July 10, 2012
Reading on the iPad is great. The device -- on the strength of iOS and its robust capabilities -- allows for full-screen views, instant page-turns, accurate color reproduction, fast zooming and font adjustment, instant bookmarking, and all the interactive extras you can imagine. Add to that the iPad's take-it-anywhere form factor and use-it-anytime battery life, and it simply goes without saying. So I'll say it again: Reading on the iPad is great. Unless you read magazines. When the iPad first launched in early 2010, the tablet was immediately hailed as savior of the faltering print industry. And sure enough, in the 27 months since, we've seen newspapers, novels, and textbooks digitally (and popularly) reborn. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of magazines, and though Apple's Newsstand initiative continues to build up steam, the actual experience imparted by its member publications is decidedly subpar. Even more unfortunately, there are a number of reasons why. First and foremost, as crazy as it sounds, traditional publishers don't seem to have complete faith in the iPad platform. Sure, they believe it's here to stay, but they haven't embraced it like the surefire moneymaker it undoubtedly is. Maybe they've not seen Apple's user expenditure numbers, or maybe they're just ignorant of the all-important iOS retention rate. Either way, very few publishers have fully embraced iPad. Financially, you'd think Apple's agency model (which takes 30 percent of paid sales and subscriptions) makes sense when weighed against the costs of printing and distributing these magazines' paper-bound equivalents, but the meager selection and overwhelming mediocrity of the iPad's Newsstand offerings seem to indicate otherwise. Andreas Pappas of VisionMobile explains that Apple's cut
still hurts publishers as their profit margins are often much thinner [at] this rate. As a result some publishers have to either sell Newsstand content at a loss or charge more than they do on other platforms. If their business can absorb the loss, and benefit nonetheless, then it makes sense for them to continue offering their products through Apple’s store. However, as the cases of [Financial Times] and [MIT Technology Review Magazine] indicate, this is not always the case and other solutions should be sought.Until Apple makes it more affordable for publishers to push content to the iPad through various native apps, the problem will only continue to grow. Instead of enjoying the groundbreaking digital experience we were initially promised, we'll get little more than a stagnant pool of uninspired, basic app conversions. That, or our favorite periodicals will ride the Internet's HTML5 wave, and cheap, choppy ubiquity will rule. The world will stay tied up in port when we should all should be out sailing the flagship. Of course, some magazines (and so-called "enhanced" ebooks) have truly tried to flourish on Apple's platform, and while a few have made serious inroads into next-generation digital interaction, most are severely lacking. But contrary to the damning above, it's not always Apple's fault. Take a look at what Sports Illustrated was toying with back in 2009. Long before the iPad became a powerhouse reality, this is the tablet interface that Time's engineers envisioned: What a navigational nightmare! Not only would such a non-linear presentation be impractical and disjointed, it's a logistical loser from almost every standpoint. The clunky interface is wildly counterintuitive, and its deeply embedded video aspect -- particularly in high definition -- would require constant broadband connectivity or massive update downloads to function properly. Needless to say, neither option is particularly conducive to the concept of convenience. Naturally, the recently-released SI app has done away with the majority of the ideas explored in that early demo. Also naturally, what remains is less than enthralling. While Sports Illustrated solved the problem of having too much going on, it's still neck-deep in the mire of broken gestural interactivity. Accidental input -- a huge problem for digital magazines in general -- runs rampant among the vertically- and horizontally-scrolling text, and there's little emphasis on fluidity and simplicity. The app does much less than its original concept, but what it does, it somehow does even worse. Luckily, that's where Apple can help. With the introduction of iBooks 2.0 and its iBooks Author software, the Cupertino company made it easy for just about anyone to assemble and distribute a well-designed, easy-to-navigate ebook. Apple's stated aim, of course, was to bring textbook creation (and consumption) to the forefront, and though it's still too early to tell whether or not they succeeded in spades, Apple has certainly stacked the deck with heart. If they continue along those lines and bring magazine publishers a dedicated suite of software to help digitize their content in fun and engaging ways (à la ZINIO FUSION), those companies would no longer bear the financial burden of putting together top-flight iPad development teams. This would make platform buy-in -- and acquiescence to Apple's 30 percent off the top -- a much more inviting prospect. And Apple can do even more! See, Newsstand, as it stands right now, is a big flop. It makes zero logical sense when compared against Apple's other content-aligned apps, in that there's no attached, in-app storefront. Instead, users have to download each magazine in the App Store (Wouldn't the iBookstore make more sense?) and then back out to Newsstand to read new issues and manage subscriptions. Aside from a bit of front-page skeuomorphic flair, there's literally no reason for Newsstand to exist. Once Apple figures that out and implements a fix, it'll be a lot easier for everyone to find exactly the periodicals they're looking for. That, in turn, will make it a lot easier for publishers to find the customers they're looking for. And if those publishers make an honest effort, they can find the profits they're looking for, too. After all, customers are willing to pay for content and convenience, and they're especially willing to pay for a polished, enjoyable, sensible experience. Publishers, there's no reason to give away digital editions for free to paying snail-mail subscribers, and there's little reason to offer digital versions at the same (or lower) price points than their physical counterparts. Charge folks an extra buck or two for the aforesaid convenience and experience, and they'll pay. But it must be made worth their while, and so far, it absolutely isn't. Still, when all is said and done, Apple's agency model can prevail in its attempt at profitability -- for both sides. However, as long as magazine publishers try to completely preserve their industry's longstanding analog infrastructure, the digital element -- and the very future of periodicals themselves -- will be relegated to mere "bonus" status. And that's wrong. Instead, they ought to be the headliners, the special editions, the first-rate issues, the masterpieces that every contributor and editor and layout artist and graphic designer wants so desperately to help create. And what reader needs a static, physical version of the dynamic, digital iPad magazine they already own, anyways? Folks who don't use their tablets on the John, I reckon. All three of 'em. Image: Shiny Shiny
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