The State of Magazines on the iPad: a Giant Mess

| Editorial

About a year ago, I decided, perhaps like many others, to go all digital with my magazine subscriptions. All the paper magazines my wife and I subscribed to were cluttering up the house and becoming a pain to dispose of in plastic trash bags. It was a grand experiment, and eco-friendly, to convert almost all to the iPad.

The experiment has not worked out as well as I'd hoped.

The biggest problem for me has been the immediacy of the reading experience. It became painfully obvious last night when I was downloading the June issue of Scientific American. Even though I have 20+ Mbps service with Comcast, it still took 10 minutes to download the 250 MB June issue. I can't technically blame the SciAm server, but that's what I think the problem was. I went back to watching ice hockey and just left the iPad on the coffee table, doing its thing.

I could have been reading instead of waiting.

Another thing I've noticed is that there is no sense of immediate presence with a magazine on the iPad. I've seen this with my wife. Previously, she would eagerly read paper issues of Smithsonian Magazine  while eating breakfast.  Nowadays, hidden away in Zinio, as it is, she seldom looks for it. Is it in Kindle? Newsstand? Zinio? She may not be sure, and she's not the investigative type on an iPad. For others who are not so eager to explore everything, like me, I'd recommend picking one platform, like Zinio, and sticking with it.

I wish Zinio had an alias feature where one could have an iOS page of magazine icons/placeholders. Tap one, and Zinio launches and automatically takes you to the latest issue of that magazine. And searchable by Siri.

Another issue I have with magazines is that the iPad's display is just a tad too small to display a magazine in all its glory.

The magazine text is 12-inches diagonally. It's that size for a reason.
(Sky & Telescope)

Some environments will let you pinch-zoom to magnify the text, but then you lose your appreciation for the whole page and, often, accompanying photos. My personal opinion is that magazines will start to flourish when we have thin, light 12-inch or perhaps even 15-inch iPads.

Another problem is that a full featured issue of a magazine can be quite large, perhaps more than 250 MB. That can start to chew up storage rapidly, so one finds oneself constantly archiving and then, at some point, waiting for a download.

Moving on. Every different publisher has its own set of agendas, investment resources, technological experience and position on the learning curve. Car and Driver started out with PDF page images, but thanks to Zinio's flexibility, changed to the more flexible format of swiping left-right for articles and swiping up-down to read the article.

Swipe sideways between articles. Up and down to read. Tap for features, graphics.

However, if you get carried away with that, as Scientific American has, then sometimes swiping doesn't get you what you expected. Navigation isn't always intuitive and transparent as the publishers explore changing methods. Car and Driver, however, handles it well.

In the Kindle reader, if you subscribe to magazines from Amazon, some magazines support an enhanced Text View mode of reading, similar to the way EPUB flows on the page. I mentioned this in my discussion of the Kindle Fire HD. Text can be made larger for easier viewing, but the number of words on the page is vastly lower and the designer's layout is totally lost. But you can easily read the text.

Text View (right) is large, but you also feel like a five year old with a cartoon.

The problem here is that not every magazine supports the Text View mode, and you must look for and verify that feature before you subscribe -- if that's important to you.

Finally, discoverability is poor in Apple's Newsstand. For example, if you tap the Store button in Newsstand, you're taken to a page of magazines offered, but there is no search function so far as the TMO staff can determine. What if you're looking for a particular magazine? Zinio is much better at this and has a great search option.

What Could Have Been and Should Be

Apple has been eager to take 30 percent of the publisher's revenue, but Apple hasn't been so eager to think about and develop a uniform framework for magazine (and newspaper) publishers that's so compelling that it would be no-brainer to use. Instead, iOS and Cocoa Touch provide just enough flexibility for every publisher, of varying technical expertise, to roll their own vision. Stand alone app like Wired? Of course. Good API support for Zinio? Yep. Apple's own half-baked Newsstand? Naturally.

As a result, we get widely varying accessibility, formats, usability and discoverability on a display that's just couple of inches too small to really shine for magazines.

One reason for all this is that different publishers have different economic strengths, different visions for the digital age, and different commitments to technical investment. I get that. I also get that we're still at the dawn of the digital magazine era. Sometimes, often in fact, it's wise to let the technology work out these various issues before investing in a standardized iPad magazine framework. I'm eagerly waiting.

Today, we're at the frontier of magazine publishing. Things will be radically different, I surmise, in a decade. However, like the exploration of the American West, at some point we'll have to pick a gauge for our digital railroad so we can get on with the exploration.

In the short term, the true promise of digital magazines seems unfulfilled to me. I jumped the gun early going all digital, and it was an illuminating but frustrating experiment. I'm looking forward to a day when software limitations and display size no longer force publishers to jump through technical hoops. I'm looking forward to better accessibility and discoverability and readability. And I'm looking forward to Siri being more aware of what she has at her disposal.

If only Siri knew what she had.

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I agree - vastly different experiences.

