Oh my dear goat lord, WHAT IS WRONG with people? This week the fairy of stupidity came down and sprayed IdiotGlitter all over a bunch of people who tried out Virgin’s new magazine app, Project. They all hate it. They hate the navigation. They hate the file size. Did I mention they hate the navigation? I’m not sure why they don’t devote more time bemoaning the editorial direction, which is somewhere between Wired, Popular Science, and an in-flight magazine, but when it comes to iPad magazines the editorial is always considered last, because what matters is oooh shiny!
There are two things about Project, and magazine apps in general, that I think the naysayers are either ignoring or not realizing. But before I get to those, I want to list three facts I think all future iPad magazine reviewers should remember before they write any more reviews:
Reminder #1: Lots of content-rich apps have huge file sizes. Maybe you just don’t spend enough time on the App Store, but an app in the 150-500 MB is not at all unique. The two categories where it happens most frequently are games and enhanced ebooks. Why? Because those apps are always loaded with sounds, video, and images.
I’m no fan of 500 MB magazine apps, but I’m also no fan of 500 MB hidden image games, and I’ve still downloaded both and somehow survived. The problem is one of compression as much as it is of inefficient pre-print workflows, and Project is no worse than any other magazine app so far as I’ve been able to tell.
Reminder #2: Lots of large apps experience installation issues for select users. I don’t have the technical knowledge to explain this with real terminology, so let me just put it anecdotally: there’s always an angry customer in the review section of any large iPad app page, complaining about how the app crashes after installation and therefore it sucks and the developer sucks and the iPad/iPhone sucks. Usually–unless the app is buggy, and in Project’s case it isn’t–either a full restart or an uninstall/restart/reinstall is required to make things play together well.
I’m not sure you can blame this recurring issue on developers. Maybe it’s their fault for how they’re handling memory or something behind the scenes, but since it occurs across apps, it’s unlikely that Project alone is responsible for such installation issues. For the record, it installed and ran perfectly for me.
Reminder #3: A surge in demand can strain servers. I installed Project nearly a full day after it hit the App Store. Whether I was late enough to the game to avoid the initial traffic jam, or I just had the good fortune to connect to Apple’s servers during a slow Internet traffic period locally, I had no problem downloading the app (<1 minute) or the first issue of the magazine (<5 minutes). I’ve had large games for the iPad take longer. Hell, my first Wired issue took far longer, although for the reasons I listed above I’m not willing to blame the delay solely on Wired. So please STFU about “it takes too long!” unless you put that in the larger context, which is that it takes a long time forany large app to download.
With those out of the way, here are the two big things about Project and magazine apps that I suspect many reviewers still aren’t getting.
The magazine’s navigation isn’t complicated. It’s new.
Before I dive fully into this rant, I want to back up and point out something about Apple’s own UI strategy.
Here’s my theory about Apple. One of the secret purposes of its ongoing product and interface refreshes is to gradually train its user base in how to use its products. The cut-and-paste functionality should have been in the first iPhone, and why it wasn’t will always be a mystery to me. However, by holding off on it for so long, Apple was able to present the most dumbed-down interface imaginable, where it was almost impossible to find any sort of overwhelming complexity. A year or so after the public got used to it, ta-dah!, Apple began to slip increasingly more complex UI elements (like cut-and-paste) into the device, by which point there were enough iPhone vets to provide peer support to the dumbest of the new users.
Magazine apps don’t have this luxury of time to raise the temperature of the water, because we’d all climb out of the pot as soon as we saw the lack of navigation controls. Therefore, they have to introduce something by way of UI and it has to be comprehensive, and that means it will be complex to some degree.
In that respect, Project smartly cribbed a good 85% of its UI from Conde Nast’s interface and about 5% from Zinio, probably in the hope that this would help bring readers up to speed more quickly. You flick left and right to move between articles or sections, and you scroll up and down to move between pages within an article or section. A tap near the bottom brings up a scrolling list of thumbnail images so you can visually browse through the whole magazine quickly. When the bottom thumbnail list is open, you also have the option at the top of accessing a text-based list of article titles.
Mixed in with those standard elements are some easy-to-learn recurring UI elements unique to Project: a “big red dot” graphic that tells you when there’s some special interactivity on the page, to launch additional content (like movies); a plus sign graphic to access external websites; numbers in circles that function like buttons for image slideshows. The weirdest addition, in my mind, is the slim right margin, where you access a comments section. But it’s not that weird.
Let me put it this way: the most trouble I ever had navigating an iPad magazine was Popular Science, and tellingly it was also the first iPad magazine I ever tested. There was a learning curve to figure out how to navigate it, and every magazine app since then has been easier to work with because I’m growing accustomed to the UI conventions.
Project sticks with most of those UI conventions, and it’s no worse than the other big magazine apps.
I’ve seen criticism of Project’s “how to use this app” instruction screen, as if apps all over the App Store don’t employ the same technique. If you were to design a help screen for a new interface, would you: a) write it in all text, b) present a video tutorial, or c) overlay one-sentence phrases with arrows on an image of the interface? I’d pick “c” in all but the most complicated UIs, and that’s what many apps do. (Install the much-beloved and praised Pulse RSS app to see a similar help screen approach–although Pulse does it better by using an actual size image of the interface.)
It’s the entire magazine concept that’s flawed, not any particular title.
Magazines don’t work on a tablet device. They just don’t.
After spending way too many hours playing with a half dozen of them a couple of months ago, I finally figured out why they bore me:
A crucial aspect of a print magazine is that you can hold it in one hand and physically thumb through or flick through pages with the other. The paper crinkles faintly under your thumb, or gives off a tiny satisfying snap! with each page flick; it’s a tactile experience that doesn’t work in virtual space. You browse the thing at a 10,000 foot view, then dive down into pages for a closer look, then pull back and take in the whole thing again, and it feels seamless because you’re doing it in an analog space.
A secondary aspect of a magazine–one that’s connected to this crucial quality–is that the overload of advertising doesn’t feel like overload (usually) when physically flicking through the pages. You see most of the ads at an angle, for a fraction of a second, like frames of commercials when cycling through channels on a TV. You only have to pay attention to an ad when you dive down into a particular page. Imagine if you had to stop for a full 1-2 seconds on each TV spot while channel surfing–you’d throw your remote through the TV like a Wii noob.
That’s the fatal flaw that digital mags can’t solve: the innately physical experience of them. Without that, a magazine becomes nothing more than a tightly closed box of pre-selected content, and with few exceptions magazines aren’t prepared editorially to provide enough compelling content to justify such a walled-garden approach in the digital world. (The only ones I can think of that might survive the transition are the ones thickly packed with real content each issue, which does not describe Wired, Popular Science, or Project.)
Now about Project’s editorial approach: meh. Why aren’t more critics focusing on that? It’s not bad, but I felt zero desire to buy another issue after the first one. The first thing I did after finishing the magazine was switch over to my RSS reader to see what else was out there in the great big Internet world. Unfortunately for all magazine publishers, I have yet to find an iPad magazine app that captures my interest enough to keep me from doing that.
Via Chris Walters’ Booksprung blog