of iPad magazines and online publishing

So Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily iPad “newspaper” is in the news, mainly because it’s failed to appear. It seems that publishers are falling all over themselves to come up with their own iPad app-based publications — Wired and Scientific American were early, semi-successful contenders in the field.

I have an iPad, and frankly, I completely fail to see the point of application-based publications, at least from a reader/user’s perspective. I am a Wired subscriber, and I’m not willing to pay for another copy of the magazine on my iPad, particularly when most of the content is also available for free from their website. Video-enhanced ads — one of the big selling points of the Wired app — do not fill me with excitement in the same way they do, I suspect, for the advertisers themselves. While it’s briefly amusing to be able to see a 360ยบ view of an Audi, I’m not in the market for an Audi, and I don’t care to see what the passenger side looks like.

The fact is that 90% of the “functionality” of these apps is just as easily accomplished within a browser using HTML 5, Ajax and Javascript animation. That’s if you want the whiz-bang UI fun that most of these apps offer, which I’m not sure I do. In the ten minutes I played with Wired’s iPad app, I didn’t feel that the navigation system (scroll up and down to read pages of an article, left and right to switch from article to article) was in any way easier to use or more illuminating than clicking an article’s title in a menu. It’s slightly groovy, but I mean, come on: this is the 21st century. This is not the most innovative UI we’ve seen.

A far more interesting interface for news is Flipboard, which is a sort of RSS aggregation reader on psychedelics. Instead of simply presenting you with a list of your Google Reader feeds, it extracts images from the feeds (along with your Twitter and Facebook feeds, optionally) and presents you with something that looks more like a “real” magazine than most of the magazine apps do. While it doesn’t add any efficiency to the task of navigating your news feeds, it does so in an interesting and relatively novel way.

Flipboard didn’t really become interesting to me, though, until it added the ability to add your own Google Reader feeds, rather than a pre-selected list of “partner” feeds, which is how it launched. One of the things that media companies need to understand is that these much-touted partnerships are rarely of interest to anybody but themselves and the companies they’re partnering with, the same way wifty ad technology is rarely interesting to anybody but advertisers and the people who depend upon advertising income. Even so, Flipboard is cute, the kind of thing I’d read on the john in the morning, but I use it far less than I use Reeder and River of News, my two favorite RSS aggregator apps for the iPad. (I like River of News’s feed organization 100% better than Reeder’s, but it has some small UI quirks that keep me using Reeder for now; I hope that changes soon.)

You would think that the success of tools like Instapaper might be a flagpost for online media publishers trying to figure out how to succeed: people don’t want flashy UIs in their text-based publications. They usually just want to read the goddamn articles and look at the pictures therein. Multimedia is fine, I suppose, but as a parallel alternative method for retrieving information. I don’t know about you, but when I see a link to an interview and follow it only to discover that the interview is a video or audio file, not text, I’m often irritated. Multimedia content is usually less dense than text; oftentimes a touted multimedia “interview” is a 30 second clip of some toadying goofball asking a celebrity two banal questions.

You’d think we’d gotten past that idiotic idea, oft-espoused in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that nobody will read more than 500 words of text online. Instapaper’s success alone would seem to prove otherwise. I don’t mind reading 2000-3000 word articles or more on my iPad. I just mind reading them broken up into twelve pages that I have to load — along with all the ads and chrome that online publications are pathologically incapable of not adding to every page. I often click on the “printable version” button just to read the article in some sort of mental peace.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make a successful online newspaper/magazine, and I’ll get into that soon. Meanwhile, I offer this suggestion to publishers: stop this whole multimedia app dick measuring contest and focus on building a web-based magazine that people actually want to read. It’s cheaper in the long run.

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