Appy talk

Despite enthusiasm from readers, sales of paid-for app versions of magazines have so far failed to set the world of publishing alight, but, says Jeremy Leslie, the future for this new medium looks bright

Jeremy Leslie

This time last year the expected arrival of Apple’s first tablet computer raised hopes among magazine publishers that their saviour was imminent. Here at last was a digital channel that could be monetised. Yet despite initial enthusiasm from readers, latest magazine app sales indicate iPad owners are not jumping at the chance to download paid-for app versions of their favourite magazine titles. US Wired currently sells 20 000 (down from an 80 000 launch); Vanity Fair sells 9000; and a recently launched major UK title sold only 300 copies in its first five days in the app store. So why the gap between expectation and reality?

The first thing to note is the device itself is already a winner. The screen flatters any image, the touch interaction is hugely satisfying, and it is a typically well-resolved Apple ’thing’. There are already more than 15 million iPads at large, so why shouldn’t publishers feel optimistic about its role in their future?

A story relayed by a fellow speaker at an event I spoke at late last year hints at the risk of such assumptions. The speaker told of the moment he realised the iPad had become a success. Aboard a flight, he looked down the aisle and noted the number of faces glowing in the blue light of their iPads. It suited his story to assume that these users were reading magazine apps. But I suspect had he walked back down the plane and looked over people’s shoulders he would have found most were watching movies, replying to e-mails in offline mode, or playing games.

The iPad is a multi-purpose device, and when creating content for it publishers are competing not just with paper, but with all the other content available. That glossy black screen is ideal for watching movies or television and for surfing the Web. There are many excellent games available. Although largely intended for consuming rather than creating content, an increasing number of writing (iA Writer) and sharing (Dropbox, Simplenote) apps means the iPad can be used to input material that can be developed further on the users’ other linked devices.

Add to that the fact that Apple has not yet given magazines its own category in the app store, and it is hardly surprising magazine apps have failed to set the world alight. But a look at the apps that have been published so far gives further clues to their slow take-up.

The US edition of Wired led the way with an app launched alongside the iPad itself. The magazine’s creative team collaborated with Adobe on the development of a set of tools (the Digital Publishing Suite) that when added to In Design, enabled print designers to create apps. Together, the Wired app and the In Design workflow that the team developed, which is currently in beta testing, has become the de facto benchmark for publishers, along with rival system Woodwing.

At first glance, the Wired app was impressive, taking advantage of 360-degree pans, video and other interactive effects. But behind these novelties lurked problems. The cost of the app matched that of the print edition, offending digital purists. At 500mb, the size of the file caused download problems. Navigation was complex and merely proved what a great job print magazines do at guiding the reader.

All of these problems are perhaps resolvable, but from a design point of view the Wired app has failed to deliver. By transferring its complex and often brilliant print designs almost wholesale to the iPad, Wired, like others since, has taken a wrong turn. Such is the danger of being first to market and, in its place, perhaps I would have followed a similar route. Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite is becoming a useful tool, but its provenance shouldn’t be simply remaking print pages for apps.

Having been involved in several apps now, it is clear to me that the iPad provides a highly unforgiving environment for design, one that is hugely different to paper. Every design detail on the iPad screen has a similar presence, whereas ink on paper can create more complex hierarchies of detail. The screen is small and easily over-filled – its sleek flatness lends an importance to every design element, however small, in a way print does not. It demands clear, simple design with as few extraneous elements as possible. These characteristics are why TV and Twitter work well on the iPad, and why stripped-back apps like iA Writer are establishing themselves.

I looked at many apps in preparing this piece, and there are few I can wholeheartedly recommend. Most combine the very bad with flashes of cleverness. My favourites are the simplest – the independent, self-coded Letter to Jane from Canada, French fashion title Self Service and Entertainment Weekly’s Must List spring to mind. The Times’ one-off Eureka project was impressive, but financially unviable.

Perhaps it is as well that this first year of apps hasn’t been a successful one. A lot has been learned in relative peace and quiet. New apps continue to appear, and like their printed cousins, each one learns from the others. In creative terms, I am optimistic about this new form – but it will not be the quick fix desired by publishers.

Jeremy Leslie runs Mag Culture

Latest articles