Andrew Losowsky has peered into the glass of the iPad and decided that the world of magazine apps is half empty. So we feel it necessary to cheer him up a bit and fill the glass.
“Twelve months ago, the magazine industry was shouting from the rooftops that the iPad was going to be their saviour – but it turns out that all those people lining up to buy one weren’t doing it solely to pay for glass-coated editions of Marie Claire. Sales of maglets (magazines on tablets – geddit?) have been far below the costs of developing these apps, and public reaction has been underwhelmed at best. What went wrong? Six things, actually.”
But if you look at the six points he makes it would appear that the glass is really half full. There have been some mistakes – as is surely to be expected with an innovation as startling as the iPad – but there has also been some progress. Let’s respond to his problems..
- “Publishers are Selling the Same Content Twice“. This is clearly a big mistake. But there is no compulsion on publishers to adopt this posture (that they have done so, is largely the result of a separate battle that they have been fighting with Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) about the ownership of user-data). Some publishers, all those who work with Exact Editions, have opted to offer free iPad access to their existing subscribers. There is nothing in Apple’s terms and conditions that says that publishers cannot do this, or that digital magazine access has to be sold exclusively through iTunes. Apple’s mooted new system for in-app subscriptions will surely encourage more publishers to adopt this attractive way of selling subscriptions, though it may also require that digital/app subscriptions are sold through iTunes.
- “There are not enough iPads out there“. Only 15 million in the nine months! Since Apple will sell perhaps another 40 million this year, and no market analyst predicted, prior to launch, that Apple would sell more than 7 million in the first year, this is a glass rapidly filling up before-we-can-get-organised, point. Come on Andrew this is surely a reason for publishers to get their skates on!
- “Maglets are competing with everything else on the iPad“. Yes indeed, “….magazines no longer have the benefit of being at the centre of our cultural lives. They have to work harder than ever to grab our attention and force their way into our habits, a task that’s all the harder when they reside on a fully connected device that contains the latest news from thirty seconds ago…” Which is also a reason for magazines to see if they can persuade consumers to use them on iPads just as they use them in their living rooms. Magazine publishers did not chuck in their hands when the TV invaded the living room, innovative publishers will see the iPad as a similar challenge. Glass half full.
- “Separate App Syndrome“. I think Andrew misses a key point here. Magazine publishers have made a big mistake in designing magazine apps as though each issue was a separate app. This is a valid complaint, but not the point that Losowsky makes, and it is one reason for the disappointing showing of several magazine apps. It is also one reason why magazine publishers have felt that they should market and sell magazines on the iPad one issue at a time, failing to see that selling subscriptions through, or without, iTunes is clearly the way to go. Magazines as apps work very well as branded apps in iTunes partly because magazine titles often confer superb branding and findability on the product (Marie Claire, Elle, Vogue and also niche titles Literary Review, Opera, Index on Censorship). But the branding should cover magazines in their entirety: past issue, current issue and future issues are ideal to function as branded apps in the customer’s iPad. This is a glass that needs to be very full — including the archive.
- “Magazines are outside the digital conversation“. This is indeed a valid objection, but in mitigation the magazine publishers (and app developers such as Exact Editions) can point out that this is a complex and rapidly developing field; better engagement and social interaction with digital magazines is certainly coming. The Exact Editions apps are already stuffed full of links to web pages and email addresses (and on the iPhone, phone numbers that the customer can call). Magazine apps can be highly interactive and they are increasingly becoming more so. Losowsky appears not to have noticed that the iPad itself makes it incredibly easy for a single ‘page’ or a JPEG to be emailed from any magazine app, it is not a matter of some publishers enabling this. There is nothing that the magazine publishers or the copyright owners can do to stop such informal sharing (which does not mean that magazine apps can be easily copied wholesale; that is a different matter). This is a glass to be shared.
- “The medium is nine months old“. By which I am sure that Andrew Losowsky means that its really too early to be sure: “The truth is that we just don’t know yet what varieties of format, design and interactivity will best serve each kind of content, and though some of the experiments in the field are fascinating, most of them are just irritating applications of over-design by people giddy at the possibilities of new formats.” This is indeed a matter of the glass being half-full, and a point on which we can agree.
Losowsky’s excessively gloomy, more than half-empty, headline ‘The Truth Behind the Failure of iPad Magazines’ is perhaps belied by this concluding (half-full) optimism:
“That said, this is still a genuinely exciting time to be working in media. Nothing at all can be taken for granted – except for the simple fact that there will always be a hunger for unique stories, told in a manner in which the text, design, images. and when necessary audio and video, combine to enhance our enjoyment and understanding of the story itself. This ability to make design part of content is the reason why magazines lasted in the first place.”
I first noticed Losowsky’s piece via an approving tweet, from Erik Spiekermann, perhaps the Lionel Messi of typographic design. This design discontent with magazine apps is not an odd-ball view, most/many good magazine designers are disappointed by the way that magazine iPad apps have been designed so far. My hunch is that the user experience and pleasure in magazine apps will improve as designers and publishers realise that magazine design and book design has to move to a more holistic and a more abstract level, perhaps when designers are less ‘giddy’ with the possibilities and more relaxed about the opportunities and the ‘flow’ that comes with touch interfaces.
Technology is moving very fast and good digital magazines have to be conceived and conceptualised for systems and services that don’t yet exist. From now on all pages are virtual, all stories have addresses, and all interfaces have to be intuitive. This is not a trivial set of challenges for a designer who aims at quality and effect.
This article originally appeared in Exact Editions.