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Commentary on the media and the business of content.

Content This Week: Tabletapalooza

Magazine publishers are sure that 2011 is the year of the tablet. Again. According to the New York Times, last year was supposed to be the year of the tablet but it wasn’t because not enough people owned the devices. Now, that trend is poised to change with some suggesting that we are close to a “reading boom.” Lack of critical tablet mass is one theory as to why last year wasn’t all that great for digital versions of magazines. Others think that publishers just didn’t get it right. After the novelty of the magazine app wore off—and it wore off quickly, according to Frédéric Filloux at Monday Note—sales of iPad magazine apps dropped significantly from June to November. Why?

My own experience with the Conde Nast’s Wired and The New Yorker and Hearst’s Esquire, mirrors the general consensus, as summarized by Alan Mutter at his Newsasour blog: They’re too expensive, they’re technologically glitchy, and they don’t live up to the potential of the medium. The one magazine app that seems to have come close is Richard Branson’s Project, which is only available via iPad.

Still, Project is technologically clunky—the good idea to have in-article commenting doesn’t work—and even Branson seems to be hewing too closely to what a magazine is supposed to look and act like: a graphically designed square with a few video and audio patches that is interesting to look at but not easily shared. Tablet magazine apps will be stuck until they can engender the kind of user creativity and digital community that we’re all used to, and that we all demand. As Noah Brier of The Barbarian Group deftly points out, “people are as obsessed with the idea of spreading an idea as they are about the idea itself.”

Of course, as the big publishers start testing the waters, the indies are starting to make their play. In fact, Ashley Norris, CEO of Sutro Digital, thinks the indies are about to start flooding the store. And with the kind of creativity that promises to break out of the Wired/Adobe mold. Check out Eureka, a science publication that’s dedicated to the psychology and physiology of sports, and Letter to Jane, an arts and lifestyle rag. These are two magazines that Jeremy Leslie at MagCulture points to in his excellent end of year review of the indie magazine publishing world. They represent both ends of a spectrum—Eureka costs thousands of dollars to create while Letter to Jane was created by the editor. Both, however, seem to take advantage of the tablet medium in ways that Conde Nast or Hearst hasn’t. That is to say that they embody the spirit that an iPad app should be significantly different from a print magazine.

It’s an exciting time to be in publishing, which is quite a statement, and one that’s probably worth all the great attempts and fails and ongoing testing going on. Two years ago, the industry was trying to figure out which note of the death knell was the right one to play. Now with about 80 different tablets expected to show at this weekend’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas—also known in some circles as Tabletapalooza—people in the content business are in the exciting position of trying to pick out the best shovel to take with them for the coming gold rush. 

Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.