Magazines on the iPad

What you’d think would be relatively simple has become quite a contentious battle. Magazines, books, newspapers and anything else built of words and/or pictures is going digital. Print will survive, but not as the primary consumption method for most of us.

Amazon, with the Kindle, and others with earlier e-readers have been pushing this future for text-heavy books for some years now, and they’ve gained enough traction and done enough deals to make that future assured. Yet, if you want to read a magazine you’ll probably be wanting an iPad. A larger, colour, interactive display makes a world of difference, and a magazine is a very different game to books. Images are important, layout is important, fonts are important — and none were deemed important in the ebook world.

Zinio was one of the first companies to get the ball rolling here, back when all they had was a Mac and PC PDF-based reader app. It was painful back then, largely because reading a magazine on a computer screen was hardly the personal experience readers expected, and because the reader app was quite slow — on the desktop, it still is, thanks to AIR.

Adobe, as makers of the dominant publishing application InDesign, took their time, then produced the Digital Publishing Suite. Not based on PDF, it allowed a variety of additional multimedia widgets and could deal with horizontal and vertical layouts, to allow reading in either orientation — so long as the designers re-designed every page. (InDesign makes this process easier than it might be, but it’s hardly automatic.)

Biggest criticisms of the Adobe DPS: magazine issues are huge, often over 500MB (largely because each page is simply rendered as a flat image) and you can’t zoom in. (A competitor, MagAppZine, chose a similar delivery method, but uses more heavily compressed images at double the resolution, allows zooming, and looks good on the retina display.)

However, another important factor is that it’s completely inaccessible. As there’s no actual text present, there’s no way for the system’s text-to-speech functionality to make any sense of it. Despite all the other issues surrounding magazines-as-images, I suspect that a legal challenge from an interested organisation will put an end to this strategy in the long run. (It’s worth noting that Zinio’s solution does include full text, as text, on request.)

So how did Adobe and MagAppZine (and others) end up with just a series of images? If the layout is important, the delivery method, for now, has to be an image or a PDF. For a truly accessible, lightweight, text-rendered-by-device-quickly layout, you’d have to rebuild each magazine with HTML, and there’s no easy way to do that right now from InDesign. (It’s coming, but not ready yet. Maybe in CS6?)

Recreating print layouts in HTML would require a great deal of extra work, a whole set of skills that print designers rarely have, and that’s assuming they can clear the rights issues for distribution of their favourite fonts. It’s a non-starter for organisations already struggling to make a profit.

The biggest question for me is: why not PDF? Yes, it requires more effort to render, but it requires a whole lot less effort from the designers. And Adobe know their PDF. The big reason is that Adobe are trying to support the device first and the designers second. Like Apple, they’ve chosen to force designers, to some degree, to design specifically for the iPad (or other tablets) and not to support existing workflows, technologies and formats.

Apple’s motivation is clear and oft-stated: to ensure the best experience on their devices. Adobe’s solution, though, is hardly great for consumers, especially now that we have the retina display. What’s their motivation? To be fair, they may have done this because, like Apple, they feel that displaying unmodified magazines as zoomable PDFs on the iPad results in a poor experience for users, and they feel that repurposing the content for the medium gives much better results. (Personally, I want the magazine layout, unchanged, and I’m happy to zoom in and move about.)

Maybe they made the choice that they felt was best for consumers. However, some less charitable people may say that they saw an opportunity to make a large amount of money, to become the middle man between publishers and the App Store. Some may say that. But I couldn’t possibly comment.


Hazel just drew a picture, which she wrote words around: her version of the song “Little Peter Rabbit”. She’d written many of the right letters in roughly the right places (LITL PET RABT etc.) and probably the first whole sentence she’d ever tried to write. Nic loved it.

Hazel’s beaming smile was topped off with: “I’m so proud that you’re so happy with me, Mummy.”

Awesome wee beastie.

In The Apple Factory

Many of you will have heard about the “terrible conditions in Apple factories” in China, quite possibly from’s recent campaign. Problem is, one of the biggest reasons we all heard about this in the first place was a guy called Mike Daisey, who went to China and interviewed workers at Foxconn, the company that makes most of Apple’s gear. He was also heard on This American Life, an excellent public radio program from NPR in the US, that’s also heard on ABC here in Australia.

Mike has now admitted that he lied, and NPR have retracted their story based on his piece. He simply made up many of the crucial details, including the man with the claw hand ruined by a metal press, the underage workers, and the workers exposed to N-hexane. Some of those issues are real (to some degree at least) but he can’t verify them directly, and claimed he did. He’s now retreated into claiming that he’s presenting “theater”, but he’s repeatedly claimed his words as the truth, and they are not.

Foxconn is not a place I’d like to work, but workers there get paid higher than the average wage, and are less likely to commit suicide than the national average. Apple have, by admission of the local inspection board, done more than other companies to ensure a safe, fairer working environment. Foxconn may well be a boring, horrible assembly line factory, but Mike Daisey making it sound worse than it is doesn’t help.

UPDATE: Here’s a transcript of the latest NPR show, entitled “Retraction”. A key quote:

As best as we can tell, Mike’s monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads.

And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.