Four months after the iPad first hit shelves and seven months since it was announced amidst expectations that it would breathe new life into the newspaper and magazine industries, the state of digital publishing on Apple’s device remains messy. On the plus side, hundreds of publications are now available for download in iPad-compatible formats—emphasis on the plural—but unfortunately, Apple has still not enunciated a vision for subscriptions, or taken the once seemingly inevitable step of introducing its own digital publication standard. As a result, large and small publishers alike are still struggling with creating apps that present their content in a variety of different and confusing ways, while having no guarantee that readers will follow them to the next issue.
Having previously looked at a number of different digital publications for the iPad (see more here), we’re covering three additional and interesting recent releases below. We’re interested in hearing your views on which—if any—would be worth paying for, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The Promise: Released by Time Inc., the Fortune Magazine (Free) application for the iPad is a standalone downloader and player that lets you purchase and read individual issues of Fortune—no subscriptions. It lets you download a “Sample iPad Issue” and table of content previews, so you can see what to expect from full issues, which are sold for $5 each. To enhance the iPad publication, Fortune offers “instant stock quotes and performance metrics on featured companies, exclusive bonus stories and photos not found in the print edition, streaming video, and interactive charts”—all things that could have appeared on its web site, but mightn’t in the future.
The Good: Fortune takes an interesting early risk by playing with the traditional concept of pagination: articles are sometimes split into panes that preserve explanatory text on one part of the screen while permitting scrolling or tapping through photographs and supplementary information in another. As a result, though an issue of the magazine may appear to be in the hundred-page zone, one page may contain 10 scrollable photographs—a density of information that would be impractical if not impossible in print. Fortune places a tremendous emphasis on providing extras in the form of overlaid charts, linked book excerpts, tappable comparisons and galleries, making one of the strongest arguments we’ve yet seen for abandonment of the print format.
The Bad: At $5 per issue for 20 issues, you’ll actually pay a lot more for the iPad edition than the printed magazine, which can be had from Fortune’s web site for under $20 per year. Additionally, there’s a question as to how much of each iPad edition will really take advantage of the digital format. The sample’s 43-page “iPad bonus” in Fortune’s sample is actually a year-old article from the printed magazine, with no interactive content and huge walls of text filling most of its pages; similarly bland is Fortune’s Global 500 article, which ends the issue with nine pages of text and non-interactive tables, a sign of how boring issues might become without proper design/redesign work. There are also a few minor issues with the application itself: the initial learning curve in navigating paned pages, the legibility of certain fonts, and a lack of responsiveness in certain buttons—particularly ones that are near a pop-up tray at the bottom of the screen. That tray, incidentally, links back to the publication’s web site, which will lead some people to wonder why they’d even want to pay for content at all.
Conclusion: Time Inc.‘s Fortune application leaves out a lot of the flashy visual tricks we’ve seen in publications such as Popular Science+ and Wired, but as a publication for business professionals, it makes generally good use of its pages and the iPad as a next-generation display device; only when it runs out of steam does it begin to make the reader question the long-term viability of the digital version. Only time will tell whether Fortune can hit the right price point and continue to evolve its print content for iPad interactive consumption, or merely recycles articles as scrollable walls of text for padding. iLounge Rating: B.
The Promise: Time Inc.‘s Life Wonders of the World Photography Book ($5) is the digital equivalent of the one-off or annual magazines that are sometimes found at supermarket checkouts, covering an evergreen topic of broad general interest. It’s pitched as covering “50 Wonders” of the world with over 100 photos, offering a “visual journey through the Grand Canyon to the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids of Giza, the Galapagos islands and so much more.”
The Good: If you’ve ever wanted to look at professional-grade, full-screen photos of some of the world’s most interesting places, this application has them, complete with a clickable table of contents and a pop-up page viewing tray that lets you access any section at any time. Some of the images are visually arresting, and once you discover that you can swipe up on almost any picture to reveal explanatory text below, you’ll like the way the publication is laid out—scroll from picture to picture, moving downwards for details if you like—too.
The Bad: For a glorified photo gallery, Wonders of the World doesn’t do as much with its pictures as it should: there’s no ability to zoom in on any photo—the app merely fills the landscape orientation iPad’s screen with one image at a time—and artifacts are occasionally visible due to compression. In a bizarre touch, the application not only refuses to display photographs in portrait orientation, but fills the screen with a huge black and red “turn to read Wonders of the World” notice rather than just locking the application in landscape mode. Had Time skipped the app in favor of offering this publication in PDF format, it would have been just as compelling, and probably easier to enjoy.
Conclusion: As Time Inc. sells its printed version of Wonders of the World at a MSRP of $30, on sale for $20 at Amazon.com, the $5 “special introductory price” here initially seems reasonable, but you’re also getting a downscaled version of the printed publication, while Time is saving all the costs of manufacturing and distributing a somewhat complex and nearly year-old hardcover book. As with the latter pages of Fortune, this application’s layouts lack the sort of interactivity—even a zoom feature—that an iPad application is capable of offering, but as photo books go, Wonders of the World at least has strong imagery on its side. iLounge Rating: B-.
The Promise: Offered at a comparatively aggressive price, Hearst Communications’ Popular Mechanics Interactive Edition ($2) looks and feels like it was inspired by the earlier Popular Science+, “deliver[ing] all of the readability of the print magazine, while showcasing interactive features that are only possible on a touchscreen device.” Unlike some of its rivals, Hearst describes this as a “special issue” as it works to “prepare a monthly version of the magazine this fall,” offering neither a subscription mechanism nor a guarantee of what the final digital magazine will contain. “This is just the start,” it says.
The Good: Pages of the Interactive Edition look much like they do in the printed version of Popular Mechanics, but have buttons that can be pressed to introduce animations and additional depth to the pages. Translucent overlays sometimes provide conspicuous alerts as to interactive content, and some pages are revealed with headers and graphics that slide in to finish the layout as you watch—a very, very cool effect. A three-dimensional model of a wooden charging station is also rendered in realtime by the iPad as a flat-shaded polygonal object, which despite falling short of the hardware’s capabilities provides a very real glimpse at how future applications can offer more than just movies and linear animations to illustrate articles.
The Bad: Some of the interactive buttons are either small or unnecessary, such as a lab test of hard drives that requires a button press to show results that should have been on the page to begin with. An interactive earthquake map looks sort of cool, but isn’t so much interactive as it is animated—a seemingly half-finished implementation of what could have been a really cool way for people to learn about seismic activity near their homes. Pages that would have unquestionably been interactive in Popular Science+ or Wired are sometimes surprisingly left as plain, scrollable spreads, and Popular Mechanics toys with both vertical and horizontal articles rather than sticking to a consistent hierarchy or structure. This application also requires you to read most of the magazine in portrait orientation rather than offering reflowed or twin-page landscape modes, then occasionally insists that you rotate the iPad to view individual graphics. While we enjoyed the content in this special issue, it felt as if it had been assembled as a collection of different experiments—and it probably was. The application also crashed a number of times in the middle of changing pages.
Conclusion: Experimental though it may be, Popular Mechanics Interactive Edition has some very cool visual tricks up its sleeve, and a single issue price tag that is far more likely to appeal to the masses than most of the other publications we’ve seen in the App Store. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens with future issues, and hoping that Hearst implements a master plan for logically organizing their contents, as well as offering a way to enjoy the entire issue in landscape orientation, as well. iLounge Rating: B.