Tap! and magazines’ digital future

When I first got an iPad, I rushed to download some big-name digital magazines. They were rubbish.

You’d think that tablets and magazines are made for each other — tablets are the perfect size, big enough that you don’t spend half your time zooming and scrolling but small enough that they aren’t uncomfortable — and they are, but it’s all too easy to make the reading experience worse than it is in print. For me, too many magazines did just that.

I felt that the digital magazines I tried failed in three key areas: the text; the size; and the return of the interactive CD-ROM.

Text was the biggie. With very few exceptions text on a screen can be tiring to read, and if that text is poorly rendered in the first place it can be particularly sore on the eyes. I found that many magazines exported their text as image files, and in many cases those image files were fairly low-res. After five minutes, my head was bursting.

The second issue, size, is related to that. If you’ve got an entry-level iPad, 16GB of storage fills up fast — so when magazines require more than 500MB of space for a single issue, downloading the latest one usually means having to delete some video or apps first. That is an enormous pain in the arse, and it could well get worse as retina-display assets become more popular. If you think a quarter of a gigabyte is excessive, wait until issues hit the one or two gigabyte mark.

The third issue is the return of the interactive CD-ROM. For a while in the 1990s, interactive CDs were the future of media: you’d get magazines as interactive apps, or training materials published on CD-i. They failed because they were shite: they were all about the bells and whistles, not about the content. Some of the magazine apps I tried reminded me very much of those discs.

The upshot of all this? I’m on my second iPad now and hopefully upgrading to a third-generation one soon, but I’m still not reading my newspapers or magazines digitally. I think, though, that’s about to change. The reason? Aggregators and dedicated magazine apps.

Aggregator apps such as Flipboard and Zite do a very good job of repackaging things that other people are sharing, and I think that Zite is the closest I’ve yet come to having a Daily Me, the personalised newspaper we’ve been promised for so long. It isn’t perfect — its filtering is fairly blunt and its Scotland category is particularly laughable, giving me either sport or the rantings of crazed SNP activists who live in ditches — and it deprives publishers of revenues by stripping all the ads from their content, but it’s pretty good at tech stuff. Between Zite, Instapaper’s recommendations and The Browser’s list of interesting links from around the web, I’ve usually got something interesting to read.

Aggregators are handy things, but one thing they don’t have is a single voice. They can’t do, because they’re collections of many different voices. David Hepworth, founder of Q and publisher of Word magazine, once wrote that a new issue of a good magazine is like receiving a letter from a good friend, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Many of the magazines I write for are like letters from friends, I think, and while I’m clearly biased I think the digital editions of titles such as MacFormat, PC Plus and .net work really well on the iPad. They’re cheap, too, which is a happy bonus. What they don’t offer, though, is interactivity. Tap! does, and it manages to do so without invoking the ghosts of horrible crappy interactive CD-ROMs.

If you’re not familiar with Tap!, it’s a magazine about iPads, iPhones and iPods. Not only does its digital edition run on the iPad, but it’s created on iPads too.

Tap!, I think, gets interactivity right. The app doesn’t make the editor’s head float around the place or annoy you with unnecessary animations; instead, it uses interactivity where it’s actually useful — so you can spin product images to get a better idea of what they look like, or see how a game plays as well as read about it. In the current edition there’s a nifty sliding feature that shows you the difference between the old and new iPad screens, which is a great example of how interactivity can add value when it’s used sensibly.

Here’s a wee video about the current issue:

I think Tap! offers the best of both worlds: the clarity and serendipity of print (it’ll be something special on a retina display), and the benefits of digital publishing (embedded video, interactive elements and so on).

As one of my editors, Dan Oliver, put it this morning on Twitter: “If magazines have a future on the iPad, it’ll be down to people like [Tap editor] Chris & team pushing things on.” I think he’s right: if you have an iPad and like magazines, I think you’ll really like Tap!