Of course hours after I finished my last column on how print is rethinking itself for the iPad, Wired issues its long-awaited tablet iteration. OK, I am game. Let's try one more magazine Tablet fantasy.
As you may recall, Wired was partnering with Adobe on this project. Months before the iPad launch, their teams released one of the dazzling demos that showed how a magazine could come alive on the large touch screen. It was built on Adobe AIR on the premise that it could port easily to many Tablet platforms. Oops. My understanding is that the iPad's lack of support for Adobe AIR sent the teams back to the drawing board to reengineer Wired for Apple's device. The new version seems to retain much of what we saw in the demo. Editor Chris Anderson, who just doesn't seem to say enough about the iPad, opens the issue by claiming this is "the Wired we always dreamed of."
Well, then Anderson's dreams are pretty literal. I am not sure that the iPad version of Wired is revelatory so much as a sensible use of digitization to extend the experience of a magazine. Much of the content is ported from the print pages, but the reader swipes through them either horizontally or vertically.
The magazine uses x and y axes to move through different types of content. Video is appended to some of the stories for a multimedia experience. Drop-down menus and page thumbnails on the lower progress bar let you drop into any page quickly. Some of the ads have embedded slide shows, which essentially puts an advertorial section in the space of a two-page spread.
Many of these features we have seen in other iPad magazines -- and before that, in the more sophisticated downloadable digital magazines from longtime suppliers like Texterity and Zino.
The things that are new in Wired for iPad are more conceptually interesting than they are real changes to information architecture or new ways into content. Ultimately, a cross-platform play like this is going to be anchored in one of the platforms, so for now this feels like "enhanced print."
Several features have interactive animation sequences that spin or activate an object. In one case, swiping across the screen gives a 3D spin of the Iron Man costume or a tour through key features of Mars. In another, cooler implementation you can control a stop-motion sequence that assembles a Lego Lamborghini.
Is all of this coolness enhancing the information, or just taking the touch-and-feel kids' museum to a higher level? I think we will have to wait and see if content providers can start using these interfaces to reimagine what kinds of content they can present. I mean, once you assemble that Lego car or spin Iron Man a couple of times, the thrill is gone and you are wondering what you learned.
The touch-and-feel museum allusion is relevant. To make the most of a touch interface, editors may have to think more like museum curators who have to convey information in a spatial environment.
Which is not to say the Wired and Adobe lab rats aren't thinking hard about a touchable, digital magazine. The parts of the app that actually do enhance the experience meaningfully are subtler than the lead-in dazzlers. For instance, switching from portrait to landscape orientation intelligently affects the actual layout of content and ads. Text and images rearrange themselves for a better fit. Some two-page spreads actually collapse themselves a bit to make a good-looking one page iteration of the same ad.
In product-driven editorial, a single call-out text box changes to describe the item on the page you tap. This is a small thing that changes the feel of the page entirely. Rather than buttons that activate "enhancements," this convention feels like genuine efficiency. You preserve the visual impact of the static page and pull more content in as needed to a limited space. And then there is a unique magazine layout view that lets you scroll laterally through the entire iPad issue via oversized thumbnails of every content element. Short descriptors appear in a top bar so that the view becomes a different table of contents experience. This has promise in that it genuinely enhances the traditional magazine thumb-through.
For all that is good in Wired for iPad, there are weird lapses in design and business sense here. The URLs in the ads are not consistently live, and when they are you have to leave the app for the Safari browser. I thought that iPhone 101 no-no was learned long ago. And how Citrix allowed its ad for its own iPad app to go into the mix without a direct link to download that app is simply beyond me. And I still am not convinced that navigation across x and y axes is the best format. Some pages scroll downwards to the next screen of content, while a side swipe brings you to the next ad or content pod. It is too easy to miss some content when you browse, because it is not always clear when there is and isn't a paired screen.
Anderson promises this issue is a first stab at a "wired" Wired and that we will see social media elements in future editions as well as adaptations to user interactions. He anticipates the major complaint straight off and insists that some kind of subscription model may be in the works. ITunes customers have been ranting about the aggressive pricing many of the tablet magazines are pursuing. Wired is $4.99 an issue on the iPad, about a third of what I pay for a year's subscription. This isn't stopping the iPad audience, which has to map almost precisely with this magazine, because the Wired iPad app raced to the top of the paid app rankings after less than a day in the store. The early ratings are unusually high, but I can't say that I am with the fan boy base that is loving this.
But so what if Wired on the iPad is neither the revelation nor revolution it would have us believe. It is a good first step in a long road towards migrating print to portable displays. The more I see of these first efforts, the more convinced I become, however, that they represent the first moments of a bigger transitional stage. Ultimately, I suspect that publishers will have to get beyond their attachment to print conventions and beyond "enhanced magazines."
And get beyond these pricing models. Paying an exponential premium to watch publishers lurch towards a new platform? I thought I was getting Wired, not hosed.