover of Tron star Jeff Bridges impresses. Print stylings like CMYK blocks and pagination marks in page borders suggest a dead-tree aesthetic of yesteryear. Indeed; Project is rather preoccupied with its magazineyness, running features like “The World’s Suckiest Ads” and “The Worst Ideas Ever”.

As an iPad app, however, it devotes a full-page schematic to explaining “How to use Project“. That’s something which should be so intuitive as to be almost unnecessary, but Project‘s guide is as confusing as a joypad button map in a first-person console shooter…

And it’s entirely necessary because Project‘s UI is all over the place. Pages look like they have been conceived and rendered in print. Because they use an unpredictable array of creative layouts (Project looks rather good in that regard), navigation items are often indistinguishable from static page furniture, meaning Project‘s UI frequently resorts to inviting you explicitly toward non-obvious interactivity (“Tap” here, “Swipe” here). You don’t know you’ve reached the bottom of a page until you’ve tried and failed to swipe any further. Basically, it’s confusing.

Project graciously nods to the open web by including revealable off-site links and by bizarrely embedding its own blog site inside the app. But, at one point, I found myself stuck in this section with no apparent way to get back to the magazine proper. Because iOS 4.2 saves an app’s state between closing and opening, not even exiting and re-entering the mag could return to the cover – for that, I had to remove the app from iPad’s memory via iOS 4.2’s new multitasking bar (please can I go back to 3.0?).

Sci-fi movies, sexy socio-economists, geo-politics, “mavericks”, interplanetary exploration and beer – content-wise, Project badly wants to be Wired or Vogue. It’s aspirational, male and clearly targeted at iPad’s early-adopter bracket.

With that, it’s certainly a decent lifestyle magazine – but not one that necessarily needs to be on iPad (far less a frustrating experience would be reading this on paper). Project feels like a title that desperately should be in print, a medium from whence it feels like it originated. The interaction, whilst it tries to inject some creativity and unpredictability, doesn’t feel especially iPad-native and flashy video is limited, perhaps thankfully. One of the most compelling features is listening to audio of cover-star Bridges talking about his past movie appearances.

The masthead lists an in-house staff of 12, with an extra 38 contributors, a further 13 from “customer engagement agency” Seven Squared plus two from Virgin Digital Publishing Ltd – all told, 65 pairs of hands.

One of their debut stories has a dig at News Corp.’s forthcoming iPad news project, which some observers have, for some reason, lumped in with Project this week…

“As Project went on sale, reports emerged that Rupert Murdoch will soon launch an iPad-only newspaper called The Daily, after it came to him in a dream or something.

“Which, like all Murdoch products, shall doubtless enrich humankind with its impartial political analysis and rolling coverage of shit exploding. Also: hi-def nudity, fingers crossed. But the point stands: the irascible Aussie despot doesn’t throw his corked hat into the cyber ring until he’s sure of a market. Apart from the Times paywall, maybe. And MySpace (NSDQ: NWS). But, well, you know.”

That’s the most back-handed attempt at self-validation I’ve seen in a while.

Update: Project’s team also tels us: “We are holding a competition for people to redesign our front cover. The best entries will be featured in a special download available with issue 3 and the winner will then get to design the actual front cover of Project 2 – a crowd-sourced issue coming next year.”

21 Responses to “First Look: Branson’s Virgin iPad Project Frustrates With Complexity”

  1. Honestly, author, as everyone else has pointed out you lost any shred of ‘digital’ credibility when you conflated your technological ineptitude with a product that said ineptitude limited access to.

    The question then begs, what the hell are you doing writing about digital media?!

  2. Mind numbing IT incompetence by someone who describes himself as “I am a journalist and online publisher, writing about technology and digital media since 1995.” And to have the gall to blame Apple shows a highly questionable level of judgement.

    I didn’t bother reading any further because I have no confidence that this writer is capable of any kind of subjective analysis of the product or UI.

    • Staci D. Kramer

      Robert needs no rescuing from me. I happened to do the iPad update for iOS4
      earlier because I wanted elements he did not or, as has been the case with
      previous Apple upgrades tied into required upgrades of other products, I’d
      probably have been just as frustrated. I’m telling you what I experienced on
      a solid wifi connection. Project is well aware of the time issue for some
      people, btw, given the apology on the site.

  3. Project Magazine was designed strictly for the iPad format, and brilliantly utilizes iPad’s multimedia and interactivity features better than other magazine apps. The photos are visually stunning, and the content is edgy, fresh, and fully interactive with playful headlines like ‘Make Google Your B****’ and ‘World’s Suckiest Ads’. Furthermore, the content continuously updates all month. Name one magazine that does that. Yes, it takes 5 minutes to download, but that allows you to watch videos and play the music while commuting or on the plane. There’s a brightside to everything! If you want to take a look inside the magazine, you should watch this video:

    • Staci D. Kramer

      It took 14 minutes on wifi — I gave up on 3g — to download and install the
      UK mag after I installed the app. In total, close to a 20-min process if you
      know what you’re looking for in iTunes/app store. Too long for an impulse
      buy/read even after installing the app.

  4. Marc Whitehead

    Not a publication that “needs” to be on iPad? Then how exactly would the myriad video and audio clips, links and real time blog updates work? Having read approx 75% of the content I have found these enhanced elements a fundamental part of the experience (notably the actual video of the beer ads in support of the narrtive, audio clips of Bands, interview clips from Jeff Bridges). I say again, how exactly could this be replacated on paper? I mean, come on.

