Netly: The Third Screen

Archive for the ‘digital magazine’ Category

I’ve been guest editing the iPad version of Sports Illustrated for the past couple of weeks, which is giving me a great opportunity to experiment with stuff. The issue that came out Wednesday is a case in point: For the first time, we’re offering the SIpad Edition in landscape (horizontal) mode only. If a reader flips it into portrait (or vertical) mode, he’ll get a message telling him the page is only offered in a horizontal layout.

Why are we doing this?

A number of reasons. We’ve been doing iPad versions of our magazines here at Time Inc since the device launched on April 3. While I was excited about the possibilities of offering our magazines in both views—ideally, a reader could have two very different experiences, depending on how the pages were viewed—I’ve come to believe that, for now, and for photo-driven magazines like SI, the horizontal view is the optimal experience. In fact, by concentrating on that one view, we’ve already been able to innovate: We’ve created a new way to view extraordinary photos that we call the “Super Looooong View.”

Check out the picture of Novak Djokovic serving in the U.S. Open if you want to see the SLV in action. The photo, a gorgeous, full horizontal, is uninterrupted by page breaks (as it would be if it were a spread in a paper magazine) and it scrolls down for at least three screens. It starts high up, in the stands, and ends at Novak’s feet—it’s a photograph with a “reveal.” It’s such a cool effect—akin to a centerfold, or poster view. Needless to say, we can create SLVs that scroll horizontally as well. So far, we’ve only done this across two pages, but the possibilities are endless.

Other reasons we like the horizontal-only approach for this magazine: The download is about 30% smaller. I just downloaded SI at work and it took less than a minute. While users haven’t been complaining that much about long download times, many magazines have approached, and even exceeded, 500 megabytes in size. But who wants to store media that big on a 16-gigabyte hard drive?

And last, but not least, doing away with the vertical view allows us to economize on resources. The brunt of the iPad issue falls on the shoulders of our designers—they’re the folks who, in one magazine after another here at Time Inc and elsewhere, are the people who suddenly added an extra day to their already busy weeks. (They’re also the ones, by the way, who continue to be most excited about the endless possibilities of designing in this medium.) This reduces their work load by a third, minimally.

Why not add more designers? Well, if we were able to build a real business, with subscriptions that offered our iPad versions to readers at a reasonable price, that would be a no brainer. But we can’t yet, so the best approach for us is to experiment with the format, marshal our (human) resources and start building products on other platforms that will allow us to scale up as our business grows.

In the meantime, if readers tell us they don’t like this, we can always go back to two views—that’s the beauty of the current, experimental period in new media. There are no fatal mistakes.

Why hasn’t anyone launched a brilliant, native tablet magazine yet? The opportunity is obvious, and yet no one’s done it.

My dream tab rag would cost 99 cents an issue and occupy the space between blog (low cost, small staff, low-production value, given away for free) and legacy print/iPad magazine (high cost, large staff, high-production value, sold for $3-5 an issue or by subscription.)

Some things it would do:

Be right scaled. Employ a half dozen people—edit, business and tech included—if you want to get to 100,000 paid copies a month. Launch for free and start charging after you get 150,000 users.

Do it in HTML5. Find a lowest-common-denominator design that looks gorgeous on Safari, Chrome, Firefox and IE and keep pushing. HTML5, despite its current shortcomings, is the only answer for a variety of reasons:

  • Your magazine ought to behave like a downloaded app, but it’s really a website. That means the “front porch” is free, daily, bloggy stuff. The rest (i.e. the magazine itself) is published periodically as if it were a pay app.
  • HTML5 can do about 60% of what we can do in a downloadable app. But it’s already good enough to use as a publishing platform and will rapidly improve.
  • You can easily design a small-format version, stripped down for smartphones and a large-format version for tablets (and laptops and desktops.)
  • HTML5 gives you all that crunchy web goodness—it’s searchable, shareable and not controlled by anyone.

Use a lot of video. The iPad, and other LCD tablets in the wings, are much better to look at than read. That’s why Netflix is the killer app on the iPad. While I’m not saying you can’t read stuff on tablets—I’ve read scores of books on both Kindle and iPad—but neither is easier on the eyes than paper. Until we start seeing transflective screens like those being designed by Pixel Qi, video and photos ought to be the bigger part of the mix.

Get the pacing right. No one’s done this yet on a tablet—legacy publishers, for a variety of reasons, are too faithful to the print counterpart. But a page of print turns into 2.5 pages of 10-inch tablet—that changes the rhythm and timing of a publication radically. A native tab mag could be paced naturally.

