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Why iPad Adaptation is an Uphill Battle for Incumbent Publishers

I heard quite a bit of buzz the past few days about the Popular Science+ iPad app, a “reimagining” of the magazine for the iPad (for the low-low price of $4.99 per issue), so I took a look at it last night.

And while it’s slick, the problem is that it’s … a “reimagining” of the magazine. When someone is using your application/game/content/website on their iPad (and mobile device in general) they expect it to behave like everything else they’re using on the device.

For example, if you’re going to put in a “full-page ad” (what the heck does that mean on an iPad?) with a URL in it make the URL an actual hyperlink! I poked and poked at the url, and nothing would take me to google.com/chrome (see, that wasn’t so hard).

popsci ad  

This happened over and over again throughout the “magazine” — I saw something I expected to be able to click (often URLs) and nothing happened. Here’s some typical PopSci gadget porn, where not only can I not click the gadgets to get more info (or maybe comparison shop), but even the company URLs aren’t clickbable:

popsci gadgets

This app is chock full of the exact same copy and images from the magazine, presented through a 7×9 window and without any of the affordances of a print magazine to help readers understand their place in the overall picture.

Working hyperlinks are the very least we should expect from content like this on a device like the iPad, and they’re the bare minimum form of something notably absent in Popular Science+ — opportunity for engagement. No comment links, no way to see what the most popular content is, no way to email a picture or an article to someone else, no place to submit my own recommendations for better tools or to tweet about what I just read.

My favorite example of the disconnect between what Popular Science intended and what they delivered is summarized succinctly in the introduction from the editor: “… everything in the issue and reimagines it to make the most of the iPad’s screen and capabilities.” Judge for yourself if this is really making the most of that screen:


Yes it’s fun (if a bit exhausting — very low return on effort) to swipe and pinch to play find-the-content-in-the-high-res-labyrinth, but this was clearly intended as a better/new/different version of the magazine, and so it suffers the fatal flaw of having to carry a ton of the baggage of the old medium into the new one.

I would bet that most of the executives around the table at Popular Science were absolutely thrilled with this app. And that’s the problem. I have an informal filter on how interesting and innovative a new content-related development or device is — if a large number of people from incumbent companies (especially big ones) are excited about it, then it’s not actually interesting or innovative enough to matter much, because that means it’s too similar to the current way of doing things. That’s why the industry loves “enhanced ebooks” at the same time they’re totally missing opportunities to re-imagine the “job” their product does for the customer. (In all fairness, we struggle with this a lot at O’Reilly too!)


Comments: 12

  1. “if a large number of people from incumbent companies… are excited about it, then it’s not actually interesting or innovative enough to matter much, because that means it’s too similar to the current way of doing things”

    You nailed this Andrew. And you can apply the same general critique of PopSci across nearly every print-magazine-based app released for the iPad so far.

    The magic formula for how publisher’s will serve their customers in this brand-new medium will not be found via a print model or even via desktop-focused websites — but by something new that we haven’t figured out yet. (Shameless plug: I blogged about this on HBR this week.)


  2. Do you know what happens when you make those urls in ads clickable? Advertisers end up with the ability to measure performance of the ad. And everyone knows that print publishers don’t want that to happen. They are happy if they can continue to sell their ads at premium print CPMs by somehow justifying it (i dont know how). But inevitably publishers will make those ads clickable (who knows how long it will take), and then that revenue stream will die or move to another model (cpc, cpa, cpl, etc). And then they will play catchup once again.

  3. Cleary all digital magazines for iPad is not a full implementation. Is a kind of “beta” version of this magazines. This because everybody just wants to be the first one to have their magazines on time to the big launch.

  4. Great take. I agree that most magazine publishers have looked at iPad as a way to turn back the clock to print-formatted materials that interact as little as possible with the Web. Dang, if only we could make that nasty thang go away! Apps are meant to provide high-value functionality and content integration, not DRM on the cheap for print-formatted materials. Worse yet, most apps content is not discoverable via Web search engines – there’s a danger of content going “dark” for discovery, both in consumer and enterprise settings. More on ContentBlogger: http://bit.ly/9T46S1

  5. I’ve had the same complaints about e-publishing since I bought my Kindle. Unclickable URL’s, Author bios that are years out of date when they could simply be pulled from the publisher’s own web site. Promo chapters at the end of a book that offer no direct option to buy the text. (And the chapters are often out of date too. “Check out the new release from 1989…”) Even table of contents that aren’t hyperlinked.

    But some companies are adapting. Compare and contrast the Pop Sci app with the Marvel Comics app. The Marvel app does largely the same thing, letting you buy a digital version that are just images of the print version. However the Marvel application offers a huge back catalog, free samples, lets you find nearby retailers, and other features that lets the user feel like the content is appreciated, not simply scanned and dumped into an app.

