Oh my dear goat lord, WHAT IS WRONG with people? This week the fairy of stupidity came down and sprayed IdiotGlitter all over a bunch of people who tried out Virgin’s new magazine app, Project. They all hate it. They hate the navigation. They hate the file size. Did I mention they hate the navigation? I’m not sure why they don’t devote more time bemoaning the editorial direction, which is somewhere between Wired, Popular Science, and an in-flight magazine, but when it comes to iPad magazines the editorial is always considered last, because what matters is oooh shiny!

There are two things about Project, and magazine apps in general, that I think the naysayers are either ignoring or not realizing. But before I get to those, I want to list three facts I think all future iPad magazine reviewers should remember before they write any more reviews:

Reminder #1: Lots of content-rich apps have huge file sizes. Maybe you just don’t spend enough time on the App Store, but an app in the 150-500 MB is not at all unique. The two categories where it happens most frequently are games and enhanced ebooks. Why? Because those apps are always loaded with sounds, video, and images.

I’m no fan of 500 MB magazine apps, but I’m also no fan of 500 MB hidden image games, and I’ve still downloaded both and somehow survived. The problem is one of compression as much as it is of inefficient pre-print workflows, and Project is no worse than any other magazine app so far as I’ve been able to tell.

Reminder #2: Lots of large apps experience installation issues for select users. I don’t have the technical knowledge to explain this with real terminology, so let me just put it anecdotally: there’s always an angry customer in the review section of any large iPad app page, complaining about how the app crashes after installation and therefore it sucks and the developer sucks and the iPad/iPhone sucks. Usually–unless the app is buggy, and in Project’s case it isn’t–either a full restart or an uninstall/restart/reinstall is required to make things play together well.

I’m not sure you can blame this recurring issue on developers. Maybe it’s their fault for how they’re handling memory or something behind the scenes, but since it occurs across apps, it’s unlikely that Project alone is responsible for such installation issues. For the record, it installed and ran perfectly for me.

Reminder #3: A surge in demand can strain servers. I installed Project nearly a full day after it hit the App Store. Whether I was late enough to the game to avoid the initial traffic jam, or I just had the good fortune to connect to Apple’s servers during a slow Internet traffic period locally, I had no problem downloading the app (<1 minute) or the first issue of the magazine (<5 minutes). I’ve had large games for the iPad take longer. Hell, my first Wired issue took far longer, although for the reasons I listed above I’m not willing to blame the delay solely on Wired. So please STFU about “it takes too long!” unless you put that in the larger context, which is that it takes a long time forany large app to download.

With those out of the way, here are the two big things about Project and magazine apps that I suspect many reviewers still aren’t getting.

Big Issue #1:
The magazine’s navigation isn’t complicated. It’s new.

Before I dive fully into this rant, I want to back up and point out something about Apple’s own UI strategy.

Here’s my theory about Apple. One of the secret purposes of its ongoing product and interface refreshes is to gradually train its user base in how to use its products. The cut-and-paste functionality should have been in the first iPhone, and why it wasn’t will always be a mystery to me. However, by holding off on it for so long, Apple was able to present the most dumbed-down interface imaginable, where it was almost impossible to find any sort of overwhelming complexity. A year or so after the public got used to it, ta-dah!, Apple began to slip increasingly more complex UI elements (like cut-and-paste) into the device, by which point there were enough iPhone vets to provide peer support to the dumbest of the new users.

Magazine apps don’t have this luxury of time to raise the temperature of the water, because we’d all climb out of the pot as soon as we saw the lack of navigation controls. Therefore, they have to introduce something by way of UI and it has to be comprehensive, and that means it will be complex to some degree.

In that respect, Project smartly cribbed a good 85% of its UI from Conde Nast’s interface and about 5% from Zinio, probably in the hope that this would help bring readers up to speed more quickly. You flick left and right to move between articles or sections, and you scroll up and down to move between pages within an article or section. A tap near the bottom brings up a scrolling list of thumbnail images so you can visually browse through the whole magazine quickly. When the bottom thumbnail list is open, you also have the option at the top of accessing a text-based list of article titles.

Mixed in with those standard elements are some easy-to-learn recurring UI elements unique to Project: a “big red dot” graphic that tells you when there’s some special interactivity on the page, to launch additional content (like movies); a plus sign graphic to access external websites; numbers in circles that function like buttons for image slideshows. The weirdest addition, in my mind, is the slim right margin, where you access a comments section. But it’s not that weird.

