Condé Nast on the iPad

I've been a The New Yorker reader for nearly two decades. I'm a huge fan of the magazine, which in my humble has the best reportage anywhere. So I was thrilled last year when the magazine's publisher, Condé Nast, decided to make all issues available to paper subscribers for no extra charge. Ever since, I have loved getting the latest issue late on Sunday nights, rather than on the following Friday or Saturday. It has also made it easier for Strongrrl and me to share the magazine: I usually read the iPad version and she reads the paper version.

That's not to say that it has all been happiness and joy, mind. The New Yorker app is terrible. Issues are huge (typically around 120 MB). Downloads cannot be performed in the background (except by Newsstand, which may not notice a new issue for days). You can't even read other issues while waiting for one to download; the download pauses. Sometimes I have difficulty getting it to start downloading again. And the navigation, while unique and kind of interesting, really does not work for me.

Still, I was excited to try it on the new iPad's retina display. Well, "excited" is not quite the right word. More like "dreading." Because Condé iPad magazines actually use images for most of their articles, rather than text. The underlying technology is the charmingly named Adobe Digital Publishing Suite family, which, at root, is basically an image reader. Way back in September, 2010, Condé told All Things D: "The goal is to be all HTML, and we will be." Alas, that day has yet to come, as I confirmed when I loaded the latest issue of The New Yorker on my new iPad and immediately saw fuzzy text. Sure, the text-based articles, such as the comment, display beautifully. But longer articles, which are carefully laid out and rendered as images, do not. They look worse than on the old iPad, because the anti-aliasing is even easier to see.

The New Yorker on the 1st gen iPad The New Yorker on the 3rd gen iPad with retina display

Text content from The New Yorker on the first generation iPad (top) and the third generation iPad with retina display (bottom). Looks great because it's text. Click for larger images.

I complained about this on Twitter, Brian Lam chimed in, and Scott Dadich, Condé's Vice President of Content Innovation, was kind enough to respond:

I suspect that the reality of the overlap of The New Yorker and Vogue readers resembles the Venn diagram to the right. But I want to see The New Yorker rock on the iPad, so I put aside some time to download the new Vogue app and take it for a spin.

The New Yorker & Condé Nast Venn Diagram

First, the good news. I got a free month's subscription and downloaded the latest issue of Vogue, which does indeed have hi-res images. The articles look great. Ads are still low-res, but some might consider that a feature (not, I daresay, the advertisers). Alas, that's where the good news ends. Overall, this app is almost exactly like the The New Yorker app. I find this a little odd, since in print the magazines could not be much less different: The New Yorker is a slim, staple-bound, mostly-text weekly. Vogue is a phone book-sized perfect bound, glossy fashion magazine. Quite different beasts. Business-wise, I can understand why they would be the same: It's less expensive to have a single "media player" for all of your company's periodical properties, and the tablet form factor allows you to eliminate some of the differences. After all, bits don't weigh anything.

Vogue on the new iPad

Image content from Vogue on the new iPad. Not shown: the second that it's blurry while the image engine finishes loading and displaying the image. Click for larger images.

Except that they do. The Vogue April 2012 issue weighs in at a whopping 408 MB. A special "exclusive download" covering The Met Gala demands 530 MB of disk space. The latter I can kinda/sorta understand, as it contains a bunch of videos (all low-res text and image content, though). The fact that the new issue is so huge tells me that one of two things, or perhaps both, is going on here:

  1. Vogue is such an image-driven magazine that it will just be big no matter what you do.
  2. The text content is still images, just bigger ones.

We'll have to wait for the much less image-driven content of The New Yorker to find out if the its downloads are smaller, but the Vogue example does not make me optimistic.

Worse than the download size, though, is the fact that user-triggered downloads do not happen in the background. I started a download and quit the app, then came back after 15 minutes of doing other stuff, and it had gone nowhere, though it restarted the downloading without me needing to do anything more. This is one of the biggest beefs I've had with The New Yorker app: I have to start a download, and then wait for it to finish, often up to 5 minutes, without being able to do anything else on my iPad. This sucks.

