The Evolution of iPad Magazine Designs

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In just a few days the iPad will be 18 months old and Jann Wenner will release Rolling Stone's first app -- nothing too flashy. Given Wenner's reputation as the biggest naysayer of tablet editions, it would appear we're entering a new era of the iPad magazine. So far all of the other big publishing houses have put their cards on the table. Over the past year and a half, publishers have spent millions on in-house and third party iPad teams, trying out all kinds of ideas like interactive feature packages, deep video integration and even completely personalized editions. On Wednesday, Newsweek announced the hiring of Melissa Lafsky as its iPad Launch Editor in order to redesign their app that will "will enhance the strong design landscape of the magazine." But Adweek reports this week that some magazines are deciding that a "tricked-out app isn't the highest priority," deciding instead to downplay extras that one Hearst executive said were "often more likely to be distracting, cause confusion, and occasionally irritate customers."

Funnily enough, this sounds a lot like the approach that Wenner wants to take. We don't yet know what Wenner iPad approach will look like, but based the details he's announced for the Rolling Stone debut, it sounds he's trying to do something different. Instead of diving right into the magazine, Wenner's testing the waters with a companion app, The Beatles: The Ultimate Album-by-Album Guide, which will feature 30-second samples of Beatles songs, the ability to download the tracks through iTunes and not much else other than pictures and text. Next year, Wenner will launch what paidContent calls "full digital magazine replica apps" for Rolling Stone and Us Weekly, and we'd guess from the use of the word "replica" that these digital editions will probably keep things simple. As giants like Heart scale back, Wenner's comments last year about the rush to the iPad being "just sheer insanity and insecurity and fear" sound almost prescient.

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However, not all the iPad innovations are being completely thrown out the window just yet. A quick tour through the evolution of different magazines' design ideas sheds some light on what's been working and what's just a waste of pixels. Our brief history is by no means exhaustive -- there are a ton of different magazine apps out there -- but we've done our best to cover the most influential trends.

The Enriched PDF Approach

In the beginning a number of companies released issues through third party services like Zinio which would more or less deliver a stack of PDFs, hundreds of megabytes of data that you had to download. Other than flipping your finger across the screen to turn the page, the reader experience wasn't super different than reading the print edition. A couple weeks before the iPad hit stores, ReadWriteWeb's Sarah Perez describe's the ten-year-old company's approach to the new device. "Zinio's goal is to make it simple for publishers to get their content out there on any form factor, screen size or platform," she wrote in late March 2010. When Condé Nast announced plans in February to release custom-built iPad editions of Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ by June, Zinio's regular PDF approach was the status quo for other magazines, and everybody thought that it was a pretty bold move to develop a standalone app in-house.

When Wired hit the App Store in late May, it wowed, but Condé didn't stray too far from the Zinio PDF approach. After the magazine sold 24,000 copies in the first 24 hours, and while subscribers could access the iPad edition for free, Condé charged the newsstand-sized price of $4.99 per issue for non-subscribers. David Carr at The New York Times called the strong opening day "a rare bit of great news in a beleaguered sector." The iPad edition did offer readers a little more for their money, and the Wired app hasn't changed too much from that original version. The screenshot on the right shows a somewhat interactive feature from the latest issue. There are some screen-saving techniques like allowing the reader to scroll through text on the page with her finger and the ability to tap buttons to show more content. The interface is intuitive, and there are advantages to not going overboard with graphics. Even your grandma could figure out how to read it. Each issue -- weighing in at a hefty 300 or 400 megabyes -- otherwise offers increasingly good-looking animations that jazz up the cover package and the occasional video.

But not everybody agreed that the new app took full advantage of the platform. Sure you could tap on some graphics and see more graphics; each issue had an embedded video or two. But the geeks had doubts that Wired had launched the mobile media revolution everybody had hoped for. "I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine's 'interface' is vastly superior to i'’s iPad cousin," wrote the bloggers at Interfacelab, suggesting that HTML5 offered just as many capabilities. "However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990′s." They continued, "The only real differentiation between the Wired application and a multimedia CD-ROM is the delivery mechanism: you download it via the App Store versus buying a CD-ROM at the now-defunct Egghead store at your local strip mall."