  5. Several other comments have referenced the iOS 4.2 upgrade issue of your review, but it is this comment that I found more surprising:

    “… developers who choose to come to market with a big launch depending on bleeding-edge software.”

    Why not do that? If no one – publisher or developer – ever developed and published software and services for “bleeding-edge” software, then nothing would ever happen. No progress would be made at all. I cannot even begin to fathom this comment.

  6. As far as I am concerned, the comment “unnecessary multi-tasking and a deprecated orientation switch” blew your credibility pretty much from the get-go.

    For any moderately aware user multi-tasking is pretty obviously a bonus and I would guess that contrary to your statement, most target readers of Project would have upgraded their iPads for this feature.

    Also note that Branson has come out saying they will be porting Project to Android based tablets in the future – clearly at the moment the most consolidated platform to bring something like Project to market on is iOS / iPad so blaming them for this decision feels redundant.

  7. Chris: actually, in the field of user experience design everything counts – including getting something onto a device. So what happen before and after the actual interaction with the app is important and very much part of a good review.

  8. Canucker

    Since the major selling point/differential of this tablet-based publication is its vaunted updates throughout the month, the review lacks a critical advantage. Of course, the publication today was needed to “hit the presses” before the swathe of other reviews but it would be useful to revisit Project over the course of the month and assess its updates. Are they a useful addition, are the updates easy to find, etc?

    I agree with the others about the needless complaint about updating to iOS4.2.1 (and iTunes). Goes with the territory and it adds functionality – nothing to do with this publication.

  9. Robert: While I understand your reasoning to include the iOS update process in your review, it just doesn’t belong there. When reviewing a conventional magazine, you would probably not open with complaints about how difficult it was to tie your shoes, walk through the snow to your car, fill up your gas tank (because you didn’t do it yesterday), drive to the store, then wait in traffic because the magazine is sold on the other side of the bridge.

    The issue of keeping your computer and device software up-to-date is something entirely different and completely unrelated to the app your are reviewing. When I was given a new toy as a baby, I didn’t cry because I had to go to the store to get batteries. My parents should have bought the batteries yesterday.

    That said, thanks for the review! I never understood the reasoning for bringing the printed format to a digital device. The format allows for so much more.

  10. No matter what, the Project “app” clearly states that iOS 4.2 or later is required. Lamenting (in bold) that bringing your iPad up to specs adds 2 hours and 25 minutes to the installation process of Project is just unfair.

  11. Thanks for your comments; good feedback.

    @od & @Tablazines: iOS 4.2 has been out a mere *week*. Not only have I not been prompted for the upgrade because I never plug my iPad in (because I’m not wedded to iTunes); I had also made a conscious decision not to upgrade yet for the two reasons stated. That’s not retrograde.

    @Glen: Indeed, I am often first to criticse the lazy, shovelled digital replicas of print magazines – Project earns points for trying to do more. My own feeling is that it ends up feeling like a strange hybrid, deploying touch interaction to varying degrees of accomplish, but feeling primarily like a printed edition. I mean this as a compliment in many ways – I don’t care for flashy interactive swipables much anyway – I just mean, Project feels like a strong print product. You’ll note the irony of that since, unlike those replicas, Project _has_ no legacy print production process on which it’s depending.

    I totally understand the “clever nod to magazine design”. I’m all in favour of it, it made me feel good. I just think that, in execution, this doesn’t work well as UI. I ended the experience thinking, is this a magazine I would want to read in print? Absolutely. And I say that as someone already subscribed to Wired (print) – I could take something similar in addition. But, for me, print would be my _preferred_ format for the title.

    @All: Re: The part about iOS4.2. This can’t strictly be ignored in any assessment of Project. Consideration of it is a fair and rounded assessment of the entirety of the process of obtaining and consuming the title. Was the iOS upgrade process as effortless as you expect of an Apple product? No. Does it have features that are advances rather than backward steps? Yes and no, in my personal opinion. Is iOS 4.2 Virgin’s fault? No. Is *choosing* to make Project readable only by owners of iOS 4.2 iPad’s Virgin’s decision? Absolutely. I’d be surprised if the majority of iPads out there today have been upgraded to 4.2 in the week since release, not even all of those owned by Project’s target demographic. That doubtless limits Project’s addressable market. I don’t know why they’ve chosen to do that – iOS 4.2’s consumer-facing feature list shows nothing obvious that Project would benefit from. But considering, in my review, my personal experience of the upgrade process that Project requires of me and the majority of its customers to read it, is a totally valid account of the whole.

  12. The app as itself might have its limitations, I haven’t purchased it.

    As the above posters have mentioned, the first 3 paragraphs are complaints about Apple, not Project.
    The magazine itself looks pretty straightforward, making some strides in the digital mag space, which still has a ways to go in terms of advancement. I’d give this project time and not write it off out of your paidcontent motives.


  13. Its unfortunate that the reviewer has confused his obviously limited experience in keeping his IOS systems up to date with a critical review of the design of this iPad magazine. A reference to some of the other players in the market by comparison Zinio, Wired, etc might give some credence to his assertions about the messy, horrid UI. I had no problem downloading the App directly via WiFi to my iPad. I found the amount of multi-media / interactive content excellent by comparison to digital PDF magazines that pose as iPad publications. Design is subjective – one mans “dead-tree aesthetic of yesteryear” is anothers clever nod to magazine design while wholly embracing the new medium. Pity its been picked up and RT’d so much. I for one disagree completely with this review and would encourage anyone who is bothered enough to make up their own mind to go to the website and check out some of the content before committing to the purchase.