Other issues I have with the Vogue app, and which are also present in the existing The New Yorker app:

  • When not reading an issue, but looking in the "Store" or "My Account," pages are quite slow to load. They appear to be web views that download content every time they are loaded, with no caching. With hi-res images, it gets even slower. It would be nice if these were cached, so that a new download would happen only if there was actually new content.
  • Controls can be very slow to respond. I clicked a "Buy Issue" button, and nothing happened for 15 seconds. No activity indicator icon, nothing. Subsequent taps of the button were a bit better, taking only a second or so to respond.
  • Not all controls are obvious. For example, in "My Account," the "Complete Account Setup" button is slightly darker than the others, so perhaps disabled. But if I tap it, it depresses. But nothing happens. This is quite different from how standard iOS controls work, where if a button is disabled, its color is greatly reduced and tapping it does nothing.
  • When viewing the high-res magazine, images and text start out low-res, then sharpen. Clearly we are still dealing with image content, even for the text. (Or perhaps PDFs and a slow rendering engine. The rendering reminds me of the iterative`` display of progressive JPEGs on the web in the 90s.)
  • Some articles have a Chevron icon for different or related content. If you tap one, it jumps to a completely different part of the magazine (think the back pages). There is no back arrow.
  • I never cared for the swipe left and right to switch articles/ads, swipe up and down for more pages of content. I think it works okay for scrolling apps; Byline works that way, for example. But not so much for pagination. No other reading apps work like that. And since some of the chevron controls also scroll left and right, they seem to behave differently but show the same animation.
  • Some pages looks as though you ought to be able to tap something, such as an invitation to watch a video or a description of an article (especially in the "In This Issue" section), but nothing happens when you tap. They really ought to respond to taps.
  • Other places are less obvious that should be tapped for more info, but there are instructions, such as a little circle in the Special Edition that says "tap circle to show caption." I tap the circle and the caption appears, right where the tip had been. Why not just show the caption?
  • Some articles have sharing features, where you can share via Twitter, Facebook, or email. The Twitter feature connects you to twitter.com in a web view, rather than use the iOS 5 Twitter support. Worse, it does not remember that I logged in between sessions. So if I tweeted yesterday and want to do it again today, I have to log in again. I suspect the Facebook feature works the same. Sharing via Email just opens the Mail app, rather than use the embedded iOS email controller.
  • When I use the table of contents popover, it is always scrolled to the top, no matter how far down the currently-displayed article is or where I left it the last time I used it.

There are other issues, as well, some minor, such as the boring grey background if you make an image or article bounce when you scroll past the end, or the display of the issue name in the iTunes store as "Vogue Magazine_200_30." Other issues are more annoying, such as the difficulty of discovering and managing the different types and layers of navigation. But honestly, if just the following issues were addressed, the app would be so much better:

  • Use plain text for layout. HTML would be great.
  • Get the download size down. Reducing the use of images for laying out text will help a lot for The New Yorker, I'm sure; less perhaps for Vogue.
  • Allow the downloads to happen in the background, no matter what else I'm doing.
  • Make less use of embedded web browsers for stuff, or at least cache them. This is a tablet, with a lot of great features built in. Take advantage of them to make the app as responsive as possible!

These steps will help a lot. But even then, I can't help but think that there continues to be more need for UX exploration and experimentation. A tablet is not a magazine and not a web browser, but offers its own features and constraints. I think a better fit for selling editorial or image-based content could still be created; these apps don't come close. I can think of three reasons for why not:

  1. The limitations of the Adobe publishing platform. It's a lowest-common denominator experience, in that the player has to work on a bunch of different devices, and so would suck on all of them. And it just might not have the controls for a strong text-based layout, though I don't see why Adobe wouldn't have the resources to address that issue.
  2. The desire for layout integrity. But as Craig Grannell writes, that's akin to 90s web sites that were nothing but a single big image. It didn't work well for a whole slew of reasons.
  3. Copyright. Plain-text content would just be too easy to "steal," but if it's in a PNG, no one will bother. I know nothing about this personally, but it would not surprise me if there were folks inside Condé and some of these other magazines who don't want to use text-based content because it would be too easy to copy.

