June 21st, 2010
(After a bit of a hiatus while teaching a summer class, I’m finally back with this overdue overview of print magazines taking the leap to digital.)
Print is dead, at least if you listen to the conventional wisdom of the past decade (or three). But there is still a multitude of things print-style journalism does really well, far better than the lifeless, utilitarian Web content you’re, um, reading right now. Despite the nay-saying of many in the blogoverse that the publishing industry is an old, tired, ancient dinosaur that’s old and tired, magazines are still capable of conveying striking beauty, energy and emotion, while imparting a depth of understanding uncommon on the Web. What’s broken is their business model, not their format, something publishers desperately hope digital magazines may help fix.
The lead-up to the iPad’s launch saw breathtaking visions of the future of publishing from the likes of Wired, Sports Illustrated and VIV, but the reality nearly two months after launch is decidedly less impressive. Wired has finally surfaced with a somewhat scaled-back (but non-Flash) version of its technogeek bible, but Sports Illustrated and VIV nowhere to be found yet. Thus it falls to a ragtag band of hopefuls to start staking out the iPad’s potential as a print-digital crossover. After the break, an overview of some of the most noteworthy attempts, what they get right, and where they fall short.
My first four selections from the iPad newsstand are among the most interesting and ambitious of the initial crop, with dynamic images and a variety of experiments with content and interaction. Though none of them explore the medium as far as they could, they all represent at least baby steps into the future of digital magazines.
Popular Science: Head of the Class
Set aside your notion that Popular Science is an outdated, dopey magazine that only used to seem cool because your older brother had one and you didn’t. Well, at least for a few minutes. Who knew that PopSci would lead the pack in creating a smart, engaging way to experience a magazine in digital form? Check it out now, and then you can go back to not reading it again.
Publisher Bonnier partnered with British design firm BERG to reimagine how a magazine could work on a tablet device, creating not just a digital magazine but a platform, dubbed Mag+. More than most other publishers taking a swing at an iPad pub, Bonnier and BERG sunk their teeth into the task of creating a new type of magazine for an interactive touchscreen, and the results are, well, pretty good. I applaud the depth of their thinking, even if their first magazine has a few, er, issues.
The cover and opening pages of the May issue look much like a typical glossy magazine, with big photos and clean typography, but PopSci embraces both its digital and instructional nature from the beginning. The first few screens feature directions on how to read the magazine, along with teasers for featured content — unlike most other examples I perused herein, Bonnier really wants to make sure you get it. The Mag+ platform uses gestures to navigate, and it works fairly well: in most articles, moving a single finger vertically scrolls the article text, while tapping on the left side hides the text to focus on the images in the background. Once you reach the bottom of the text, a swipe to the left continues to the next page. Swiping left with two fingers skips to the next article, while pushing up with two fingers near the bottom reveals buttons for the table of contents and issue selector.
The magazine’s treatment of images vs. text is interesting, but not all that effective. The text is a single scrolling column on the right, with the images filling the rest of the screen behind a translucent white text box. The images advance or scroll as you read through the article, giving you a bit of a page-turning experience while reading, and the images are sharp and striking. The need for constant flicking to read the copy gets a bit tiring, however, and the app does little with the screen real estate to make the content more engaging (one of the main things the magazine format does well). The end result feels more claustrophobic and less fun to read than a magazine. If nothing else, the typography is very nice, and you’ll burn some calories reading it. That’s science!
Wired: Better Late Than in Flash
Wired also took up the tablet challenge with aplomb, and proved it was among the true believers when it comes to a digital future for traditional magazine publishing. Its early-adopting, style-conscious, irrationally exuberant readers are the perfect test subjects for trying out a few new tricks (and getting paid for it too). So when Apple delivered a costly smackdown to Wired’s Flash-based publishing platform weeks from launch, it didn’t throw a tantrum or retreat to a cabin in the woods, it dove straight into Objective-C. A bit behind schedule but none the worse for wear, Wired’s inaugural digital issue is everything you would expect: a gorgeous, leading-edge slice of cool that hints at the future but doesn’t quite deliver it.
If any publication was going to take its iPad transformation seriously, it was Wired, and its initial effort gets a lot of things right. Its bright imagery and contemporary typography pop off the screen, its rhythmic layout and style are the perfect fit for the medium, and its geeky obsession with quasi-technical minutiae bridges the gap between print magazine and software. I will admit I already like Wired’s style, so I’m a little biased, but the app just feels right. Which is the primary reason its shortcomings stand out so sharply.
Wired’s app edition contains plenty of interactive gizmos that help it transcend its print forebear — videos that add depth and fun, objects and displays that spin to reveal new dimensions, tappable layouts that encourage exploration. The ability to browse the pages in a zoomed-out row, as if they were torn from the binding, makes finding articles fast and easy. The best articles in the June issue, walkthroughs of Pixar’s animation process and Trent Reznor’s recording techniques, deftly merge graphic design and multimedia to bring you inside the stories. But once you’re there, you can’t help but notice that it’s only a baby step into what’s possible. Why not go further? Why can’t I create my own scene with Buzz and Woody? Why can’t I remix Reznor’s song? Why stop with a minor step beyond print, when so much more is possible?
