The iPad, Magazines, SciFi & Our Preconceptions

“Hell, there are no rules here - we’re trying to accomplish something.” — Thomas Edison

Science fiction writers, unlike competing technology companies, are blessed with the ability to delight the reader with a coherent vision of a marketplace. For example, scifi authors are more likely to portray a consistent picture of tablet-based magazines for the sake of the story’s inspirational value. In real life, however, what we get is a potential mess. How has that come to pass?


I started thinking about this when I embarked on the journey to move all my paper magazine subscriptions to my iPad. That journey has been a bumpy ride because each publisher has its own ideas about how to 1) create digital content and 2) protect its intellectual property.

The result of that has been a certain amount of fragmentation in how I read my favorite magazines. For example, here’s the current state of my subscriptions:

  • Paper (foreseeable future): (Smithsonian’s) Air & Space, Chess Life
  • Zinio: Aviation Week, Car & Driver, Smithsonian
  • Apple Newsstand: Sky & Telescope
  • Web/PDF: Scientific American

What’s interesting is that, along the way, various publications have added (or deleted) various outlets. For example, I started early with Car & Driver on Zinio, but now it’s on the Apple Newsstand. The same for Smithsonian. It’s a constant shuffle and struggle to bring coherence to my subscriptions because the timeline for adjustments is measured in years . Unless one cancels and resubscribes.

SciAmOh, the technical irony. (Image Credit: Scientific American)

Here’s another example. The last time I looked, Scientific American (in English) was available in neither the Apple Newsstand nor Zinio. (As of July 17, it’s been added to Newsstand. See what I mean?) What I had to do initially was to create an account, go to their website, subscribe and pay, and then I could download the PDF. I chose to then place that PDF in iBooks in its own Collection. It’s an annoyance to have to do that.

I will also admit that my taste in magazines is a bit eccentric and technical. If all I wanted to subscribe to were Vogue, Newsweek, Consumer Reports and Men’s Health, then my needs would be fully met by Apple’s Newsstand. So, I’ll take the heat for having rather non-mainstream interests. But you probably do as well.

And yet.

One would think that highly technical magazines would be all over the iPad. However, I have come to think that some of these relatively low circulation, specialty magazines that are nevertheless high technical don’t yet see the ROI in going digital. Such may be the case for Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine. One of their editors told me that they won’t be digital until 2013 — three years after the launch of the iPad. Chess Life has a Web presence, but may never see the need for an iPad mirrored version of the print edition.

Fragmentation & Preconceptions

Like Hollywood, I surmise that some publications see value in being available in as many outlets as possible. However, business arrangements come and go, and one can expect that, after sizing up the profits, some publications will pull out of certain outlets, leaving us to hunt around for another way to subscribe. That, in turn, leads to more fragmentation.

Science fiction authors don’t really need to delve into this kind of market fragmentation. Unless the author goes off the deep end in a very specific treatise about magazine technology, they’re not going to bore the reader with these details of the cut-throat competition. Instead, it’s more interesting to talk about the impact of various technologies, in general, on people, and for that, it’s convenient to draw a coherent picture of how a tablet device might function.

All of us geeks have probably read a lot of science fiction. It’s part of our culture of science and technology. So what happens is that we build up a set of preconceived notions about how technology should work. These are built up over a lifetime. Then, when a company like Apple introduces a seminal new product like the iPad, its design has to take into account certain cultural preconceptions.

For example, for years and years, we saw Star Trek characters with tablets in their hands, occasionally touching the screen. Other times, researchers come up with prototypes that percolate into our collective technical repertoire. One example was the Knight-Ridder concept tablet from 1994. For a discussion of all that, see: “Okay, SciFi Fans, What Comes After iPad?

Star Trek: TNG

“Zephram, this is how it’s supposed to work.” (Image Credit: Paramount)

Then, after we all have an idea firmly in our minds about how things ought to work, a company comes along and goes against the grain. Like Motorola and its Xoom. The social network kicks into high gear, and the company that’s made this kind of grave technical error receives horrendous ridicule. That’s why it’s important that modern technical C-level executives be well read in science fiction as well as the substance of mainstream thought at specialty websites like Wired and The Mac Observer to name just a few of dozens.

This effect probably goes a long way towards explaining why so many companies copy Apple. It’s not that they can’t think up their own ideas. Rather, Apple is so good at nailing those cultural norms of technical design that it would be suicidal to trek down a different route.

But I digress

Lights and Tunnels

I saw quote in a restaurant a few years ago that said: “Due to difficult economic conditions, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.” Right now, I don’t know if there will ever be great coherence in the magazine industry as represented on popular tablets. So many different publishers have so many different ways of doing things that we’re likely never going to achieve that glorious science fiction goal of one place and one app to read all our magazines. No light in that tunnel either.

Perhaps what has to happen is that the whole concept of a magazine is dramatically changed by a new entrepreneur. A new approach that both upsets the applecart and brings a new level of coherence. Apple has tried to do that with the Newsstand, but Apple’s need to put money first trumps the science fiction dream of a company that creates a fabulous new vision that’s so compelling, easy, and profitable that no magazine would turn its back on the amazing prospects.

At least we can keep fantasizing.