Bloomberg Businessweek - great, better than the print edition

New Yorker - OK. Slow to download, and quite big for some reason I don’t understand

The Atlantic - very hard to read, needs a complete do-over


Part of the problem in my world (graphic design) is that the tools to produce these things are all over the place, and come with all sorts of caveats: make an app? awesome, have fun hiring a developer; use iBooks? awesome, it only works on iPad; use InDesign? awesome, produce a PDF or use Digital Publishing Suite and CS and get locked into Adobe’s way of doing things. The other issue is that too often publishers only have the resources to make a digital version of the printed piece; trying to figure out how to make the content sing in a totally different medium, or utilize the new ideas that are not possible in print takes time and investment. Where is that money coming from when ad dollars are still drying up? Liek you said it
‘s going to take a while.

Greg Roberts

First of all, a full size iPad is plenty big for reading magazines. Combined with a bright Retina display and it’s better than paper.

I do agree on a few points. Downloads take too long, that’s very true. Also, the system of authorization. I only use Newsstand for my magazine reading. If I subscribe to the paper version, sometimes it is made entirely too difficult to add a digital edition to Newsstand. I’m an engineer with a computer science degree and I have difficulty navigating the systems of some magazines. Some require you to create an unnecessary username/password. Some only require the account number which you can find on your magazine address label.

I do wish things were a little more unified. Runners World, in my opinion, gets it perfectly. It’s basically the magazine, page for page. Men’s Health has articles with all these multimedia elements, like articles that scroll up instead of over, etc. I prefer a simple page swipe. It keeps file sizes down as well. I only have a 16GB iPad, so for me a 50MB magazine issue is much better than a 250MB issue.

In general I still very much prefer digital to paper magazines. But I’m very forward leaning with technology. I’ve had a Nook since the very first one came out and haven’t bought a paper book since.


John, totally agree about the mess. To me, part of the problem is trying to replicate the printed page on a digital screen, instead of designing the page for the target screen. The fixed layout approach for many magazines means you cannot change the text size (which should be a major plus for digital as it helps people with weaker vision). Magazine publishers need to acknowledge that we read for the content; design is nice, but IMO it should not take priority over the content in consumer magazines.

Apple needs to release a builder tool like iBooks Author for magazines - a modified version of that software would help smaller magazine publishers experiment with what is possible within the constraints of the iPad viewport, and perhaps show the way for larger, more conservative publishers. A “read aloud” feature, which is possible with many ebooks, would also be welcome. I have a long commute every day, sometimes an hour-plus each way, and having a book read to me from my iPhone via Bluetooth to my car’s audio system is a nice way of dealing with the traffic pain.

Don’t get me started on discovery in the app store for magazines. It is weak in books; it is awful in magazines. Apple badly needs a Jony Ive of search metadata and UI implementation.

Debra Bates-Schrott

This is a very interesting article. I work in the publishing industry and have daily debates about designing magazines for the tablet. It will be a rough experience until we realize that the tablet is not paper and we need to design an engaging user experience with our magazine content. I vote that the best option out there is Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. Many of the major magazines are using it. The important piece of the puzzle is for publishers to plan better mobile experiences. A replica of a print edition is not a great experience on the tablet. It works in a pinch to get information but, it is not an enjoyable experience.

It’s time to take advantage of what the tablet experience has to offer and tell stories in a new way. Think of it as marrying the media we have been familiar with (video, radio, the web, print, etc)

Things are changing. We are a mobile society. We need to be creative and try new things, measure and adjust. Check out the magazines that are highlighted on the Adobe website that are built using Adobe DPS. I think you will find better experiences.

Check out World Ark Magazine published by Heifer International.

or Marines Magazine.

These have gotten solid reviews.
Let’s keep innovating and keep this conversation going.

Mark W. White

For our non-subscription magazines (known as SIPs or bookazines in the magazine industry), U.S. News has given up on the magazine apps and e-stores. We are publishing our bookazines instead as e-books. They don’t look exactly like the print versions because the text reflows to fit the screen size, but nothing is omitted. There are no apps to download or new rules for the consumer to learn if they already know how to read Kindle, iBook, etc. e-books. And our advertisers are already excited about what we’re doing.

Jean Christofferson

And we can’t forget about cost for the consumer. Just yesterday I was charged $20 on my iTunes account for a subscription renewal. But sadly, I got a postcard in the mail a week ago offering the print version for $12. Is the value of the additional content such as videos, digital-only sidebars and photos, 360-degree views of products, etc. important enough for me to pay an additional $8? Not yet. And I suspect that’s the case for many other magazine consumers too. The technology, the cost, the process, the learning curve ... all are still so inconsistent and confusing that even the savvy consumer can’t navigate efficiently.


John, you raise great points and we felt compelled to address some of them in GTxcel’s blog. As a digital publishing provider, GTxcel works with publishers to create digital magazines and mobile apps for the iPad and other screens.

John, here’s our take and thanks for the lively discussion. It will get better!

Yes, John, There Is a Better iPad Experience:

Macadamia Nut

Hear hear and hear again.  I’ve got shelves full of old copies of Architectural Digest and Dwell and Elle Decor and the “shelter” magazines in which photos are more important than words in expressing design ideas—and I would love to have the space back for books.  But my few forays into digital magazines have been dead ends.  The few I subscribe to look good only on my 27 inch iMac, and that isn’t easy to drag around.
I have some hope that the rumored iPad Pro at 12-13 inches will help—but what I have long longed for is a clamshell tablet or mobile computer with facing pages.  Of course, I want it to weigh 12 ounces, and have a little white picket fence around it….

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