That, of course, is a lot to ask of the first edition of even a visionary publisher backed by Condé Nast money, especially given that they were under the gun to get it out at all after the Flash fiasco. I’ll be keeping an eye on Wired’s app in the coming months — if anyone is likely to drag the magazine format kicking and screaming into the digital age, it’s Wired. It’s also the only magazine I’ve seen on the iPad that I would actually buy on a monthly basis, even at several times the subscription price of the print version. (Hopefully the future will be a bit cheaper than that.)
Interview: You’re Not Getting In With Those Shoes
As you would expect from the legacy of Andy Warhol, Interview’s iPad edition was preceded by considerable hype and high expectations. Were Interview’s app version the only one of its kind hitting the iPad, its hyperbole might have been on the mark, but as with a real newsstand, it’s only one of the many vying for your attention. (If it knew it was next to the EW Must List and Popular Science on my iPad, it might well retire in disgust to its fancy loft with a couple of Vicodin.)
The most striking aspect of Interview’s app is that, upon first glance, it actually appears to be nothing but full-page advertisements. Employing the usual swipe-to-advance mechanism, you initially find literally nothing but ads, 35 of them to be exact, in succession — it actually seems like a joke, perhaps a self-mocking reference to the experience of flipping through page after page of a fashion magazine before you finally reach the table of contents 15 minutes later. And then it ends. It might take you a minute, as it did me, to realize that you must double-tap the screen to bring up the interface, which then reveals that there’s actually an entire magazine hiding in there! If Popular Science’s app feels a bit like a friendly science exhibit, holding your hand at first before letting you explore on your own, Interview’s app is more like an exclusive club with no sign on the door, requiring a secret knock to get in.
The second thing you notice about the app is that it was clearly designed for the digital medium, unlike some of the shovelware magazines starting to pop on the iPad. Interview is about beautiful people and beautiful typography, and both are on ample display herein, formatted crisply and expertly for the screen in your hand. The pages flip realistically, with a slight shadow of the back of the previous page visible through them — a nice touch, if a bit overdone. The interface is appropriately minimalist, a translucent typographic overlay that lets you easily select from the various subjects being profiled, categorized by their area of fabulosity. You can also rate articles, share them on Facebook and Twitter and browse the pages by thumbnail. Though the layout is a little formulaic, the modern type and minimalist format do translate quite well to the screen, and its publishers clearly put a fair amount of thought into bringing the magazine’s tragically fashionable intersection of art and trash to the iPad intact.
Interview’s editors are bullish on the iPad, and plan on introducing new features in the future, possibly including an email-to-a-friend feature and even the ability to chat with other readers through the app. Presumably they would be only the right sort of people, however.
GQ: Style Over Substance
Having been one-upped by Esquire in the technology arms race a couple of years back by the latter’s gimmicky e-ink cover, GQ has forged right ahead with a launch-day iPad app of its very own. The men’s magazine’s inaugural digital issue is hit-and-miss, much like the print edition, but it does hint at some of the possibilities to come.
After a lengthy download upon first launch, the May 2010 issue’s Jake Gyllenhaalic cover presents itself, followed by a succession of the issue’s full contents. The content takes two forms in the iPad version, one stuck in the print medium the editors know and the other attempting to embrace the digital medium they see as the future. In landscape mode, the app presents page-by-page spreads of the print edition, ads and all — literally a scan of the magazine. The layout, typography and photography look great on the iPad’s screen, but really, what’s the point? While the app certainly does make it easy to click on the ads to jump to the associated brands’ Web pages — thoughtful, that — it doesn’t succeed in much else other than maybe making you wish you’d bought the print version instead. At least that smells nice.
The portrait orientation, however, takes a different approach. Flipping through the magazine reveals a series of beautiful full-screen images corresponding to the issue’s major articles, overlaid with their titles, each of which opens the article in question. The ability to browse the issue visually, especially given GQ’s stellar photography, is a bright spot that makes the app shine over a typical Web page — unlike the text of the article, which is simply a scrolling block of minimally-formatted copy. Though it’s far more readable than the landscape version, it’s still a missed opportunity to really take advantage of the possibilities of the medium.
One thing GQ did get right is the idea of using screen orientation not just as a personal preference, but as a conscious decision about what kind of content you want to see. Rather than just reformatting the content based on the screen shape, the app serves up a completely different type of content suited to each orientation. Though this is certainly not a unique feature, it works very well as a way to present two different types of experiences around the same content. It’s unfortunate that neither is terribly well thought-out, but hopefully they will take better advantage of the medium in the future to create something genuinely fresh.
In the next issue…
Next up, an overview of three iPad magazines that each take a different approach to the content publishing process. Since so many print pubs are invading the digital space, I might just publish the next one on paper (it’s only fair).