Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pristine Praise

Pristine Classical (the world's leading historic recordings site) have written up the experience of using Gramophone magazine on the Exact Editions platform. The full editorial is here, and we quote an extract in which Andrew Rose explains how the iTunes Newsstand interface, and the Exact Editions digital magazine platform works for him:

The iPad's news stand is a simple little app that Apple have recently built into the operating system. When you first touch it an empty set of shelves open up on the screen, just begging to be filled with reading matter. Fortunately there's a handy button to take you straight to the news store, where you can buy individual issues or full subscriptions to a variety of magazines and newspapers from around the world. Once you've bought one of these (and most offer a free trial issue to get you started) the magazine cover appears on your shelf.

Actually the shelf thing is a brilliant bit of nudge-marketing that really makes you want to fill its empty shelves, and so now I have four publications sitting there ready to read, including Gramophone at an annual subscription price which was around half the usual international rate. My daily paper - for which I now have the iPad subscription - is delivered as if by magic overnight while the iPad is asleep, ready to read when I get up in the morning. My Gramophone turns up on time every month. And because of the nature of my Gramophone subscription I can also read the same content on my web browser on any PC, and - at last! - copy and paste Rob Cowan's reviews directly into this newsletter rather than either scanning the text or retyping it. I've also been gifted every back issue going back to August 2010...

So as a user what's it like? Well, what you see is what you'd get with the print edition - every page in full colour (including all the ads). When you hold your iPad vertically the screen holds a full page, when you hold it horizontally it spins around to fill the width of the screen, making the writing bigger but requiring you to scroll the page down to read the full text, something that can be a bit of a nuisance is a story runs along a number of columns. In the vertical view this isn't an issue though the text can be a little on the small side - but then you can quickly and easily pinch and unpinch the screen to change your level of zoom, thereby resizing the text to suit both you and the page layout. The contents page has coloured links over the page numbers, allowing you to jump straight to an article, and you can also run a text search across the entire issue - which is how I know for sure that there are four instances of the word 'Pristine' in November's issue, of which three refer to us. There's also a little "page flick" button, enabling quick "flicking" through thumbnail representation of the pages, a button that takes you straight back to the contents page, and one other control button, which switches to a two-page view, for those with better eyesight than me! All in all it looks good, it's easy to read, it turns up on time, and it's saved me money and shelf space. What's not to like? (Pristine Classical Newsletter November 2011)

Rose goes on to explore the advantages and the options for independent music publishers who might want to sell magazines through iTunes. His view "And if you happen to be a magazine publisher who thinks this isn't for you, you really must read on..."

It intrigued me that this very positive review of the process of transferring well designed and graphically rich magazines to a digital medium should have come from someone with deep expertise in the business of transferring digital sound to online media. Maintaining the fidelity and the richness of the print experience is still a real challenge. As is the problem of fidelity and authenticity in sound recordings. The review is also timely since this week Exact Editions is now unveiling a portal through which publishers can explore for themselves the digital services that can enable magazines to achieve the best digital quality and access that we can provide. Magazine publishers who think that Andrew Rose may be on to something should turn their browsers to and upload an issue of their magazine to conduct private trials with the platform whilst they consider the solutions proposed for their magazine. Either as a web edition, as a complementary service for print subscribers, an app solution for iOS or Android. And for many magazines all of those options will make sense.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Apple's Newsstand and Skeuomorphs

Apple's Newsstand was introduced with iOS5 and it is defined as 'a custom newsstand for all your subscriptions'. It puts all your periodical subscriptions in one place, a Newsstand, a folder, that 'lets you access your favorite publications quickly and easily'. At this stage it has three particular advantages for the user: first, it does the sorting for you and puts your subscriptions in the one folder, collecting them together on the iPhone/iPad (many of us are lazy about arranging apps); second, apps which are handled through this route will update automatically in the background when a new issue appears -- a big plus since many magazine apps are very slow to upload; third the front covers of the current issues are shown on the shelves of your newsstand, a fact which makes these apps rather more interesting and appealing than most app cover artwork. This is an especially strong point for magazines, many of which have outstanding cover designs.

This is all a fairly straightforward matter of iOS plumbing and 'issue management', but I just mentioned the Newsstand's 'shelving' and one of the most obvious features of the Newsstand is that it is presented to the user as a wooden, pine, racking system. Here is a glimpse of mine:

This is a classic instance of Apple's 'skeuomorphism'. Skeuomorphism, originally a term from archaeology, is type of ornamentation where the design or look of the object helps the user to understand the function of the device or tool. Greeks made bronze jugs and vases that looked as though they had been made from coiled pottery, with curious twists and patterns, because these derivative ornaments helped the user to know which bit to grasp as the handle and how to direct the spout. iOS5 and its apps are riddled with skeuomorphism -- some of which goes over the top. Much of it incredibly helpful: paperclips that indicate an attachment, soft calculators that work like calculators, brushes that brush, cameras that have buttons and dials etc.

