'Sports Illustrated' Takes A Swing At The IPad Magazine Problem

On the tablet platform, magazine brands are caught between the Web and a hard-copy place. Publishers' instincts led them towards repurposing print, or at least leveraging the design and layout strengths of print on the tablet in ways that seemed elusive on the Web. At the same time, these publishers want to make the tablet edition seem more than repurposed. And so we get new design gymnastics from Wired, Popular Science and Vanity Fair that use the X and Y axes to rethink page navigation, and some cool instances of touch and feel interactivity with objects on the page. But the real challenge for magazines on the iPad is what to do about the Web. The greatest strength of digital platforms is connectivity, and yet for many print publishers the tablet platform promises a return to a more controlled, lean-back experience that is not dependent on real-time data.

The first wave of magazine apps made little if any use of the Web. Some magazine-branded apps like Time and Entertainment Weekly had an internal browser that linked to the brand's Web page. The Men's Health app did pull in some select material from the Web. And most apps allowed sharing. But figuring out a way to blend the more static elements of a formal app layout with live data is the next big challenge.



Sports Illustrated gets us there in part with today's release of its long-awaited iPad app. Late last year SI whet our appetite for tablet-ized magazines with its dazzling video demo of what a touch-driven magazine would be. This version is not quite as impressive as the demo (no drag-and-drop personalized content elements or fully integrated live feeds of data), but it is taking worthwhile steps forward. I have only had a few hours to tinker with it, so I won't try to capture all of the cool aspects.

It's very nice to have a full image page come to life as a slide show that you flip through within a given frame, or to see embedded video that actually adds to the story. There are some pages that let you pop up different images in a frame when you tap thumbnails. And some of the custom ads for Sprint and Gatorade do a good job of blending multiple screens and video. I think the strongest argument magazines can make for their in-app ad units is that they give a client a mini-site in the form of a page insert.

I think the basic tactic here is to pour on the added value rather than dazzle the user with a reimagined magazine. I gather that magazine publishers are hearing the complaints from consumers about paying a full issue price each week or month for the iPad version, when print subscriptions are a fraction of the cost. If magazine are going to repurpose themselves on any level for the medium, they will have to make a better argument for their superior value. SI answers the charge by adding a special section, loading up on great images with animated interactivity and letting you slip easily from the more contemplative column-and-feature-driven magazine sensibility to the latest stats and scores.    

But I am most interested in the ways in which SI is trying to balance the design and layout needs of a lean-back magazine with the live sports data its audience craves. The magazine does this in a few ways. First, on some pages there are tabs for "Live News" and "Truth and Rumors," which will bring up live content from the Web in a specially formatted in-app window that is also contextually relevant to the app page you are on. On most pages, keeping your finger depressed on the page brings up the "Wheel" that not only accesses the content-sharing tools but also brings you to related photos or articles from the current issue.

SI is playing with a very real problem for tablet app developers: How much should an app feel distinct from the Web experience, which is after all only an icon away? I have asked several magazine app designers whether they aren't competing with their own Web sites on the platform. They usually tell me that they expect two different kinds of content consumption modes on the tablet, one more amenable to consumption in an app and the other more lean-forward and interactive on the Web. Maybe, but I wouldn't count on people's media usage to neatly follow the contours of publishers' business models.

The browser overlay approach SI takes here is one way to demarcate an in-app experience from Web feeds. I am not sure this was deliberate on SI's part, so much as a stop gap towards a further evolution. I imagine that formatting the placement of live data within the ever-changing layout of a weekly magazine is a hassle. But I suspect we will see Web and app merge more over time.

Publishers could retain the fidelity of their original printed layouts with embedded widgets that pull in scores or headlines. My guess is that the tension between static layout and live feed within a tablet app environment is only beginning, and  likely will be resolved differently for different publications and audiences. The answer for sports and news will be different from fashion and service content. But I think the sooner designers get beyond the need to preserve the printed page at all costs, the sooner we will find multiple answers.

1 comment about "'Sports Illustrated' Takes A Swing At The IPad Magazine Problem ".
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  1. John Fredette from Alcatel-Lucent, June 24, 2010 at 5:24 p.m.

    I can see the push for real time data in an online pub like SI. But other types of publications do not have the same urgency. I looked at an online shelter magazine called Lonny for the first time this week. What struck me about the pub, and this is true of ANY publication that uses photo images, is how many more pictures there were online than there would be in a comparable print edition. There was no restriction on content imposed by number of ads sold. The cost for a greater sized online pub is negligible but the value is great. The same would be true for SI. If they have a photographer at a game why choose to publish only one image, go ahead and publish ten. How many more swimsuit shots could be shared online? This is not an advantage to online pub content I have seen discussed anywhere but it seems to me to be a significant one.

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