iPad Magazines: DOA?

Khoi Vinh, former design director of the New York Times website, has a recent post where he opines that the current crop of iPad magazines (and tablet-based magazines in general) “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.”

What he fails to expound upon is the phrase “the way people will use tablets as the medium matures”. What is this? How do users use tablets now? It seems like he lumps every tablet user into one category. I’d like to know how he sees average or typical tablet usage.

As a recent iPad owner and a voracious reader, one of the most compelling reasons to pick one of those gadgets up was for the extended reading capabilities. Sure, I was using Instapaper on my iPhone (and still do), but having content formatted for a screen closer to the size of a book or magazine makes a huge difference. In fact, it’s increased my long-form reading habits on digital devices. I see magazines fitting into this space.

Later on, Vinh vents: “In my personal opinion, Adobe is doing a tremendous disservice to the publishing industry by encouraging these ineptly literal translations of print publications into iPad apps. They’ve fostered a preoccupation with the sort of monolithic, overbearing apps represented by The New YorkerWired and Popular Science. Meanwhile, what publishers should really be focusing on is clever, nimble, entertaining apps like EW’s Must List or Gourmet Live. Neither of those are perfect, but both actively understand that they must translate their print editions into a utilitarian complement to their users’ content consumption habits.”

Magazine apps like the Must List are indeed slick and fit well into the “snack food” category of news/information apps, but the Must List seems more of a glorified sidebar with slick interactive design. Where do extended pieces with some journalistic oomph (and great design) come in?

Pandering to “top ten” list information might be a great sidecar app to the full magazine app or website (or even the print magazine), but I think Vinh is looking towards lowest common denominator readership.

While I may agree with Vinh that shoehorning the print version into a tablet format isn’t the way to go, one can hardly fault publisher for trying to minimize their production times and costs. InDesign Magazine has a free sampler issue out, and I have to say I like the format for a tablet-based magazine. Good content, great design. Perhaps I don’t fit into that demographic Vinh has in mind.

I do agree with Vihn that magazine apps have “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” — however things like these I think will come in time. Let’s start with getting magazines on these devices, working out a delivery system, and then adding some rich functionality. I do have to say that I am surprised this type of functionality isn’t being embedded into the magazine apps already.

To be honest, I find most device-specific magazine apps to be redundant with the coming of HTML5 and the internet in general. Publishers should be able to push out rich content without proprietary formats that work on all devices, all tablets, from all manufacturers. I’m no web developer, so perhaps there are technical limitations I am unaware of. Perhaps a solution can be found through the solutions Adobe is working on. I’d just hate to see content and design reduced to presenting the most inane information just to target Vinh’s mysterious “average tablet user”.

Header image via John Karakatsanis