Let me put it this way: the most trouble I ever had navigating an iPad magazine was Popular Science, and tellingly it was also the first iPad magazine I ever tested. There was a learning curve to figure out how to navigate it, and every magazine app since then has been easier to work with because I’m growing accustomed to the UI conventions.

Project sticks with most of those UI conventions, and it’s no worse than the other big magazine apps.

I’ve seen criticism of Project’s “how to use this app” instruction screen, as if apps all over the App Store don’t employ the same technique. If you were to design a help screen for a new interface, would you: a) write it in all text, b) present a video tutorial, or c) overlay one-sentence phrases with arrows on an image of the interface? I’d pick “c” in all but the most complicated UIs, and that’s what many apps do. (Install the much-beloved and praised Pulse RSS app to see a similar help screen approach–although Pulse does it better by using an actual size image of the interface.)

Big Issue #2: 
It’s the entire magazine concept that’s flawed, not any particular title.

Magazines don’t work on a tablet device. They just don’t.

After spending way too many hours playing with a half dozen of them a couple of months ago, I finally figured out why they bore me:

A unique quality of a magazine is the physical experience, which can’t be reproduced digitally.

A crucial aspect of a print magazine is that you can hold it in one hand and physically thumb through or flick through pages with the other. The paper crinkles faintly under your thumb, or gives off a tiny satisfying snap! with each page flick; it’s a tactile experience that doesn’t work in virtual space. You browse the thing at a 10,000 foot view, then dive down into pages for a closer look, then pull back and take in the whole thing again, and it feels seamless because you’re doing it in an analog space.

A secondary aspect of a magazine–one that’s connected to this crucial quality–is that the overload of advertising doesn’t feel like overload (usually) when physically flicking through the pages. You see most of the ads at an angle, for a fraction of a second, like frames of commercials when cycling through channels on a TV. You only have to pay attention to an ad when you dive down into a particular page. Imagine if you had to stop for a full 1-2 seconds on each TV spot while channel surfing–you’d throw your remote through the TV like a Wii noob.

That’s the fatal flaw that digital mags can’t solve: the innately physical experience of them. Without that, a magazine becomes nothing more than a tightly closed box of pre-selected content, and with few exceptions magazines aren’t prepared editorially to provide enough compelling content to justify such a walled-garden approach in the digital world. (The only ones I can think of that might survive the transition are the ones thickly packed with real content each issue, which does not describe Wired, Popular Science, or Project.)

Now about Project’s editorial approach: meh. Why aren’t more critics focusing on that? It’s not bad, but I felt zero desire to buy another issue after the first one. The first thing I did after finishing the magazine was switch over to my RSS reader to see what else was out there in the great big Internet world. Unfortunately for all magazine publishers, I have yet to find an iPad magazine app that captures my interest enough to keep me from doing that.

Via Chris Walters’ Booksprung blog


  1. I read through this whole article but while I disagree with much of it, the conclusion I came to more than anything was – why are we using the language of the paper world to try to assess and critique something that is something completely different and in the digital world? It just doesn’t make sense.

    I don’t buy the whole Large Files thing at all. I don’t really care if some other apps are large. I avoid them too !

    There is no need to have hi res images throughout the publication (I am not going to refer to it as a magazine). Hi enough res to produce a nice adequate looking image on the screen without any zooming should be the guideline, and only for specific relevant photos
    . And if they are still having trouble with the file size then maybe they are depending too much on images ! I don’t want to clutter up my memory with enormous news files or wait 5 minutes for them to download EACH DAY.

    On the 2 Big Issues … I agree with the first one. Navigation needs to be learned. Someone on another site knocked it by saying that ‘it should just happen naturally … it should be intuitive” what a load of abs crap.

    Where I completely part company with Chris is on No2. “A unique quality of a magazine is the physical experience, which can’t be reproduced digitally.”

