Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

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:

@theory @blam fret not, gents, we’re on it. For a preview, check out our first hires magazine with vector text, Vogue.

— Scott Dadich (@sdadich) March 17, 2012

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 & Vogue 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]Or perhaps PDFs, 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.

Looking for the comments? Try the old layout.