Back to the Future With the iPad
Back in January, Judy Sims pleaded with editors and publishers to keep the print guys away from the process of developing apps for Apple’s forthcoming iPad:
The format and shape of the iPad feels comfortable and familiar to print guys. And for that reason, they will think they know how to design for it despite having little or no digital product experience. They will want to lay out pages the way they do in a newspaper or magazine. They will want to charge per article or figure out a subscription model that can be included in their ABC numbers. They will want to keep reader interaction, community and linking to a minimum.
In short, they will kill any chances of real innovation. Don’t let them do it.
Sims’s plea was for editors and publishers to put together a team of digital innovators and send them away for a few weeks, without any rules, to create something that “just might blow your socks off.”
Judging from the iPad concepts dribbling out from various publishers (check out this slideshow from paidContent), it seems pretty clear that Sims isn’t going to get her wish. Most of the concepts I’ve seen are heavily printcentric, seeking to use the iPad’s screen and form factor to replicate the magazine experience in ways that haven’t worked particularly well on screens until now. Yes, a photo or bit of text may lead the viewer into a slideshow or video or give them something to interact with, but you’re recognizably within a slightly reimagined magazine and a controlled environment.
It’s a potential trend that worries Reuters’ Felix Salmon. Last week, he wrote that Wired’s iPad strategy, as seen at South by Southwest, “is both the obvious one and the sensible one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” From what Salmon saw, Wired won’t include Wired.com stories on the iPad, will return to holding print content back from the Web, and will generally mark a retreat from Web principles: “The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control — the exact opposite, really, of the internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience.”
Salmon notes that this is good from media-company and brand-advertising perspectives, as it offers a better chance to recreate magazines’ glossy ads and re-attract the dollars that come with them. But from an open-Web perspective, “the Wired iPad app marks a clear retreat back towards what were once known as walled gardens.”
I think Salmon’s right — the first wave of iPad apps are going to be a return to walled gardens, fueled by a renewed sense of control that designers feel they surrendered in the Web era. What’s really interesting will be what comes after that.
I don’t think the slicker, more-controlled formats ushered in by the iPad will necessarily be a bad thing. As I wrote in my initial reaction to the iPad’s unveiling, the device will create a different, largely new experience than that offered by the Web or smartphones — for the first time, we’ll really be able to “lean back” with a properly sized screen while reading something digital, watching a movie or casually surfing. I think that will prove enormously appealing to a lot of people, and create a model that could have staying power.
Moreover, most magazines haven’t worked very well on the Web. A good magazine is a vibrant, lush experience, but it’s also a finite one, and that’s satisfying in its own right. You can read an entire issue of the New Yorker or the Atlantic and feel like you’ve accomplished something. For all its wonders, the Web doesn’t offer that — rather, it replaces it with a vague sense of insecurity. On the Web you never run out of things to read; you just run out of time.
Given all this, I won’t be surprised to see some magazines stick with a closed, controlled iPad presentation. And I won’t be surprised to see some of those publishers focus on iPad presentations at the expense of the Web.
But those closed presentations will compete with the Web anyway, even within the iPad. And this is where a lot of the iPad concepts I’ve seen get awfully thin. With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them. Quick will trump lush; free will trump controlled.
How publishers address this problem at a time in which they’re diverting resources to the iPad will be interesting to watch. I bet some will abandon the Web, or retreat to using it for shovelware versions of their titles, seeing the iPad and print as a better product mix. (Correspondingly, a lot of Web sites will go through a phase of making lousy, static-feeling iPad apps.) A brave few publishers will take Sims’s advice and create something interesting that feels new. But not many of them. And meanwhile, the real innovation will come from new publishers who approach the iPad without the cultural and business-model baggage of the print or the Web.
We won’t really know where we’re headed until we’ve seen a few iterations of this process. This is where I disagree partially with Sims — I don’t think the iPad will kill real innovation so much as it will delay it. And this is where I think what Salmon worries about will prove true, but a passing phenomenon. By the time a few cycles of iPad development have run, we’ll have seen some iPad hits, some interesting misses and a lot of dull missteps. Lessons will have been learned by those interested in learning them, and the device itself will have gained new capabilities. That’s when we’ll see some of those Walled Gardens 2.0 reopen — alongside ones that decide to stay shut.