    OMG I need to lie down …… Nothing personal Chris, but have we not heard enough of this whinging moan from people who wont read eBooks on a eReader because it just ‘isn’t the same cuddly and visceral experience’ ? This is just the tired old yesterday’s generation thing that one segment of the population seem to have where they are so emotionally intertwined with the physical-emotional experience to ever cope with a change in technology

    Imho there is no future in trying to continue to use the word ‘magazine’. It is a word of the paper generation and of paper itself, and has no place in the eDevice world. If the Publishers are trying to recreate it on an eDevice then this is the core error of their ways. They need to dump that concept and start again with a much simpler concept that delivers the information the reader wants in a straight forward easy to navigate way. The Web has proved that is what the customer wants. leaver it at that. It is enough. KISS is forever.

  2. Howard,

    If the embodied features of the print magazine are illusory then there is no inherent need to reinvent magazines for the screen. It may tell us something if the screen mimic doesn’t work. Perhaps print attributes of manual manipulation, tumbling navigation, and skewed views, persistence of display, and physical possession of the fixed single issue as part of magazine fulfillment are real after all. In that case the periodical format will need complete reinvention for screen reading.

  3. @Howard: What gary frost said. But okay, I should speak for myself: what I’ve found in my own experience with both ebooks and magazine apps is that most of the print qualities of a book aren’t requirements to experience the text, whereas most of the print qualities of a magazine are. I’m keenly aware of (and disagree with) all the nostalgic and emotional complaints about printed books–how a “book” is supposedly made up of paper, glue, binding, heft. But I think a magazine *is* defined by its form–that physical package actually dictates how the magazine is read, and therefore it doesn’t deliver the same basic experience in a digital space. (Maybe some day it could, but our display/processor technology isn’t there yet.)

    I think it’s worth noting that in the past 15 years, ebooks have existed on various platforms well before Amazon kicked them into the semi-mainstream, whereas magazines never managed to migrate onto the web without undergoing deep structural changes that made them more like websites and less like their print namesakes. (I’m going to pretend that the horrible online digital edition of the New Yorker doesn’t exist, because it is so frustrating and backwards.) In that sense I agree with your last paragraph that it’s a mistake to keep trying to translate the printed magazine concept onto a tablet device at all.

  4. Indeed I agree – Magazines are defined by their form and medium. That medium being paper. As books have been. It is not really surprising that when the producers of these products are forced to produce their product on a completely new medium, they carry their mindset and emotional connection with the paper form over to the new medium.
    I think this is what we have seen in the last couple of years with magazines on the iPad and it just doesn’t work. In my view it was never going to work and the reasons seem self evident.
    The magazine is a paper form that was designed to deliver articles and news, with photos, to a reading public on paper. What we need now is an electronic form designed to do exactly the same thing but on screens. I see several excellent news apps that do it very well, they just don’t call themselves ‘magazines’. Semantics are creating problems that don’t need to be created. If they want to continue to use the word then fine – but then get on with designing for the screen and not paper.

  5. Perhaps we should not be so frustrated with publishers that hesitate to abandon print tropes. There could be real reading efficiencies there, even if confined to print. It is little understood in the digital community that the constraints of print are its attributes.

    Chris Anderson, editor Wired, at the Future of Reading conference, RIT, made a big deal of the design opportunities of the i-Pad. I certainly see magazine experiment as better conducted with multi-function device delivery, but screen magazine display still seems rickety. The inherent problem is dissolution of the reading experience that makes magazines alluring.

    So many of the imponderables are related to changing reading behaviors rather than design or tech approaches. It is fun to speculate on the venture of the color nook but such episodes have little to do with the future of reading.

  6. I agree that there are certain layouts and designs that have been devised and perfected for magazine delivery. But as we move to the digital, periodicals (and maybe we should be calling them that, instead of magazines) will need to undergo a redesign to optimize the digital experience. I don’t think large file sizes are a problem, as we are expanding our available storage space all the time. We should concentrate on how the content is best delivered in a digital format.

    And by all means, let’s move on from the “It’s just not paper!” whine. No, it’s not paper. Deal.

  7. I suspect the intensity of the effort by some Publishers to produce something they can label as a ‘Magazine’ may be connected with their belief that ‘Magazines’ are a higher priced concept than a ‘Newspaper’ and they can therefore charge more to the consumer irrespective of any real difference in the product.
    In the world of the eReader I wonder if differentiating between these two concepts has any real meaning any more. Another reason why this effort to reproduce the Magazine ‘feel’ seems to be doomed and the sooner it is abandoned in favour of innovative, imaginative and well produced products more suited to the eReader (incl file size) , the better.

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