Branson's iPad 'Project': Stewardess, Can I Have An Extra Bag Of Nuts?

There are times when Sir Richard Branson's newly launched Project magazine for iPad feels a lot like what it is, a billionaire playing with his money. From the animated cover, which has actor Jeff Bridges moving slightly with a distorted transmission effect, to article splash pages where the reader has to rub away dirt or a pencil overlay to reveal a full image, the devices often feel trite, gratuitous and well-funded.

In fact, while disappointing, but not surprising, the actual content of Project resembles an in-flight magazine for the first-class only seats on Branson's Virgin Airways. There are articles touring the highlights of Tokyo, a product guide of expensive watches, items on a high-end wallet, the latest Jaguar "hypercar," and the requisite futurist stuff (search for a new home planet, yadda yadda). There is political coverage (North Korean lunacy), cool corporate culture (a hip ad agency), and executive advice.  The writing generally is crisp and engaging.



The razzle-dazzle of touch and swipe slide shows and embedded video are all here. The features often have video splash pages. And occasionally some of this stuff actually serves an editorial purpose to enhance the information. The Tokyo feature has 3D swoop-down videos that locate the relevant sites. The Bridges feature offer audio clips in which the actor gives background on some of his most famous roles. But overall, Project is as rambling and impressed with itself as its editor's online intro. Chris Bell's scattered launch note takes pot shots at Rupert Murdoch, the "fiddliness" of making an iPad magazine, and the total bemusing befuddlement of advertisers, friends and even Mom with what he is doing.

Add me to the list. There is no particular editorial vision or organizing principle I can see so far here. As I say, it feels like an in-flight magazine speaking to wealthy aspirations in the middle of a deep recession.

Bell's protests notwithstanding, Project is in fact deeply tied to the magazine format. Pretty much every element corresponds to print convention (product-driven articles, front matter columns, feature well, etc.). There are also some weird lapses in this inaugural issue. In both portrait and landscape modes the text does not conform neatly to the screen, so that the page bleed onto the next screen feels like a Web page scroll rather than a layout designed for the iPad. An ever-present sidebar of interactive tools has a "plus" icon that is supposed to offer relevant Web links, but it rarely offers anything. Some images are so poorly formatted that in landscape mode key elements are off frame. In the pictorial with Bridges, for instance, some of the images that also feature designer duds are cropped so tightly that the clothing isn't even visible. And all of this silly video of Bridges punching buttons in industrial-era basement or walking onto and off of a beach scene, are empty exercises compared to the value that would have come from some video of the interview itself. 

Ironically, it is some of the traditional print companies that have gone further than this already in exploring the potential of the iPad. Martha Stewart's Cookie app is an excellent example of a legacy media brand leveraging the unique visuals, portability and utility of the iPad in ways a magazine cannot achieve. Marie Claire dropped a fashion A to Z app that creates a wonder wall of tappable goods with engaging views of products mixed with editorial takes. In other words, as much as we enjoy bashing the laggard ways of legacy media, many of these brands are starting to release themselves from the anchors of old formats and getting us closer to 2.0 versions of magazine on iPad than Project does.

Which is not to say that Project is uninteresting. I have the disadvantage of only having had a few hours to play about with it, and have not read through every word. I have the advantage of writing this before Sir Richard hypes it up at this morning's formal launch. What I see so far is a pretty good enhanced in-flight magazine that is still very much a magazine. As readers come in, I gather the social features will kick in. There is a sidebar button dedicated to an online forum for feedback and conversation (I think). The magazine promises updates throughout the month. But from what I can see that only amounts to a link to the online blog. TheKnot has already done a better job of integrating user comments, and even the newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek have more compelling embedded Web updates. While the magazine industry itself has a long way to go in making the most of the tablet, I fail to see where Sir Richard and his money have come in to teach them anything they didn't learn a while ago about this format. As for the pissing match that the press has trumped up between Rupert Murdoch's upcoming iPad-only Daily and Branson's Project, again, I fail to see the contest here. 

But if two multibillionaire moguls want to have at it with dueling iPads, then I am all for the silly spectacle of it.   

3 comments about "Branson's iPad 'Project': Stewardess, Can I Have An Extra Bag Of Nuts?".
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  1. Doug Robinson from FreshDigitalGroup, November 30, 2010 at 4:15 p.m.

    We are barely out of the 1st inning of the IPad, what better way to engage and understand their customer. If Virgin had done the same thing in 07 when the IPhone launched, imagine how much better their offering on mobile would be, and nobody would be telling them its a silly idea. Apple will ship 40M IPad's in 2011, 5.5 this quarter alone, and competition is finally coming into the tablet space in Q1, so I'm sure they can work out some kinks in the next few months, it is the inaugural issue after all. Clearly he's on the right track like he was with Virgin Music, and Virgin airline, good business takes time. Plus if the content/writing is crisp, then as far as I know, content is still king, and the IPad may be its queen.

  2. Colin Crawford from Media7, November 30, 2010 at 4:48 p.m.

    While many of the criticisms on the UI/UX are valid - I think it is great to see so much experimentation going on. In approx 15 years publishers have largely failed to understand online but with the media tablets they are investing to learn about the medium and putting some of the best creative and editorial minds on the projects. Of course there will be plenty of mis-steps and some toning down of the overuse of some interactive techniques based on the user feedback will be necessary. At this stage of the game no-one knows the right answers. The press seems to be over-reacting to some of the hype from Virgin - but a lot of the negativity is coming from the same reviewers of the iPad release in Jan - who described it as a big iPhone Touch while failing to appreciate the creative canvas of a 10", touch screen. Sure let's give constructive feedback to improve the UI/UX but not blast the product before it has a chance to evolve.

  3. Hans Suter from STZ srl, December 1, 2010 at 2:13 a.m.

    "a billionaire playing with his money" spot on.

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