I find none of these reasons compelling.

Look, I write this out of love. The New Yorker is my favorite magazine, bar none, and I want it to succeed. Print is dying, but there is so much opportunity on devices like the iPad. Continue to create the best content, and provide it in a form factor and experience that takes advantage of the features and limitations of your targeted platforms, to allow readers to enjoy reading, and success will be assured.

Backtalk

Andy Baird wrote:

Steve Jobs nailed it

Your last paragraph contains the key: print is dying, but there is so much opportunity on devices like the iPad. I'd just add "...and it's the only opportunity you're going to get, publishers, so don't blow it!"

By any reasonable definition, the current situation qualifies as blowing it. I subscribe to a dozen magazines. Am I going to do a dozen half-gigabyte downloads every month? Over my 1.5 mbps Verizon wireless connection, that tops out at 5 GB per month? Not a chance. Even if I had an LTE connection with unlimited bandwidth (like that's every gonna happen!), the usability issues you cited would kill the deal for me.

Adobe's "make everything into a big bitmap" approach is quite simply untenable. It's interesting to note that Steve Jobs anticipated this situation in his April 2010 "Thoughts on Flash":

"We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps... This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool... It is not Adobe’s goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps."

Substitute "publications" for "apps," and you have the problem in a nutshell. Adobe's publishing tool is strictly for lowest-common-denominator work. It cannot, by definition, deliver high-quality results. As long as Condé Nast and other publishers cling to the delusion that they can take the lazy way out, the resulting tablet-based magazines will look and work poorly, and the huge downloads will severely limit their market.

Jack wrote:

I'm a current subscriber to wired and the new Yorker, as well as several other news stand mags not from Conde Nast though which very likely use adobes tools, and they all suffer from these same problems. I've found myself using them less and less to the point where today I'm going to cancel my subscriptions and buy per issue when I feel like it. That's probably not going to be very often as its such a grind, especially when apps like Reeder aggregate all my favourite blogs and can have me being entertained after a couple of seconds.

Prints problem is not that people no longer read... It's that people aren't paying to read. Making it a pain in the ass to boot is not helping their cause.

THGD wrote:

Adobe makes some great software but for e-publishing they are blowing it. Their current kludge approach that costs a fortune is not a viable solution. Every designer wants to create once and publish anywhere but that is a promise Adobe cannot keep. The current best solution for mere mortals is Apple's publishing tool "iBooks Author". It only outputs for one device, but maybe that device is the only one that matters for the foreseeable future.

Keith Ahern wrote:

Full disclosure, we make a competing system to Adobe DPS called Oomph. I don't normally comment publicly on other solutions but in this case I feel the entire iPad magazine industry is getting a bad rap over iPad 3. There are alternatives to DPS out there ... and some of them look great on the iPad 3 - even with already published content.

I don't think making text content look great on the new iPad is hard to solve. There are great resolution independent technologies out there to help like HTML, PDF and SVG. We use all of the them and the result is smaller downloads, and incredibly crisp text.

As mentioned background downloads and caching greatly enhance the user experience - again, looking beyond DPS you will see this.

Keith Ahern OomphHQ.com

Nicholas wrote:

CMS

Very early on in 2009, I looked at building a CMS build process for apps that included dynamically generated views designed to be template driven. Unfortunately we were too early, although we would apparently still be too early.

My background is in book design, and we considered what would be necessary for catalog and magazine publishers to make their many products available to users in a time driven format. We succeeded in building the systems and published some music apps (another target market), but never really got anywhere.

The problem remains. Content must be married with apps and be fed to users systematically, whether that is monthly or otherwise. This content really needs to be tied to databases and templates enabling more automation and customization. Imagine a much more controlled, as well as varied, Flipbook.

The publishers don’t get it because they can’t. They are still tied to the print publishing mechanisms and can’t afford to make products that generate less revenue, even if they become profitable. It is a fascinating problem, and one that Adobe is equally ill equipped to conquer.

jcburns wrote:

Staggering filesizes.

The huge file sizes make use out on the fringes of broadband, plain and simple. It's absurd that a PDF with high-quality images of the same magazine can clock in at, oh, 32 MB or so, when the Adobe Digital version is a staggering, iPad-filling 240 MB.