The fact that the newsstand is a pine shelving system is helpful skeuomorphism because we know how to arrange items on a shelf, we know how to 'read' a shelf, we understand that the objects on the shelf will remain 'there' on both phone and pad and we know that can pick up one, or several of these objects and dive into them. All of this maps the functionality of shelved stuff straight into our collection of subscriptions. All is well and good.

The problem lies elsewhere. The metaphor of the 'personal shelf' works well enough for an individuals collection of 6 or 60 periodical subscriptions. But it provides no help at all when we come to the other angle on Apple's new newsstand. The newsstand is not just a way of organizing an individuals collection of subscription, it is a new classification within the app store for periodicals which are consistent with the distribution and access rules that pertain to the individual-facing, personal newsstand within an iOS device. 'Newsstand' is a new and rather unusual category within the iTunes store itself, and only the apps which would work on the 'pine-shelf' personal newwstand appear there. A lot of newspapers and many magazines have not appeared in newsstand yet, perhaps because the developers have not yet got round to it, but others are not there because they never will be. Apps like Flipboard or Zite which aggregate magazine content will not be going into the newsstand, nor will news apps that are based on real-time newsfeeds (there is still a seperate 'news' category for apps which are not in Newsstand). The 'newsstand' within iTunes is not a section for all newsy apps, it is a category for periodical subscriptions which meet some very specific criteria. All existing print periodicals could be transferred to it provided that the publishers develop an app which matches these criteria, so it will soon be an enormous emporium of periodicals. In fact what iTunes now needs is some sort of virtual kiosk, which would allow the prospective purchaser to float past and search thousands and tens of thousands of prospective periodical titles that might be purchased. For this task the pine-shelved personal newsstand is no good at all. We need a very different metaphor for the mega-kiosk that Apple's iTunes magazine store is rapidly becoming.

I suspect that Apple will soon be wishing that they had chosen a more flexible, and a more scaleable skeuomorphism for their magazine collection that the individual selects for herself. A carousel or a cascade of front covers that could be more easily translated or analogised to the requirements of the global kiosk. Google a month ago put up an example of the kind of carousel interface that might work well for a global range of magazine titles.

Final thought: I have never liked the pine bookcase metaphor at all. I would never put my printed magazines on such a shelving system -- its too reminiscent of a dentist's waiting room. If Apple decides that it was the wrong skeuomorph, perhaps they should smash up the pine bookshelves and turn them into kindling?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Magazines that just work

Adweek has a nice piece on how the magazine BusinessWeek appears to be thriving. It has changed its name to Bloomberg Businessweek (is that really better?) and has a newly invigorated editorial and design approach.

So far, the Bloomberg money has bought signs of life. Businessweek has bulked up to an average of 66 well-designed editorial pages that offer a level of global business coverage not found among other weeklies. Ad pages are up 21 percent year-on-year for January through July, the rate base will soon be raised from 900,000 to 980,000 (approaching Forbes’ 1,020,000), and subscriptions are up 12 percent. The magazine now loses, according to Adweek sources, between $20 million to $30 million a year. (Josh Tyrangiel Means Business -- Adweek)

Bloomberg bought the magazine from the McGraw Hill company for $1 in October 2009.

The magazine also has a respectable app for the iPad, though I suspect that its not (yet) a key part of the revived magazine's business strategy. I find their app clever, but a bit too fiddly and confusing and its not on Apple's Newsstand which suggests that Bloomberg have not yet worked out whether they see it as an integral part of a digital magazine strategy or more of a trial balloon. But the resuscitation of the core magazine is a good story for the magazine business. A new owner has been bold enough to take a fresh look at the editorial mission, has seen the need for investment in editorial content and design quality, and the magazine is a lot better than it was 2 or 3 years ago. This week it has a tremendous article on Apple's extraordinary strength in supply chain management, investment and logistics. Now that they have the core magazine working really well, they can consider how to make it a digital success.

It could be that there are a good many magazines out in the market which are suffering from tired ownership (McGraw Hill had no real rationale for owning a consumer-facing business magazine). There are some excellent editorial and content propositions that could be revived by fresh investment and owners committed to developing subscription audiences. This will become a positive story for the magazine industry in the near future as publishers realise that digital magazine audiences can be very large and can be reached very efficiently through the iPad and other web devices.