Magazines on the iPad

By Felix Salmon
March 15, 2010

Wired’s design director, Scott Dadich, unveiled what the magazine’s iPad app is going to look like at a packed SXSW session this morning which was sold as an introduction to the “digital rebirth” of Wired in particular and of magazines in general.

The app does look very slick; Richard Baum shot a little bit of video which should give you a decent idea of how it works.

Wired’s strategy, here, is both the obvious one and the sensible one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. But in order to understand the dynamics it helps a lot to understand Wired’s famous “Berlin Hall”, as discussed at enormous length in one of the highest-quality comment threads ever in the history of the blogosphere. Condé Nast bought Wired long before it bought Wired.com, and, after years apart from each other, the magazine and the website are still very different and self-sufficient beasts, reaching different readers in different ways. Yes, the magazine’s content does appear on the website, but largely as something of an afterthought: the bulk of the website’s content and pageviews is not magazine content.

Dadich kicked off his presentation by showing a photo of the large art and design team at Wired, and noting that the website can’t boast anything like that kind of staffing dedicated to making articles look good and read well online. He’s excited about the iPad app, because it gives the magazine’s team a chance to play in a highly structured closed environment, like the magazine, and to create something just as minutely designed while at the same time being much more wired in terms of being able to play with multimedia. It was great watching him geek out over things like font kerning — the custom fonts he’s using for the magazine have over 10,000 kerning pairs, or different spacing between letters depending on which letters you’re using. (26 squared is only 676, so this goes way beyond just having custom kerning for each pair of normal letters.)

But it’s pretty clear that the iPad is going to make the Berlin Hall even wider than it is at moment. As far as I can tell there are no plans to port content from Wired.com onto the iPad, and it even seems that Wired is going to regress to its old habit of waiting a week, after the magazine comes out, before stories go onto the website. That practice came to an end when Condé bought Wired.com, but now Condé very much wants people to read the magazine on a paid iPad app, rather than on the free website, and wants to minimize the number of people who pass on the iPad app because they know they can get the same content online for free.

For much the same reason, wonderful multimedia online presentations of Wired magazine content, like the cutthroat capitalism game from last year, are clearly now a thing of the past. They’ll still exist, but they’ll exist in paid-for online form, rather than being freely available on the website. Even the bare-bones text content from the magazine is only really appearing online so that Wired’s readers have something to link to and share and tweet; it’s notable that the social-media functionality in the iPad app is going to be missing at first, and that Wire’d designers are concentrating for the time being on nailing down the design.

The inability of the iPad to multitask doesn’t help here, either. Wired doesn’t want to allow simple links in ads or stories which would open up in the iPad web browser, since opening the browser means closing the Wired app. Instead, web links will open in a pop-up window within the iPad app, which then gets closed, returning you to the position in the magazine that you came from. 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.

From a media-company point of view, this is all good. The ads on the iPad are not going to be annoying interruptions, like they are online and on TV; instead, they’re going to be attractive reasons to buy the app in the first place, just as people love to flick through the glossy ads in other Condé publications, or love to stand in front of the huge animated American Eagle billboard in Times Square. From a brand-advertising perspective, the iPad could bring serious high-end ad dollars into the digital realm for the first time.

From an open-web perspective, on the other hand, the Wired iPad app marks a clear retreat back towards what were once known as walled gardens. You can’t link to an iPad app, and it’ll probably be a while before Disqus or someone similar even allows you to comment on a story there, with the comment stream being merged with the comments on the web version. An iPad app or story can never go viral, can never break out and achieve a life of its own, can never be remixed or reinvented. I’m not even sure whether there’s going to be any interest in updating iPad stories after they first appear.

And for the time being, everything iPad is clearly being driven by the design team, much more than by the editors and journalists, whose job is still to write and wrangle text. It’s also, necessarily, being driven by the fact that Wired is a print magazine, and that everything on the iPad needs to be able to appear in print as well. If you get too inventive about new ways of telling a story, then the core franchise will find itself left out in the cold, and nobody at Condé wants that.

I’m very excited about both reading and writing for the iPad, I think it’s going to be lots of fun. I just hope that it doesn’t result in magazines deserting the web.

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