iCame, iSaw, iConquered?

A handful of magazines have risen to the iPad challenge. On the eve of the device’s UK release, Jeremy Leslie puts them through their paces

Apple continues to occupy a unique space in the design world. MP3 players had been available before, but it was the iPod that made them mainstream, while the arrival of the iPhone kick- started the smart phone market. Who else so successfully combines hardware and software to create consumer products that are not only hugely desirable but effortlessly change whole market sectors?

And now, into a world of dull grey Kindles and eReaders, comes the iPad. Its US success has delayed the international launch, despite critics missing the point. ‘It’s just a big iPhone’ they moan, completely overlooking that for many iPhone owners a larger-screened version of the same thing sounds just about spot on.

Getting on with the  iPad
Indeed, the iPad does share design genes with the iPhone, being a glossy jet black flat plane with a gently curved back that narrows along the edges to exaggerate its thinness. It’s smaller than you might expect, but the screen takes up a good amount of that flat surface. It’s a gorgeous object before you even switch it on, but once on that screen is stunningly bright and engaging.

What’s on the screen will be familiar to iPhone users, except that Apple have made use of the extra space to introduce some highly cheesy metaphorical visuals. The iBooks store, for example, features a spectacularly naff wood-effect bookshelf. A friend working on Apps tells me this metaphorical approach is a part of the Apple design guidance for Apps. This seems hopelessly out of sync with the modernity of the iPad itself – it’s like walking into an Apple Store to find it looking like Dixons.

The simplest Apps demonstrate the device’s promise. Painting App Brushes moves effortlessly from the iPhone to the larger screen. Games like Acceleroto’s Air Hockey are addictively effective, and video is astonishingly good. Whatever the politics of the standoff between Apple and Adobe over the former’s lack of support for Flash, the decision to drop that outdated technology will soon be vindicated. Until websites catch up, their reliance on Flash will be an irritation, but those without Flash look amazing, and again the touch interaction is hugely satisfying.

GQ, Time and Popular  Science
And magazines? Several are already selling Apps, but these are early days. Many rely on variations on existing page-turning software, and the jump from using a mouse to sweeping your hand across to ‘turn’ pages is a positive development, but doesn’t really lift them from being a bad imitation of print. The creative challenge is to use the new device to go beyond imitation to create new forms of engagement with editorial content – not a pageturner, a website, or a TV show, but something new. Three magazines that have taken on this challenge are American GQ, Time and Popular Science.

GQ takes the smallest step beyond the page turner, combining large scale reproductions of pages with scrollable columns of text. It’s clumsy and unattractive, but holds some promise in terms of how things might combine in the future. This is Condé Nast’s template for going forward – as I write Vanity Fair has announced a similar App (Condé Nast’s more advanced Wired App has been delayed by the Apple-Adobe shenanigans).

The Mag+ concept
Time more successfully moves its visual identity onto the screen, the combination of crisp black-on-white type and photography initially seductive. But with no sense of settled navigation – there’s a confusion between vertical and horizontal movement, and turning the screen 90 degrees changes the design not just the orientation – it’s hard to get a sense of journey through the material, and I was left feeling the printed edition was an easier option. This is a common problem – none of these Apps better the printed magazine’s flickability yet. They all use various forms of hidden thumbnails to help the reader understand where they are/where they can go, but there’s no single method and none hit the mark.

The Popular Science App is the first launch using Berg’s Mag+ concept. This has moved further from the ‘page’ paradigm than Time’s, and is the one App that hints at future possibilities. Berg has developed bespoke technology that layers text and image, allowing different rates of movement for both. This is work in progress but hints at how touch might interact with content in exciting ways. At present the timings are slightly off, and some parts over-complex, but this is the one App genuinely reaching out to something new.

For now, though, simple is best, and it’s the Marvel Comics App that best shows how touch can be a powerful and engaging tool. It lets you read comics in full-screen mode or you can double tap to read frame by frame. I’m told this is a heresy for comic purists, but as a direction for future editorial use of the iPad it definitely holds promise.

So there you have it, another Apple device that takes an existing idea and trumps it. Some of the UI design is ghastly, but the object is beautiful, the screen stunning, and I have little doubt that in time there will be some superbly creative editorial Apps available. Not yet, though.

 

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog

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