Later in the year, other companies started hiring interactive design firms to build next-level apps, to reinvent the magazine experience. Hearst surged on to the tech blogs with the release of their Esquire app, a clear step forward from the Zinio PDF-reader service and towards a more customized experience for that publication. (Each issue also costs about $4.99.) With an emphasis on fashion, gadgets and other things that men like, the more full-featured approach looks like an advertisers dream. Josh Koppel, the chief creative officer at Scrollmotion, gave Mashable's Christina Warren a tour of the app around launch time, and it's pretty clear that it's a step up from the first generation apps but not necessarily a leap forward. In the words of Peter Kafka at AllThingsD, "Esquire on the iPad looks like the print magazine, with some multimedia bells and whistles." The video speaks for itself:

The Social Approach

While all of the glossy legacy brands were busy recreating or trying to reinvent the experience of reading their print edition, some startups simply broke the mold. Flipboard has become the poster child of iPad-specific, we've-never-see-this-before style innovation, leading to a minitrend in copycats, like the Pulse News Reader, Zite (now owned by CNN) and Editions (an AOL project). The most exciting part: they're all free.

It's a bit of a stretch to put these apps into the same league as magazines like Wired and Esquire, but as we'll explain in a second, the unique features they developed would later inspire some next generation approaches to the iPad magazine. For what it's worth, Flipboard made the association first, referring to themselves at their July 2010 launch as "the world's first social magazine.

The basic idea behind these social readers is pretty simple. Since social media sort of makes everybody a content producer and iPads were built to be a super personal experience, Flipboard (free) focused on creating individualized editions based on your Facebook friends, people you follow on Twitter and more recently Tumblr, too. Flipboard redesigns your friends' content into a pretty, magazine-like reader experience with expanded links that look like mini-articles, including colorful pictures. Since Flipboard depended on the content that your friends linked to in Facebook and Twitter, however, it was really more of a design innovation, a social aggregator than an actual magazine.

This year, AOL took the model a step further with Editions (free). With the unfortunate tagline "The App for When You Crap," Editions largely mimics the Flipboard experience but depends mainly on content from AOL sites like The Huffington Post, Engadget and TechCrunch. The app focuses on personalization, allowing you to select the topics you're interested in when you sign up, building a custom magazine for you and learning about what you like as you read. There's also an emphasis on local content thanks to the iPad's GPS capabilities, and as the design goes to great pains to express, each issue is yours. There's even a cheesy little fake address label on the cover. Editions is part algorithmic, part social and hardly resembles those early PDF-readers.

The Back-to-Basics Approach

After everybody else fiddled around with heavy-handed graphics-driven ideas and the sometimes unpredictable (however serendipitous) social designs, more and more magazines are deciding to keep it simple. These iPad apps started showing up towards the end of 2011, and in many ways, borrow a curious mix of features from both the publications' websites and their significantly lighter-weight iPhone apps. Rather than requiring the reader to download an entire issue at once and eat up a sizable portion of the device's hard drive with graphics, the apps are more text-heavy and put a lot of emphasis on speed and readability. This approach addresses the problem that Hearst executive was talking about: too-fancy apps can be confusing and distracting, not to mention incredibly expensive to build and maintain. The Economist and The New York Times are the latest publishers to release new magazine apps, and they both fall into this back-to-basics category. This doesn't mean they're ugly. 

The Economist app (for subscribers only) takes only a couple of seconds to download the new issue and then navigating from article to article is lightning fast. There are some simple enhancements like the ability to bookmark items you like and even a downloadable audio track in which a soothing British voice tells you what happened in the world that week.

The New York Times took a cue from the visual focus of fashion magazines in developing their companion app for their style content. Branded as The Collection (free for now) you probably wouldn't know that it was a New York Times app unless you were pretty familiar with The Times's trademark masthead font; the logo is a jagged "C" from the same family. Certainly driven by visuals, the app defaults to a grid of richly colored fashion images, each of which points to a corresponding article or slideshow. It's certainly a step up from The Economist in terms of interactive design, but the basic idea isn't too dissimilar from the Times's Style portal on the web. And like the Esquire and Wired apps, it's an advertisers dream, but the constantly updated content just means more more more. Even if you don't like fashion, it's worth a look for the eye-candy.

So looking ahead at the inevitably long and promising future of the iPad magazine, we have to admit: it's all basically eye-candy. Just like the iPad is basically a toy.

Humble Footnote: The Atlantic also has an iPad app, which we left out of this because we think it's awesome. We hope you love it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.