Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Happens when we get the 15" iPad?

The rumour mill was pretty accurate about the size of the iPad. Most of the speculation was about a 9" or 10" tablet and so we get a 9.7" screen device. I suspect that most users, when they lay their hands on it, will consider it objectively a little small (smaller than most books), but it will feel (subjectively) bigger than you imagined --just as the tiny iPod/iPhone, feels a lot larger than it seems once you get going. The touch screen with its easy zoom creates a sensation of spaciousness. The virtual page can be several times as big as the screen. The iPad has to be that not-quite-paperback size to begin with, since at the moment it is too tricky and too expensive to build a 15" touch screen iPad. Predictably, there will be bigger tablet devices on offer, in the months and years to come. From Apple, and from others: 3.5", 5", 9.7", 15" and 23". Expect even more variety. No law says that mobile systems and their media players have to have rectangular shapes, or even be flat! Look out for hexagonal shaped systems from Android makers, and perhaps spherical projected 3D gamespaces from Light Blue Optics.

Does it matter that media players will come in different shapes and sizes in the years to come? Not at all for most media. For music, the iPod Nano has already shown us that the coolest and most convenient music players can be very small. Music players only need to be big enough to give the user a convenient control panel, and if the control panel can be virtualised the music system could yet be even smaller than the Nano. Video, TV, photographs and film require more space for display and it will be these forms of media which are really pushing the boundaries for the 23" and 48" display iPads that we may be buying in the 2013 holiday season.

Printed media? That is another issue. Do magazines, newspapers and books, when they become digital, absolutely need the rectangular shape that we have come to expect from print volumes and editions? Do they need any particular shape at all, or will they become like web pages and blogs, infinitely extendable scrolls of information? Does the print-like page with its fixed and inevitably arbitrary page breaks still have a function? Will we still have editions and issues? Front covers and front pages? Tables of contents? Will books and magazines be parked or opened on the iPad interface in much the same way as printed books are placed on a desk or a shelf? Or will they morph into time-shaped, multimedia, evolving-structure aggregations in the manner of the web site, the RSS feed, the Fast Flip, or the blog? Exact Editions holds that the time-tested design and shape of books and magazines is far too valuable to readers and to our expectations for their to be any question of abandoning the format. Do not lose the design values when you abandon the paper version!

Most of the magazine and newspaper apps that have so far been developed for the iPhone are RSS-style apps. They take the news stream from the magazine/newspaper web site and repackage it in a blockier, formatted, tagged and streamed way for the phone's app. It is the web site, rather than the newspaper issue that is being repackaged. Some of these apps are very good (we like the New York Times app, the Guardian app and especially Le Monde's app), but they have been tightly designed for the tiny screen on the iPhone. These little apps, with their micro story-stream, will not do justice to their parent publications if they are merely 'blown up' for the larger screen sizes that are coming. There is a difficult decision coming: do you design two (maybe three or four, for Android and Blackberry) variant RSS apps for different mobile platforms, whilst still maintaining the original web service, and not forgetting the 'mobile' web pages, also? Soon newspapers and magazines which have committed themselves to this route will be supporting and repackaging their digital product into half a dozen variant forms. Worse, every time there is a significant new hardware form-factor, they will be pulled towards offering a tightly engineered solution for the new thing (15" iPad, Hearst Skiff, Blackberry Lozenge, Nokia Bottle, or Android Scarf etc).

The complexity of this enormously evolved format-offering has considerable impact on the overheads and production infrastructure of the publisher. But it also has a bad effect on the expectations and loyalty of the user/reader. The loyal reader is required to learn different navigational and editorial conventions for the different formats, and app interfaces supported by the digital newspaper/magazine.

Right at this moment, commercial directors of many of our major newspapers and magazines are considering whether they should develop and support two types of 'app' for their audience: a 'micro' iPhone app and a 'maxi' iPad app. They are also wondering whether the apps should be free, or part of a 'pay wall strategy'. The chief operating office of the New York Times or the Guardian, who contemplates this convoy of evolving digital formats, might ask him/herself the question: "If there is a digital newspaper format that can be used on all platforms, should we not stick to that?" Once this question has been framed, the attractions of the digital edition which just is the newspaper becomes apparent. The digital edition can be fed out to any number of platforms and should look the same on all platforms, though inevitably a bit slower or smaller on some of them. The advantage of the iPad, and even more of the 15" iPad, is that we will then be able to lay out the sections of the newspaper (or the issues of the magazine) as separate entities on the more generous screen canvas provided. The presentation to the reader is straightforward as front-covers, thumbnails over an app engine that work the same way with different packages of material. The sections or issues, yeah the pages, are all laid out and held together the same way as they worked in print. Of course, there still will be some value in an RSS feed, it is the way that you communicate to readers between editions, but it is not and should not become the skeleton on which all the content of the paper or the magazine is to be hung.

Once one starts thinking of digital editions of books, magazines and newspapers as just being virtualised editions of the print variety, life becomes a whole lot simpler for the reader and the distribution director (these digital editions also have a bit of magic web dust scattered over them and built into them). This approach also naturally leads to a subtler way of tackling the thorny issue of 'pay walls'. But we will tackle that subject on another day....

1 comment:

Alain Pierrot said...

Do magazines, newspapers and books, when they become digital, absolutely need the rectangular shape that we have come to expect from print volumes and editions?

Am I completely rambling, or couldn't this question be tied to one of the issues mass digitization is meeting when we deal with documents that took advantage of technologies such as PostScript and DTP software in the 80s, namely the generalised ability to typeset in any direction, on vectors and curves and slant, wrap text against any shape?

A set of features that proved fairly useful and were used first by cartographers, then designers in the book and magazine industry…
Let me remind here the tremendous success of Peter Kindersley's publications style.

Today it is quite a challenge for OCR packages and display engines for the limited ressources of ultra-mobile devices, but it seems to me that the communicative power of these layouts have become a standard feature of our reading and viewing habits.

Let's hope that batteries and processors will provide soon the necessary capacity to provide that kind of readability facility.