Folks, put yourselves on a budget. 40 MB max per issue. I'm serious. If it takes longer than 30 seconds to download, you've failed.

Brian Dewey wrote:

The magazine that's doing it right is The Economist. Downloads are fast, text looks crisp, navigation makes sense, and the page layout is still unmistakably that of their paper magazine. I can't wait until the rest of my paper periodicals have an iPad experience that matches it.

Robert wrote:

Almost two months and no fix...

I read all the negative reviews at the iTunes Store for The New Yorker and Wired but bought subscriptions anyways. I thought "It can't possibly be that bad!" I was wrong.

Pray you have a fast connection with unlimited bandwidth. Pray you have a device with lots of free space. You'll need it. I have to prep my device for downloading by disabling screen-lock and then leave the iPad unlocked but active on the download screen. Why can't they figure out a download method that doesn't require me to chaperone with the screen active but static?

Now for the past month I have been unable to access past issues on the device and the apps won't download new issues. My wifi connection to the iPad begins to have trouble when I try. All other apps are working fine. Wifi problems end as soon as I shut the apps down.

I've missed six issues now. I want to cancel but I'm dreading the call to their support. How can they be so bad?

Tony the tech wrote:

Why are publishers expected to be app developers? Music and movie producers get the benefit of the built in apps to show their content, as do book publishers. Wouldn't magazine publishing be better if they could all be done in iBooks instead of requiring custom apps?

Ric Levy wrote:

I don't understand the idea of using images to prevent stealing. Can't they just make the app text non-selectable?

Matthew Cooksey wrote:

I would recommend trying the British magazine Attitude (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/attitude-europes-no.1-gay/id373975518?mt=8) for a look at how I think it should be done. It has a separate team who compile the content for the iPad, I believe issues are fairly small despite having a lot of images, the text is all text and they make good use of it being on an interactive touchscreen device. Not sure what software they use for it.

Steve Wright wrote:

Great post. The Craig Gannell blog you link to discusses our magazine Tap!, which takes a different retina-proof approach.

Here's a bit more info on what we're doing, in case it's of interest. Tap! magazine is now eight digital issues old.

It's built using in-house software - which is an iPad app itself – and serves live text rather than unwieldy images. Essentially, it automatically optimises for the Retina display without prohibitively increasingly file size.

Even with full retina support, each issue comes in at around 150mb. Editor Chris Phin has blogged about the retina issue here: http://tapm.ag/retinamags

If you’d like to check out Tap!, you can download free samplers here: http://tapm.ag/appedition.

Bob wrote:

I recently bought a new iPad (my first) and was excited to see the Wired app, as a couple of friends had bought me a subscription to the print magazine for my birthday.

I was pretty disappointed. Slow download (in the foreground) and the text looked horrific. OK, I thought, apparently the next issue (April) will be updated with retina display visuals: that's great! However, the April issue downloaded yesterday (at about 430Mb, this took ... a while) and the text still looks awful! Marginally less awful, but still awful.

My only guess is that they've decided to render as jpg or png, and they've also decided to impose a maximum 500Mb file size or something. And when they rendered the images/text at full "retina" resolution, it went over 500Mb.

However, what they've ended up with is a still very large file size, with text that makes me want to turn the app off immediately.

Part of the problem is that non-rasterized text on the new iPad looks fantastic; low res image renders of long-form text just don't cut it.

Luckily my iPad subscription came free with the print equivalent so I'm not angry as such, just somewhat disappointed. If I'd paid for digital issues that looked this crappy, I would be.

Rhys Thomas wrote:

Wouldn't it be better for everyone, instead of just Apple users, for these magazine apps to be built in open web standards? Surely the publishers want to reach as many people as possible without having to create different version for different platforms? Though iBooks author may be fine for the iPad, it's no good for anything else and Conde Nast (insert other publisher here) won't want to lose the 40% that Apple charge AND spend more money creating the same product for other platforms too. There's just no money in it for them. Not everyone has an iPad but we do still like to read. Maybe one day someone will build a fully standards compliant browser that supports all of the features of HTML5 and CSS3 and we'll be able to do fully interactive magazines in the browser and we won't need an app for it. I'm not holding out much hope though.

