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.