A Mad Magazine Experiment with iPad Gone Sour

Back in 2010, I said good-bye to paper and started moving all my magazine subscriptions to digital versions on an iPad. Here's an update on how that project went. Hint: the technology didn't develop well, and I'm is going back to paper. For now.


In September of that year, I wrote:

... I’ve started a pilot project to eliminate most of my paper magazine subscriptions and convert to digital format on the iPad. Of course, this has been possible previously on the Mac in some cases, but the size and portability of the iPad creates a critical psychological mass that allows one to take such a project more seriously.

In the course of this project, I made some assumptions that the technology of magazines on an iPad would smooth out any wrinkles, and I'd be off and running in a glorious paperless future.

It didn't turn out that way.

What Went Wrong?

Here's what happened to me.

1. The iPad's 9.7 inch display a tad too small for a standard magazine as it's often laid out, especially if the PDF format is adhered to. This calls for imaginative presentation, which is seldom done well. More on that below.

2. Out of sight, out of mind. This is a big one. When a paper magazine is on a coffee or breakfast table, it's on your mind. That same cover that was designed to lure you into buying at the newsstand does its job reminding you to read at home.

On the iPad, you must typically launch an app like Apple's Newsstand or Zinio, navigate past possible ads (unless you set the right preference), select the magazine, then select the issue. At this point, in some cases, you might also have to wait for the digital magazine to download on first reading. This nesting, the out of sight, out of mind factor and the time delay before you can start reading creates friction and disincentive.

I would love to have a dedicated iPad home page of just magazine issue icons in an array. The current issue would always be on top and the one I get when I tap. But that's not likely to happen any time soon.

Next: Yet more problems.

Page 2 — Yet More Problems

PDF replicas are about impossible to read
on an iPad mini.

3. Subscription management across different systems can be confusing. If you stay in digital and stay within a system, it's not so bad. But if you have to jump through hoops to subscribe on paper, then go to a website to authenticate your mailing label and get access to the digital version — or if you have to manage subscriptions in two different systems, it can be a pain, especially if you have to remember how to access your account and terminate an automatic renewal.

4. Mechanics of reading the layout. Over time, the magazines I have subscribed to have changed their layout somewhat. Scientific American and Car & Driver have dropped the PDF format and gone to a "left-right-article, up-down-read" format. PDF is bad because if you have to pinch zoom to make a section easier to read, you lose sight of the whole page. The new system kind of works, but sometimes the navigation turns awkward, and it can be temporarily difficult to move quickly move about within the magazine.

Some magazines offer a text only mode which makes it easy to ready, but then you lose the creative design of the magazine. You might as well be reading a web page.

5. Pricing and advertising models — including combined or separate digital and paper. If you want to stay with paper but add digital, it can get somewhat messy. Plus, publishers are losing advertising revenue for their print version, so the only way to make that up is to charge more for the digital version. This is mildly annoying because we were all looking forward to the day when it would be technically easy and cheap to push out a digital version of paper. Our expectations haven't been met because publishers got behind the technology power curve.

As an aside, John Lund has echoed some of my concerns in "Why tablet magazines are a failure." And added some of his own.

All it all, the move to digital versions, starting in 2010, didn't become better a better and better customer experience for me. My wife, an avid reader of Smithsonian Magazine has missed out on too many issues because the friction was too high. She wants it back in paper.

Next: Insights from the publishing industry.

Page 3 — Insights From the Publishing Industry


Recently, I talked about all this on July 29 edition of our TMO Daily Podcast. Fortunately, Jamie Smyth the CEO of TypeEngine was a listener, and that resulted in an email introduction thanks to TMO's Kelly Guimont.

Soon thereafter, we decided to meet in a five way Skype call with Mr. Smyth, Dave Tyner, the Director of Operations for TypeEngine, myself, and TMO's Kelly Guimont and Jeff Gamet.

I presented my list of gripes, and Mr. Smyth immediately commented that I was on track and and I had, in essence, written the business model for TypeEngine. (He was buttering me up.) We all talked for an hour, and here's a summary of the major stuff we came up with.

1. Macro Arment built a beautiful usable magazine, which later became The Magazine. It turns out that if you have the right skills and passion, you can design a very readable magazine for the iPad. Smart design can make a magazine very readable even on a device smaller than a standard iPad. That is if readability is the #1 goal.

2. Big Publishers, stressed by the decrease in ad revenues for their paper versions, don't have the tools or desire to radically improve the format of their digital publications. If they did, it would take away one of own objections that a 12-inch iPad is really necessary in order to read a replica of a standard magazine.

3. TypeEngine has found that more that half their subscribers are reading on an iPhone. On the go. In doctor waiting rooms. In line at the Post Office. In the airport. Publishers should be producing publications that work on even smaller displays and are even more interactive. This is how mobile people think.

Next: More from our Discussion.

Page 4 — More From Our Discussion


4. It doesn't appear that any central clearing house for magazines subscriptions is in the offing. When you subscribe to a paper magazine, you fill out a post card and get billed. Then it arrives. Subscribing to digital is not that easy all the time. But TypeEngine is, at least, working on making the process easy for its own 1700 publishers.

5. Push notifications need to be handled more delicately. A reader isn't always in a position where a notification of a new magazine issue is welcome. As far as I'm concerned, a push notification should be context sensitive, not time sensitive. When I'm on that page of magazine apps I descrived above, I've communicated to my device that I'm in the mood to read. Then notifications are welcome.

6. People should be able to read a paid subscription anywhere. Once they've validated on one device, it should be possible to switch platforms (say, Android) and continue reading. TypeEngine is addressing this issue as well. As for the rest of the industry? It's everyone for themselves.


The magazine industry, in general, hasn't shown itself to be investing in the latest in technologies, isn't thinking outside the box, and isn't in great financial shape. It may be that traditional magazines will hang on by a thread, and then, one day, the whole system will just collapse. Perhaps new people with new visions will assume leadership in the industry.

In the meantime, the SciFi dream of mine to read all my magazines on an iPad has become a bust. Perhaps, in a few years, I'll try again.