Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about iPad

An open letter to the printed press

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend who works for a moderately-sized regional newspaper. We were talking about distribution. The guys upstairs, he told me, feel very comfortable, complacent even, with their position. They’re not worried about their future because, as they say, “Hey, we’re not the New York Times, we’re not going to have those kind of distribution problems, because we cover regional news, and there’s still a need for good regional coverage.” I guess they think that people in their region don’t read local news on the internet or their mobile devices?

This is so incredibly wrong-headed it boggles the mind. This complacency will kill a perfectly good regional news source, all because the folks in charge are so blinkered that they cannot see that distribution is about to undergo a disruption not seen since…hell, I don’t know when.

I am a great believer in quality. There will always be a place for good writing, good editing, and solid reportage. We need organizations to employ journalists to investigate goings-on and report on them. There needs to be fact-checking, copy editing, compelling photography and illustration, and most of all, people who are willing to dig, to dig up the truth and tell stories that inform us, challenge us, and yes, entertain us.

Now, tell me, where in this characterization do you see any mention of forests of paper, barrels of inks, and warehouses of printing presses?

The printed press has struggled with the change to internet distribution over the last 15 years with very good reason: It’s difficult to make money. It didn’t help that so many of them gave away their content. But that change is nothing compared to the revolution that is the tablet computer, and especially the new iPad. This is a device you can take anywhere, and unlike your phone, is a pleasure to read. It’s as easy to take with you as a newspaper or magazine, but offers so much more. It’s here to stay. And it’s going to kill the printing press.1

Some disagree. An iPad does not offer the same pleasures as a newspaper: the texture of the pages, the scanability of the front page, the smell of the ink and the smudges it leaves on your fingers. No, there is nothing like a Sunday Times, a bagel, and a cup of coffee to laze away the morning. And when you’re done with the paper, the way it’s strewn about, the poorly refolded pages and crumpled edges of the most interesting sections offer satisfying remains of the experience. And then you recycle it.

Try that with your iPad. Don’t want to get cream cheese on it, or spill your coffee. Its scent does not bring back the memory of lazy Sundays, it doesn’t smudge your fingers, it doesn’t get crumpled or leave behind any of the detritus indicating a satisfying read. Just a smudged up screen, which won’t be nostalgic to anyone.

At the same time, you can’t perform a full text search of your newspaper. You can’t go back and read the article from last week because the recycling has been picked up. You can’t zoom in to a newspaper photo to look at things in greater detail. You can’t make text larger to relieve your aging eyes, or dig deeper to find out the story behind the photograph on the front page.

Look here, periodicals companies. This is important. It’s time realized that you are not in the printing business. You are in either the content business or the advertising business. You either sell your content to consumers in ways that are easy or enjoyable for them to access, or get your ads in front of as many eyeballs as possible (or both). The way to do that is not to run printing presses. Nor is it to squeeze the disadvantages of the printed page on devices. The way to do it is to provide the best experience possible. Decide what methods of distribution you want to use—print, web, tablet—and take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of each to make things people want.

So yeah, keep printing, for now, to satisfy the aging population that needs it. Make the experience the best you can within the constraints of the printed page. But don’t force those same constraints into another distribution channel. You don’t try to make the printed page look and feel like a scrolling screen, do you? Nor should you make the iPad experience feel like the printed page. No, I can’t smell the ink in your iPad app, but if you took proper advantage of the device, tried to work within the confines of its limitations while exploiting is unique strengths, you could provide a compelling, unique experience.

Because if you don’t, someone else will. The iPad in particular represents a gaping opportunity for disruption of your business, mainly because you fail to recognize that you are in the content business, not the distribution business. And upstart companies will start delivering well researched, edited, and fact-checked stories in a compelling format, with new approaches to interaction and engagement, in a way that people want. And they will be extremely successful. And profitable.


  1. Okay, not kill it, exactly, but turn printing into a niche business, suitable for coffee table books, wedding invitations and book arts.

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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.

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Missing the Point

Thanks for all the comments on my Disposable Computing post. Alas, I’m beginning to see why sites like Daring Fireball don’t allow comments. Not that anyone was rude; it’s just that everyone missed the point. Every last one of you. (Well, except commenter “John”, who pointed out an inaccuracy in my post.) Here’s what that post was not about:

  • How many iPhones I’ve had over the years
  • The economics of owning an iPad vs. owning a Kindle
  • How long any given Apple product lasted (yours or mine)
  • How durable previous generations of Kindles are
  • The inherent value of the iPhone 3GS or iPad 1
  • The difference in quality between E-ink and LCD displays

Here’s what the post was about:

  • Apple products tend to have great build quality and durability
  • Marco Arment’s $79 Kindle review used the terms “cheap” and “disposable” to describe the Kindle.
  • The last thing I want in my life is cheap and disposable objects
  • I’d rather have objects that are more durable and likely to last
  • So I’d rather have an iPad than a $79 Kindle.
Contigo thermal mug

That’s about it. I’ve never used a Kindle device, just the Kindle iOS app. I don’t know how crappy the new Kindle actually is. Maybe Marco’s wrong, and the $79 Kindle is actually incredibly well-built and durable and will last for years. I just know that if it appears to be cheap and non-durable, I don’t want it. And I think Marco is a pretty reliable source. So I don’t want a $79 Kindle.

Perhaps my analogy of the $79 Kindle to a Dixie cup was a wee bit overwrought. Sorry about that; it occurred to me as I was writing the piece and I felt that it captured what I wanted to day. Because, you know, I’d rather drink my coffee out of a Contigo thermal mug than out of a Starbucks paper cup. Maybe that’s not fair.