Be wildly entertaining. Until displays improve, tablet-based entertainment will usually trump information. (See 3., above.)

Aside from the raising of my three godlike children, I’ve never collaborated on anything that’s made me as proud as the work I’ve done on Time Magazine’s iPad app. So please forgive me when I take umbrage at Jeff Jarvis’s recent remarks, which struck me today like fighting words.

Jarvis, a former Time Inc.-er, can be forgiven for the disgruntled, I-hate-my-ex-wife tone that creeps into his rhetoric, whenever he discusses his former employer. But I don’t forgive him for continuing to kick the fetid corpse of Web 2.0, long after the crowd itself has wandered away. It’s tiresome, dude, and intellectually dishonest given that you’re still stumping for your Google book. You need to get out from behind your CRT a little more and try to connect with the current thinking in new media.

Google is a great business—for Google. We all know that it has made Google an enormous amount of money for itself and its shareholders. And I have no doubt that Google ads and the attendant freeconomy keep bloggers like you in cigs and the occasional bottle of Midnight Train. The notion, however, that ALL media must be free, and linkable, and remixable and open not only doesn’t work for large, news-gathering organizations, it’s turning out that it’s not even what all readers/consumers want. There is no single recipe for success in the media business, professor.

Yes, the Time Magazine app costs $4.99. The rationale: The app offers 100% of the print magazine, plus photo galleries, video and other iPad-only goodies. While the pricing was not my decision, and I opposed it, I was wrong: It turns out to have been a smart move. While I’m not allowed to say how many copies we’ve sold to date, I can tell you it’s sold about 10X what I had predicted to my peers. (Admittedly, I had predicted a small number. Still, I was shocked by how wrong I was.) Advertiser enthusiasm was even more surprising—clearly, they, too, see that the tablet gives them a bigger, richer canvas than the Web. And they need to understand how to use it as much as we do.

This thing is a hit, not only for us, but for every publisher who’s been charging for a decent iPad app.

The fact is, people are willing to pay for content when it’s delivered in the way they want. And when, in a month or so, we’re able to offer subscriptions, I have no doubt that our business will grow and grow and grow as the number of people with iPads and other tablets explodes.

Finally, on the question of how Time’s app is doing versus its peers. (PED’s piece was equally misleading.) Our app was indeed the bestselling and top-grossing magazine app during the week of the iPad’s launch, but we quickly fell off the list in the second week. Why? Because our app was (until today) produced anew weekly. That meant that the counter that measures unit sales reset to zero with the arrival of every new issue. By comparison, monthly mags have only produced one issue, so all four weeks of unit sales are included under one app.

If you took all of our issues and added them together so it would be an apples to apples comparison, I’m sure we’d still be the top selling and top grossing mag app.

Big deal. It’s hardly meaningful at this point.

But directionally, in terms of what readers are telling us and what we’re learning about this new platform, we’re fairly ecstatic. While I was hedging my bets going into this “appgazine” experiment a year ago, I’m not anymore: Tablets will indeed save the day for many publishers as they complete the transition to extremely profitable digital media.

Terry McDonnell, editor of Sports Illustrated, and his team have been working for months with The WonderFactory, a NY-based design shop, to build a digital version of the magazine.

This video is a highlights reel; SI has a working prototype that’s ginned up for an HP touchpad, which was given to focus groups. They loved it by the way. There was even consensus that people would be willing to pay $50 for both the paper magazine and the digital version. (The best verbatim: “Sorry—can we go back and see the ad again?” People loved the Weber Grill ad, which you can see in the demo.)

The demo was done in Air, because it was easy to do it in Air. This was not a religious choice—that is, whether we actually produce magazines in Flash/Air remains to be seen. The intent was to imagine a “giant iPod” kind of device, and build the best possible user experience. It would be easy to step this down a bit for the smaller screen and produce it in, say, Cocoa Touch for the iPhone, for instance.

My two cents: I think this is really cool. Terry and The WonderFactory’s David Link (who I think is destined to become the Roger Black of the digital magazine world) and the gang did an amazing job, and I can’t wait to see this go into production.

Let’s say that the iThing, and all the tablets like it, are indeed the magic bullets for the publishing business: People are willing to pay for reliable, produced and highly packaged content. The e-mag experience is way more fun, useful and convenient than the paper magazine. And advertising—full page, video heavy, relevant, measurable—lifts off like a rocket.

