Are Magazine Apps Delivering The Right Kind Of Future?

By Bernd Hitzeroth

Apps have become tokens of the future. Publishers need to become inventors of everyday science fiction.

When I first picked up an iPad and tested the magazine apps available around its launch (Wired, Popular Science) I had a strange feeling: the iPad was clearly from the future but the magazine apps running on it felt like they were from the past. 

Customer and critics agreed—even bestselling and “futuristic” releases like Wired’s iPad app have come under fire:

“Digitally crippled! A mere PDF with videos /:("
– Customer review of Wired iPad app 1.0,

“It really feels like the second coming of the CD-ROM ‘revolution.’”
– BoingBoing, April 2

Publishers’ “inventions” around this year’s iPad launch have primarily explored the idea of “digital paper.” Inspired by the promise of multi-touch, fast graphics, and rich color displays, these experiments explored how the tangible qualities of a printed magazine could be reinterpreted in a digital medium. The Popular Science app combined glossy photography with a scrollable and web-like reading experience. Wired’s iPad app turned static print graphics into rich interactive features. While these apps have succeeded in celebrating the future of the printed text and image, customer reactions made it clear that this in itself is not enough.

Tablets as imagined by the movies
“Tablets of our Dreams.” A snapshot of tablets and future interfaces as imagined by sci-fi movies, released in anticipation of the iPad, including Pixar’s The Incredibles, Star Trek, Minority Report, and Avatar. (Gizmodo, 2010)

For the most part the magazine industry has been pretty good at dealing with technological change. When the web came along publishers turned their printed matter into web pages and enriched those pages with video and interactive content. They enabled those pages to become socially bookmarked and shareable and ported their content to new platforms like phones and e-readers. Then they pushed out their content to build currency on the social news website Digg and added Facebook fan pages to publicize polls and contests. So why haven’t publishers been able to figure out how to innovate for a gadget built for 2010 and beyond?

A prototype by Bonnier and Berg imagining the future of magazines, launched in anticipation of the iPad (December 2009)


Publishers are used to porting; iPads and smartphones invite reinvention

The iPad appears to hold huge promise for magazine apps, thanks to its large surface, which simulates the gorgeous sheen of a print magazine. But blinded by the allure of the glossy display, the industry has been overly preoccupied with presentation, immersion, and aesthetics. Granted, it’s new technology—and publishers are often last to push the envelope. But I think there is something bigger at play, and it has to do with the nature of apps and how people perceive them.

Smartphones and tablets are disruptive. These “smart” devices have taken speculative futures that previously existed only in the imaginations of researchers, futurists, and sci-fi writers (e.g. natural interfaces, gestural interfaces, location awareness, digital paper, social intelligence, and cloud computing) and delivered them to the ordinary consumer—in the accessible form of apps. Google Earth allows people to carry the globe in their pocket, Foursquare lets you leave virtual tracks around the city, and Facebook helps you manage your social life, even while sitting on the toilet!

This futurism overdose has changed people’s relationship to apps—apps are not just another platform for uploading content, not just another canvas to fill. Apps are a space where the future happens, and consumers expect every app to deliver its own “easy-to-use miniature science fiction.” What makes this shift even more powerful is that this intense craving for the “new” is not just happening among geeks and tech enthusiasts but is happening among the masses—we’re seeing the emergence of “everyday futurists.” In a recent study for a major smartphone maker, a technophobic mother went from texting and calling on her old Nokia to stargazing with her husband and testing her kids’ eyesight within three months, all with her new iPhone:

“I do so many other things with [my iPhone] that the other day when it started ringing on the kitchen table it totally caught me by surprise.” – iPhone Mom

Magazine apps need to embrace the future

For media companies it’s crucial to take part in fueling this craving for apps. But as they become creators of apps magazine publishers need to acknowledge that they’re dealing with people’s ideas and visions of the future. This requires thinking about more than just the editorial content they create—the future is much more complex than that. In a recent workshop with a group of German magazine editors we found that people are looking to publishers for innovations that go well beyond what goes on between the covers of a magazine. It’s about finding new relationships with advertisers and distributors, determining new pricing structures, incentivizing readership through long-term rewards and events, and creating more personalization and utility for readers. We’ve found that readers were quick to dismiss apps (and their publishers) if those apps didn’t align with their vision of the future.

“Apps need to embrace this new medium, otherwise they look old. How can I trust a media company if it doesn’t understand the future?”
– New iPad owner, 23, Berlin.

We’ve been at this crossroads before: when music distribution went online it wasn’t just the sleek product design and revolutionary user interface of the iPod or the idea of carrying a thousand songs in your pocket that attracted customers—it was Apple’s bold pricing vision of “$1 a song,” its subsequent push for DRM-free music, and the easy sharing of iTunes libraries that gave customers something to look forward to when making a digital purchase. Apple didn’t just focus on the future of the album or the record sleeve; it rewrote the future of music—including the way people play music at parties and at work, how they give and share music and refine their taste, how they listen to songs on road trips and make mixed tapes, etc.

A handful of publishers are taking a gamble. This summer a group of journalists and editors launched a weekly magazine, Nomad Editions, for mobile devices. The magazine is personalized to readers’ interests and its business model is based on full sponsorships to marketers. And propelled by a sponsorship by Marriott the online magazine Slate just launched a free iPad app with a social tilt (you can share or add comments via Facebook or Twitter).
While these initiatives are a good start, they’re really just a start. Newspapers are ahead of the game: the Texas Tribune offers events and runs interactive databases citizens can search (from school rankings to campaign contributions), the LA Times has headed into e-commerce, and the Guardian added gardening e-commerce and dating and crossword clubs. Magazine publishers need to get on board.

The many futures of everyday life

The real opportunity for publishers lies in thinking beyond what a magazine will look like in the future or how people will pay for it.

To really become innovators on mobile platforms, magazine editors should think hard about what their magazine’s area of expertise will look like in the future.

What’s the future of gardening, wine tasting, or motherhood? What’s the future of killing time while having a meal for one? Or the future of doing homework with your kids? The future of apps is not about high-tech visions and spinning graphics, it’s about the future of everyday life, the stuff that lies at the heart of magazines.

This means that publishers need to do some serious soul-searching—they need to identify which future(s) they and their magazines are part of. This is not as obvious as it might sound. National Geographic is not just about the future of nature journalism—it’s about the future of learning, the future of helping kids with their school projects, and the future of ordinary people encountering the exotic. The New York Times is not just about the future of news—it’s about the future of living in a metropolis, the future of waiting at the airport, the future of immigrants. A publication’s future is not just tied to the medium its published in (print, iPad) or the topical domain it covers (nature, news) but to the context it dominates, the audience it serves, its narrative approach, and the utility it provides.

A demo of the Popular Science iPad app, based on the ideas in Mag+.

Everyone is now in the business of inventing the future, one app at a time, whether you’re a bunch of geeks in a garage or a big media company. Instead of letting startups take charge, publishers should claim their territory in this futures land-grab by expressing definitive visions and coming up with innovative digital experiences. There will be big payoffs for companies who know which future they are part of—it will inform the kind of content they create and the apps they need to make as well as what the experience should be and how to charge for it.

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