So how about this? The $79 Kindle is a Starbucks plastic mug. Not quite Dixie-cup disposable, and the advertising helps keep the price down.

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Disposable Computing

Minimalist Steve Jobs

Over the last year or so, we’ve been on a “clear out the junk” kick in our house. We’ve gotten rid of all of our CDs, most of our books, and a lot of clutter and crap in our house. It’s kind of funny, because as a former academic, I’ve always liked having stuff, especially lots of books. But no more. I mainly want to read books on my iPad or iPhone nowadays and have less clutter in the house. I’m at the point now that, when I saw Panic’s commemoration of Steve Jobs yesterday — featuring a recently-discovered photo of Steve sitting on the floor or his house with nothing but a lamp, a stereo, and a mug of tea — I thought to myself, “now that’s about right.” Nothing but the essentials.

I think that Steve’s philosophy of minimalism applies just as well to most Mac products. I don’t mean only not in the way most folks have discussed ad nauseam: the simple interfaces, few buttons, smooth edges. But also in the quality. Apple products are meant to be used — well used — for a long time. Macs famously last longer than PCs, and the build quality of the unibody MacBook Pros, Airs, iPhones, and iPads, is universally lauded. I’ve had a few iPhones since 2007, and have always managed to get a good price for them via Craig’s List, not only because people want them, but because they were still in good shape after extended use. These products are meant to last.

Kindle

Marco Arment’s $79 Kindle review catalyzed these thoughts for me. The words that really struck me were “cheap” and “disposable.” The new low-end Kindle is designed to be disposable. Money quote:

Knowing that this new Kindle costs less than the cover for my Kindle 2 is freeing: I can just carry it around uncased and unprotected in a (large) pocket, use it anywhere, and not worry about damaging an expensive electronic item, because it’s not. And it’s so inexpensive that I have no hesitation recommending it to pretty much anyone who ever reads books, because I know that if they end up disliking it or not using it much, it wasn’t a lot of money.

It also means that, if you have it for six or twelve months and it breaks, it’s not a big deal to buy another one. A year later, another. Pretty soon you have a bunch of these things in your house, collecting like corpses in a cemetery. Because they’re so cheap to begin with, once they break, they’re not worth anything at all. You won’t be able to sell them to anyone. They’re just junk at that point.

iPad

I’m over junk culture. I hate wasteful packaging, but even worse is wasteful products. I don’t want a cheap, crappy Kindle, because in a year it will just be more trash — either additional household clutter or landfill. We already generate way too much waste, especially in the US. I think it’s a much better investment to buy a product with good build quality, that’s built to last. Not only will my iPad last me for years, but it will still have value years from now. It’s far more likely that it will still be functional in two years than the $79 Kindle will be, or even two or three Kindles.

The iPad is a Contigo thermal mug; the Kindle is a Dixie cup. I’ll take the quality and durability every time. Longer term, it likely won’t cost me any more — and certainly costs the planet less.

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DesignScene Has Landed

I know I’ve been fairly quiet lately, though for good reasons. One is that I did some of my more recent blogging on the PGXN Blog, though even there it has been a while. The main reason for my silence has been my focus on coding DesignScene, a new app for the iPad that I developed with my friend and partner Roger Wong.

Some history. Early last year I started learning Objective-C to implement an iPhone application. I’d had a great idea for a simple app to replace SMS, and so set about learning the ropes, and got relatively far in the development of the UI. (Fortunately, borange and atebits released Textie and I was able to kill that project.) As I worked, I started tweeting things about working with Objective-C and cocoa (both completely new experiences for me), and Roger, whom I’ve known since he and Strongrrl were in art school together in the early 90s, and who’d had an idea of his own, took notice and DMed me about a partnership.

Roger envisioned an application in which he could absorb himself in all the images and feeds he normally explored as part of his everyday work of gathering inspiration as a graphic designer. His initial mockup looked great, and I was immediately drawn to the idea of an app with carefully curated content in a beautiful interface to serve a specific (and design-savvy) niche. We agreed to meet at iPad Dev Camp in April to see if the idea had any legs, and whether we could work well together.

Roger’s Original Mockup

iPad Dev Camp was a great success for us. Jayant Sai was especially helpful, hanging out in the “newbie room” and pointing out that Roger could work on stuff in Interface Builder while I hacked code. It made it much easier to figure out how we could collaborate (though in fairness Roger has had to wait for me to learn and code a lot of stuff). Bill Dudney was there too, and helped us work out some of the details of animating the browser view. Good stuff. By the time it was over, we had a prototype of the UI nicely working, and even won an honorable mention at the hackathon.

Since then, we’ve had times when I’ve been able to give development more or less time. I spent six weeks over the summer developing the back end in my spare time from my day jobs. The code there regularly harvests from all the feeds we’ve selected, finds good images, extracts summaries, and provides a single, clean feed for DesignScene to consume. This allows the app to sync very quickly, which we felt was important for optimizing the user experience.

And as I worked on the iPad app itself, I’ve learned a lot about real MVC design patterns and development, which is quite different from the stuff we web app developers tend to call MVC. And in the last few months the app really came together, as we started pulling in actual content and applying the fit and finish. And now it’s here, in the App Store. I’m so thrilled with how it turned out, so happy to be using it. Hell, it’s one of the few apps I’ve ever developed that I actually enjoy using on a day-to-day basis. You will too; go get it!

Oh, and just dig the awesome trailer Roger put together. It’s such a joy to work with someone who knows Photoshop and After Effects like I know Perl and SQL.

Since we launched on Tuesday, we’ve been fortunate to receive some really terrific coverage:

And we’re not sitting still. I’m working through a short list of burrs and spurs that need to be polished off, and then moving on to some other great features we have planned. Stay tuned!

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