We can assume that publishers will slowly stop giving away their exclusive content for free online. Many big media sites will become more like billboards, advertising the bounty that lies within pay walls, without giving away the value.

To be sure, the closer you are to news, the more you’ll still have to give away something for free. So the New York Times, Time Magazine, and so on will still have to give away the fungible stuff. But the exclusive, the highly produced and packaged—all that will start living inside paid apps.

Naturally, that’ll make it a little harder for blogs to grab the interesting bits from the pros, at least to the extent they do now. I assume, for instance, that rights holders will be more vigilant in enforcing “fair-use” limitations.

But the rising tide will lift all boats—and the blogs too, especially the established ones.

That’s because the same benefits that tablets bestow on old media will accrue to new media as well—in spades.

At the low end of the food chain, the opinion-based and gossip-mongering blogs probably won’t get subscription revenue, as they adapt to the “page” format of a tablet, they will almost certainly enjoy far better advertising revenue.

The real winners, I suspect, will be blogs and small sites that do original reporting, and are scaled in a lightweight way, with low overhead, lean staffs and a mass of loyal readers. It’s pretty easy to imagine a world in which, say, TechCrunch or TPM or even something more capital-intensive such as Slate, Makes $$$ Fast in the next few years and becomes the most efficient business model.

iphoneSmart move by Conde Nast today: The magazine publisher of Wired, Vogue, the New Yorker and others announced it would start porting over entire magazines—not vertical slices or website apps, like other publishers have done thus far—to the iPhone. First up is the men’s mag, GQ, which Conde says will be ready to go in December, for $2.99 an issue—$2 less than the newsstand price. Nat Ives has the scoop in Ad Age, and Peter Kafka has a good take at AllThingsD.

Conde is doing a number of things right here.

1. It called bullshit on the notion that appgazines should enjoy the same crap CPMs as websites. I’ve been saying this all along, because if you stop and think about it, you’ll see that these new products ought to represent the best of both the print and online worlds. If someone subscribes to a digital magazine, and reads it—and it’s delivered on a lovely color tablet—the full-page ads ought to generate the same CPM as print. Indeed, Conde figured out that these new mags should be even more valuable since these new ad formats will also provide engagement metrics (pageview/clickthru and so on) to the whole dilly. So Conde is valuing this media as print CPM PLS online CPM.
2. It’s creating its own platform for making digital magaziness. I’m assuming reusable templates for magazine pages and something that will help advertisers hack together their own ad pages. But who knows? The point is, if this works, they have a model in place that will, one assumes, scale and encompass all its titles, and advertisers.
3. It’s preparing for the new Apple Jesus Tablet. If you think this is just about the iPhone, you haven’t been paying attention. This is aimed at Whatever It Is that Apple is rumored to be announcing in Q1. That said, I am haunted by a conversation I had a few months ago with a very senior guy at Apple. “If I thought the iPhone was all you guys were coming out with in this space, I wouldn’t be so interested,” I said. Senior Guy replied: “Then you’d be making an enormous mistake.” I read this to mean, build for the iPhone and your product will be even better on whatever Apple comes out with next. Which is what Conde is doing.

I have a few questions, though. For starters, I can’t wait to see the product since I know that simply porting over, say, the PDFs of your pages ain’t going to cut it. Unless you’re able to perform some serious mojo—extracting the text and reflowing images and so on to make everything more readable on the tiny screen—PDFs don’t work. I’d also like to learn about how much extra production will go into each issue—Conde just fired a bunch of folks. How many will it need to hire back to retrofit GQ for the small screen?

Does this mean that Conde won’t be in the much-discussed, yet-to-be-seen magazine coalition that Time Inc. is said to be organizing? Not necessarily, I guess. There’s no reason why you can’t pursue both at the same time. And clearly, Apple taking 30 percent is so much better than the alternative: Roughly 50% of the cost of making a magazine is related to printing it and distributing it. So if you could immediately convert your rate base to Apple users, and let Apple handle the transaction, you’d be rolling in clover…

And finally, if my old pal Chris Anderson, editor of Wired is out there… I’d love to hear what you think about all this. I’m wondering if the fact that Wired isn’t the guinea pig an indication of where you stand on the question of separate digital magazines… I believe you’re an unreconstructed Googleite, after all, and may believe that the best iteration of Wired on a third-screen device is, open and browser based rather than delivered by subscription. Also Chris: Links or no links?

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    • Mikel: Such a deep ansrew! GD&RVVF