iPad magazines: where are we now?

Still in relative infancy, iPad magazine apps continue to develop apace. But who’s making the best use of the new medium?

Time moves fast in the iPad publishing universe. Three months ago I wrote here about The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad newspaper project. Huge news at the time, it now seems all but forgotten (where was it on the Osama Bin Laden story?) but one thing it has done is free up negotiations around publishing subscriptions via the iPad. Barely a week goes by without a development in this area, but things at last seem to be coming into focus. All Time Inc’s US publications are now available free on the iPad to print subscribers, and Condé Nast is soon to follow suit. But one-off apps can still disappear without trace thanks to the lack of the tag ‘magazine’ in the AppStore. Until Apple sorts this, such apps need really strong marketing in print and online to stand a chance of cutting through the mass ranks of games and gadgets.

Production-wise, there’s been an almost universal decision to bring app production into the magazine print design studio, and a number of suppliers are vying to sell the tools that provide Adobe InDesign with app creation abilities. Like the first days of the web, there are many agencies out there offering bespoke app creation tools but in my experience these are often over-complex and lack an understanding of the magazine workflow. Condé Nast, for example, initially hedged its bets by trying various tools but recently dropped others (used by Vanity Fair and GQ) in favour of Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite.

It’s DPS (along with a similar InDesign add-on from Dutch company Woodwing) that seems to be winning the minds if not the hearts of most major publishers, but the elephant in the room is cost. While Woodwing is somewhat opaque about fees, Adobe announced a hefty charging regime that has caused much angst beyond the big publishers. Watching the fee announcements morph almost weekly I sense some reality coming to bear but the sums still block the small independent from a process they might reasonably expect should be within their means given their commitment to and daily use of the same company’s print software. Quark has just launched its own app production tools but while handy for existing users this is surely too late to attract users back from Adobe. There are other potentially cheaper smaller options such as Aquafadas but these are still largely unknown quantities at the time of writing.

Taking stock
As for the apps themselves, there are distinct trends and lessons to learn from several recent launches. The first magazine on the iPad was Wired, and it’s instructive to compare the original US app with the recently launched UK one. The US has continued with the ‘scroll right for new article, scroll down to navigate pages’ method that I have criticised here before, while the UK has used less vertical navigation. The new US GQ app has followed the UK route, with only the longer feature pieces using multiple vertical pages – the shorter content relying on continuous vertical scrolling rather than jumping from page to page. A definite step in a simpler, better direction.

But with editorial design legend Fred Woodward at the helm, you can expect more than that from the GQ app and he doesn’t fail to deliver. This is one slick app, the bright colours and graphic styles familiar from the printed edition working well on the screen. Good use of scale and navigation (pages annotated ‘1 of 10′) add to the overall impression of thoughtfulness behind the design. Other neat touches include having photo credits at the bottom of pages just longer than the screen and accessible by a quick scroll, and interactive elements ranging from the practical (text over picture reveals) to the showy (a dress your own Lady Gaga ‘doll’). British GQ faces a challenge to better it.

If worries about the size of the Wired and GQ apps remain, neither come anywhere near the file size of the free Elle Collections app. A favourite in print, the app tests DPS’s video capability with a massive 1.79 GB of catwalk material and live to-camera opinion. Classic serifs, catwalk cutouts and hand-drawn elements set in white space lend individual parts a great visual identity but navigation is confusing and that file size is unforgivable. This app should be a website.

Bloomberg does it right
‘App as website’ is entirely do-able – just ask Bloomberg Businessweek. Its new app piggybacks its website CMS, using scripts to feed material from InDesign and Photoshop to create a highly usable, bespoke and templated (to deal with the weekly scheduling) approach that is recognisably BBW. It leaves out the more visual elements in favour of clear content with multiple navigation routes and the magic ingredient of search, as yet unavailable with DPS. Efficient, functional and available by subscription, this is a useful addition to the genre. Notable extra for designers: each edition comes with a brief introduction to its front cover concept from art director Richard Turley (once of The Guardian).

The appeal of such an app might just be enough to kickstart the market. For all the technological and creative effort going into current magazine app creation (and I haven’t even talked about other tablets) the reality is that many are only just scratching the thousand downloads-per-issue mark. This makes that subscription arrangement an even more vital development.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog


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