Think I'll stick to paper.

m3kw wrote:

For them to force you to wait on the download is the foremost unacceptable feature. I have to leave the app OPEN for aorund 10-15 min while it is downloading. Maybe they are testing user download experience on a 20MB connection, but a lot of people have 6MB connections.

absurd.

m3kw wrote:

one more thing

Their engineers should notice that it is possible to disable the copy text feature. They don't have to do something as stupid as sending all text as images to prevent copying.

Joobu wrote:

The New Yorker digital assets are a completely technically suboptimal solution. Obviously in life other non-technical issues can take precedence.

The New Yorker online edition (archives.newyorker.com) consists of a javascript interface that displays 760x556 jpegs for browsing. Now we get to the good part: if you click on a page to zoom, it brings up a 1228x900 png overlaid on a 1228x900 jpg. The png is the high frequency information (abrupt black and white transitions) and the jpg is the low frequency information (large swathes of colour). I’m confident the data is processed by DjVu to perform this image separation (if you dive the image urls ‘djvu’ is one of the directory names). The hilarious part is that they OCR their images and this text is in the html. Even more fun is that there is a separate 1613x1181 jpg when you print from the online edition but as we know jpg is totally inappropriate for black and white text.

So to summarize the data is already passed through a DjVu toolchain to generate a djvu file but they render all of these ridiculous image sizes in various formats to fit their terrible viewer.

I don’t have an iPad so I can’t confirm but I’m pretty sure the Kindle New Yorker app runs on the same Adobe AIR platform. For the Kindle, each issue clocks in at around 100 MB and consists of a 1024x600 png for each page (I assume the iPad images are 1024x768) and a whole bunch of other HTML/XML assets. I’m running this on an android phone and the issues are stored under “/mnt/sdcard/The New Yorker/.library/The New Yorker/” so the data structure is pretty transparent.

Harper’s is much more sane: they serve gifs or pdfs. From the pdf properties it’s obvious it’s direct output from QuarkExpress.

AP wrote:

Adobe DPS actually supports PDF as an output format in addition to bitmaps. It would in theory totally solve this problem. I really would love to know why conde nast doesn't use it.

John Dowdell wrote:

Info on tradeoffs

Long article... wordsearch didn't reveal "CNN" or "zeke"... if you're interested in why publishers choose the options they do, here's context: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/26/tech/gaming-gadgets/ipad-magazine-display/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

Next year will be interesting, as publishers figure how to handle requests for high-resolution images as well.

jd/adobe

Ryan wrote:

I just got my first iPad this week. I was ready to get all of my subscriptions, including many Conde' Nast publications, through digital issues. The Economist is the only magazine I'll read on my tablet. Every other download is a waste of time.

AP wrote:

JD- That article says publisher chose bitmaps over PDF "because the fidelity is perfect." That doesn't make sense. Isn't that the whole purpose of the PDF file format?

Pete wrote:

Always felt the problem with Adobe Dig. Pub. Suite is that it's a software solution for Adobe to lock their corporate customers in to their tool chain - its not a solution designed for publishers or readers.

Tickle bunny wrote:

PDF

I'm a TNY print subscriber, and I go get my own PDF digital edition by using the OSX PDF print driver, then cropping in Acrobat. Unfortunately the text are still images, but I can OCR them if I want selectable text. One-week issues are in the range of 70MB, and take a couple of minutes to download on DSL to a computer. I read on an iPhone, because it's one or the other for me. Wifey has an iPad, but it's not like I get to use it :-)

Joe wrote:

I completely agree with every one of your criticisms, but at the same time, I also think the New Yorker is far better than most, and I frequently use it as an example of how news and magazines should be. If you want to see a really bad example. check out the San Francisco Chronicle app -- it's positively INFURIATING. The only reason I put up with it, is that it's the best (and really only) local paper. Try spending just a few minutes navigating this piece of crap -- the New Yorker is a joy by comparison. And btw, I like the navigation.