Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Khoi Vinh's Indigestion and the iPad

Khoi Vinh published, last week, a damning and severe critique of the current state of magazine iPad apps. Here are a couple of extracts:

My opinion about iPad-based magazines is that they run counter to how people use tablets today and, unless something changes, will remain at odds with the way people will use tablets as the medium matures. They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all.....

Take the recent release of the iPad app version of The New Yorker. Please. I downloaded an issue a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed every single word of every article that I read (whatever the product experience, the journalism remains a notch above). But I hated everything else about it: it took way too long to download, cost me US$4.99 over and above the annual subscription fee that I already pay for the print edition and, as a content experience, was an impediment to my normal content consumption habits. I couldn’t email, blog, tweet or quote from the app, to say nothing of linking away to other sources — for magazine apps like these, the world outside is just a rumor to be denied. (My iPad Magazine Stand Khoi Vinh)

In fact Khoi is pretty gloomy about the prospects for the magazine industry:
The fact of the matter is that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in, that is making less and less sense as we forge further into this century, and that makes almost no sense on a tablet. As usual, these publishers require users to dive into environments that only negligibly acknowledge the world outside of their brand, if at all — a problem that’s abetted and exacerbated by the full-screen, single-window posture of all iPad software. (My iPad Magazine Stand Khoi Vinh)
There are some excellent responses to Khoi's depressing account of the magazine industry prospects in the comments which his blog has attracted. The best full-out response that I have seen comes from Mike Turro.

Without a doubt the future of magazines–both as an industry and a publishing framework–is uncertain. However, to write off the reading experience provided by a good magazine as a relic of the print world is extremely shortsighted. When Khoi offhandedly and anecdotally declares “that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in” he is assuming (though he does give a slight nod to the contrary) that the current use patterns of the web’s most emphatic users (also iPad’s early adopters) are an indication of the eventual use patterns of the population of tablet users as a whole. Khoi is certainly a smart guy, but it may be a bit early to make that call. (@Khoi Vinh's Beautiful Mistake Mike Turro)
Mike Turro calls Khoi Vinh's mistake, "beautiful". I am not so sure about that -- it could be a blunder, attributable to his indigestion through consuming too many unripe apps. It seems to me that 'magazine designers' are particularly excited and in many cases particularly disappointed by the possibilities of the iPad, because they have been thinking of the iPad as a new medium and a new design challenge for their typographic and layout skills, as though magazine publishers could own or control the device the way they control paper stocks and printed colour choices. But the iPad is not the medium but a digital device. Magazines will grow and change as they work out the potential of digital media, but they start this adventure the way they are. That is nothing to be ashamed or worried about. The excellence and remarkable quality of the iPad is that it is really a very 'neutral' digital enabler and any virtual, digital, media object should be able to thrive in its embrace. We should not be designing magazines (newspapers, books, films) for the iPad but for their audience, an audience that is increasingly digital and which will now have Galaxies and Droids as well as iPhones and iPads, and this means we should now be designing digital resources which can gracefully leap into different devices and across various media platforms. So if there is a reason for sticking to proven formats (pages, paragraphs, layouts, inserts, wrap-arounds, even belly bands and overlays, indices, cartoons, charts and tables) this is not because these formats are inherently digital, they are not, the reason for sticking with them is that the users/readers understand and enjoy this traditional 'grammar' of type. Too many of the magazine apps that we have seen for the iPad have been designed and engineered precisely for the iPad in a way that will make them impossible to deliver for the iPhone or the successful Android tablet which will surely appear in the next 6/9 months. A publisher or designer who crafts their magazine app specifically for the iPad is building in obsolescence and writing in tablets of stone a message that should be digital, transferable and evolving. The challenge which the iPad and other digital manifestations of the magazine will present to the publisher is this: how can we make a magazine that works well in print and in a range virtual manifestation on tablets, games consols and many other digital gadgets that we have not even considered yet? As Khoi Vinh and Mike Turro both recognise, this is very early days for the iPad and for tablet apps.

The requirement that a magazine should be consistent across a variety of print and digital manifestations certainly does not mean that it should be the same in those 'editions'; if, to take a specific and local example, you look at Exact Editions apps you will find that there is stuff that you can do with them on the web that you cannot do with them on the iPad, there is stuff that you can do with them on the iPhone that you cannot do on the iPad and there is plenty that you can do with them on the iPad that you cannot do on the web versions. The various digital forms of a magazine will be different from each other but they should have a common core; and a clever designer will make sure that a 21st Century magazine not only looks good in print, but also in its many digital variants where additional layers of interactivity and sociability will certainly accrue. I have been struck by the insistence with which the readers who subscribe to the magazine we support with apps and digital editions want the app to reflect and to represent the magazine that they know. They expect it to be on the iPad and they do not expect it to be something completely different from the magazine they may have been loyally reading for a decade and more.

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