    It’s similar to the early days of DVDs. Some of the first commercial DVDs I bought didn’t even have a menu or chapter breaks. Now it would be unthinkable for anyone, much less a major studio, to release a DVD in such a sad state. But it took a lot of learning since movie makers weren’t used to making interactive experiences. In fact it’s taken them until the decline of the medium to begin to understand it.

  6. I have to agree with Paulo Oliveira on this. You have to remember that the publishers only had 60 days to get their iPad apps finished.

    However, I personally agree with most the critisism in Andrew Savikas review. The big issue in my view is the commenting and sharing possibilites. It is said to be included in coming versions, but the question is what they will be like. Will the publishers allow free sharing of content, deep linking into stories in apps, just as you share a print mag with collegues and friends? In the long run it´s about redefining what a magazine is, that it might no longer be this confined, definite artefact, but an object that is constructed together with it´s audience. Hopefully some of the publishers are willing to take part in this evolution.

  7. andrew said:
    > (In all fairness, we struggle with this a lot at O’Reilly too!)

    if you’d acknowledged that right at the top,
    instead of making it your very last sentence,
    the thought wouldn’t have cropped up and
    dogged me while reading the entire piece…


  8. I had a closer look at 7 news apps on the iPad: BBC , Reuters , NPR, WSJ, USA Today, NYT Editors choice, Welt iKiosk.

    Different as they were, they all shared one property: Not a single link to the outside world from the content.

    Hence I titled my blog post: Welcome to the link free zone
    (sorry no link here bcs. I”m writing this in twitterific on the iPad and am afraid to lose all my typing if I switch to safari ti look up the URL 🙁 just click through to my blog if you want to read it)

    I’m still looking for an example news app that contains links to the outside world. Do you know one. BTW. It seems that some apps e.g WSJ and NYT opted for using CoreText instead of WebView for the rendering of the text and hence lost the ability to easily render links in favor of a somewhat better text layout. I noticed because they share a common rendering error I don’t notice in WebView.

  9. Andrew,

    Thanks for your interest in our new digital magazine platform Mag+ and our Popular Science+ iPad application. You are right that what you are looking at is an application developed in 60 days only. I agree completely that there are features not yet developed. We are planning for a coming upgrade in the next few weeks that will include search, sharing, comment links, most popular content, recommendations etc.

    Our belief is that there will be a new media space. A third media category, between traditional print and what we have seen so far on the web. In our opinion, digital magazines are more about a relaxed media experience, away from the browser. We call it “the silent mode”. Because reduced complexity and less distraction increase the reader’s immersion. And editorial competence: the selection, presentation and art direction of content still has a value. Therefore, the suggestions you propose above: email articles, submit recommendations or tweet etc, will only be available in what we call the “heated mode”; where the reader actively decides to interact with the magazine. We don’t want to disrupt the fluid reading experience. Please see our Mag+ concept video for a visual explanation of our heated mode (www.bonnier.com/betalab).

    What I’m not sure of is the necessity to make a digital magazine behave “exactly like everyting else they’re using on the device”. Yes, readers are used to interacting with their content, but there must be different ways of offering that functionality. I think that even though it is possible to add a lot of features, like video, voice-over and extensive linking in the digital magazine, not all of them are obviously the right ones.

    You are right that we wanted to stay close to the traditional magazine experience. Why? Because magazines are pretty healthy products. Lots of people truly enjoy their magazines for reasons like “it’s time for myself”, “it makes me think”, “it stimulates my imagination”. The aim of the project has been to translate the experience of the magazine rather than the actual physicalities. We truly believe in free news, views and content and we embrace the notion of keeping that widely distributed and available. Therefore, what can be differentiated and unique with digital magazines is the actual experience, the packaging of the content and user interface. We wanted to create something new, a more attractive, fluid and immersive presentation of magazine content. With a defined story line and a clear beginning and end.

    Your feedback is interesting and thanks again for your input. A lot of your suggestions will be integrated in the application within a few weeks and a few other may need some further discussion to find the right balance between what is possible to build and what is of real value to the digital magazine experience.

    More about our design principles of the Mag+ concept at http://www.bonnier.com/betalab.

    We look forward to more feedback.


    Sara Ohrvall
    Director R&D, Bonnier
    Head of Bonnier Mag+ project

  10. Although I’m a techno geek, no iPad for me yet. This is right on the money! No hyperlinks? If I am on a commuter train to Manhattan, do I really need a $700 gizmo to read the New York Times? And don’t get me started about the lack of 3G on the first models and the reluctance of AT&T to bundle the service with the iPhone.

    I think I will read Popular Science in the paper version and leave it on the train for others to share rather than taking care to protect an expensive toy in rush hour crush.

  11. > And while it’s slick, the problem is that it’s
    > … a “reimigaining” of the magazine.

    also seems to be a reimagining spelling-wise.


    p.s. i gave you a couple of days to fix it, but…

  12. much better now. you’re welcome.