When I was working for Primedia Ventures--the now-defunct venture investment arm of the magazine publisher--we looked at a lot of "digital ink" sort of software and service providers with dreams of developing THE platform for magazine publishers looking to produce, and sell, digital editions.
That was a decade ago, and even then--looking at the glorified PDFs tarted up with animated navigation, and hearing about the revenue dreams of virtual kiosks--I thought a) why do users need a new platform when they already have the web?; b) why would subscribers pay for stuff that's on the web; and c) why do all of these digital magazines look so page-locked, no more advanced than the original CD-ROM based ezines of the early 1990s?
This weekend I thought I was having a flashback to those days reading Erick Schonfeld's vision of what a publishers iPad edition should look like.
What's scary for magazine publishers is how little has changed in terms of their ability to adjust to a network digital world. The one thing that perhaps has changed is the emergence of a mobile networked platform--be it derived from iPad-like devices or Kindle-like devices--that may offer a new opportunity. But to hear Schoenfeld tell it, publishers are locked into old ways of thinking as they approach this opportunity.
The New York Times iPad app, for instance, is gorgeous but crippled. All the links are stripped out of the articles, even from the blogs. Meanwhile, most iPad magazines are little more than PDFs of the print issues with some photo slideshows and videos thrown in. They end up being huge files—I recently downloaded a single issue that was 350 MB, some issues of Wired are 500 MB—with the same stale articles as in the print version. Replicating a dead-tree publishing model on a touchscreen is a recipe for obsolescence.
I'm not sure I entirely agree with Schoenfeld. Replacing dead-tree books with ebooks seems, finally, after nearly 20 years of trying, to have become a growth business thanks to the emergence of a device like the Kindle that works for end users, with little or no repurposing or reformating of the text itself. And the stack of guitar mags, comic books, shelter mags, fashion mags, newsweeklies and other such titles cascading down mine and my wife's night tables, brimming out of the baskets and magazine stands that litter my house, argue in favor of a tidy, device based substitution.
But it may be true that the killer media property for a tablet is a tablet native property that does look something like Schoenfeld's dream:
If I were creating an iPad mag it wouldn’t look like a magazine at all. It would look more like a media app, and there wouldn’t be any subscription or even distinct issues. New content would appear every time you opened it up, just like when you visit TechCrunch or launch Flipboard or the Pulse News Reader. In order to make it addictive, it would have to be realtime. But it would also be more selective than simply reading everything that anyone links to in your Twitter or Facebook streams.
Instead, it would present readers with a continuum from original articles and videos to curated streams by topic. The curated streams would combine Tweets from the staff writers and editors with those of other journalists, entrepreneurs, and experts for any given topic or section. These streams would be unpacked Flipboard-style into a magazine-like layout, but with more filters to show trending stories and highlight the ones which are getting the most buzz.
But maybe not. Maybe in a universe already teeming with interactive multimedia, crammed with links and buttons like a NASCAR racer crammed with ad logos, paradoxically there maybe be value to simplified tablet based content with somewhat lighter-duty interactivity and multimedia than Schoenfeld imagines, the value to end users instead being portability and convenience.
At VentureBeat, Peter Yared responds to Schoenfeld with an interesting take somewhere between Schoenfeld's perspective and my own, noting that mobile app design is leading to revamped web design which is actually resulting in a simplification of web design:
Think about how Web design happens in the real world. Does anyone really care about your mission statement? In a groupthink-friendly marketing meeting, it gets tacked onto the homepage. And then a social-media expert recommends a Facebook plugin and sharing links for a dozen or so popular sites. Then a recommended-content widget to drive more pageviews. Sales wants more ad inventory. (Startups like BrightTag have sprung up purely to manage this mess.)
Against that tide of flashy flotsam comes the iPad. For the smaller screens of mobile devices, hard decisions have to be made, and the crap gets cut. Which raises the question: Why was it ever there in the first place?
Indeed. Could it be that for the first time since the Internet exploded media we're headed for an era in which less is actually more? Where fewer points of entry, greater simplicity, makes for a more successful user experience?