The State of Magazines on the iPad: a Giant Mess

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.