Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Magazine Publishing Tool from Apple?

In 2009 when the Kindle and other ereaders were introduced, senior magazine executives made a determined effort to get out in front of this wave of new devices. They quickly learned that the quality of color available on or promised by these first-generation devices, including Kindle, Plastic Logic,and a bevy of second tier offerings, were not ready for prime time, whether  it was for Vogue, Time Magazine or House Beautiful. The rise and fall and sale of Skiff suggested this would not be a tidy and predictable marketplace.

By late 2009 and early 2010 rumors about the Apple tablet were repeated often enough to be true. In the meantime the larger publishers, including Meredith, Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast and News Corp., established Next Issue Media which was to create a digital storefront (and channel) for the sale of print, digital, and bundled subscriptions, among other services. The sub-text of this launch was that a focused and well funded organization would also present a united front in dealing with device manufacturers, carriers and digital storefronts, including iTunes. In other words: the eco-system that is bombarding them now. But the leit motif of this narrative was that NIM would serve as a counterweight to Apple, plain and simple. The imaginary conversation would have gone something like this. "We have in the aggregate an addressable universe of, say, 200 million homes. Let's make a deal."

The blessed iPad came quickly and perhaps a little too fast for magazine publishers who were not given much notice by Apple. But there is no doubt the iPad changed thr digital conversation in magazine circles, enfranchised editors and publishers, and offered a display and form factor that promised, deep, rich consumer engagement and prospects of an advertising CPM that might even exceed print. It was certainly a breakthrough when Wired magazine announced that its June 2010 issue enjoyed iPad downloads that exceeded the number of copies sold on newsstands--80,000+.

This was a breakthrough number and event and demonstrated that the tablet could be a channel of consequence. But for publishers the early, heady bloom is off the app rose. It's early, of course, and everyone is trying to figure out price, subscription offers, in-app navigation and ways to take some of the labor and design costs out of the app creation process. Then there's the increasing and worrisome device, form factor, and OS fragmentation. Most publishers are placing strategic bets but no one can afford to cover the table.

The love affair with Appple came with a price. The 30% share that the company took did not sit well with publishers, nor did the lack of consumer data or the inabiility to sell full-term subscriptions. Apple's recent announcement that graciously gives publishers 100% of the revenue if the consumer came from their sites. But the other terms, including giving consumers the choice of where they want to purchase the app subscription and whether to share data, puts Apple right in the middle of the publishers' business model under the wonderful guise of transparency. This is the reason we are hearing the sound of one hand clapping.

Recently Anthony Morganti at Gadget Daily News surmised that Apple might be developing a magazine publishing tool for developers (www.gadgetdailynews.com/home/2011/13/11), driven in part by reported user interface problems with many magazine apps: "The main problems users report are that magazine interfaces aren't consistent from one magazine to another and these interfaces generally aren't intuitive." The talk is that "Apple is developing a magazine template that will be in a future release of their developer environment and toolkit--Xcode."

"The publishing template will create a familiar consistent user interface. It will also facilitate in-app purchases for subscriptions and back issues. Another benefit Apple anticipates is that there will be a plethora of new magazines on the iPad. They believe that anyone will be able to create a magazine relatively easily and have it published by Apple and sold through iTunes."

Understandably, there are concerns, if this scenario is indeed accurate, about whether such magazine templates would stifle creativity. I spent some time with Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, particularly the design process for creating apps. I was surprised that the document was so readable. I was also surprised how much focus was placed on the needs of the consumer. The instruction to avoid feature cascade might get to the heart of some of the challenges facing publishers: "If you are developing a single application, it can be tempting to add features that aren't wholly relevant to the original intent of the program. The feature cascade can lead to a bloated interface that is slow and difficult to use because of its complexity."

The newspaper and magazine industries will soon have digital storefronts on every corner. Next Issue Media is expected to have a soft beta offering this spring. Google announced its One Pass program in January, an online interface for subscription sales. Journalism Online just found new life and a partner and owner in RR Donnelley. The Nook color Android store will be coming in April. Amazon just launched its application store for the Android mobile OS. The New York Times has announced its long-awaited--and somewhat byzantine--"paywall."

Magazine publisher say with straight faces that they will have llittle allegiance to digital storefronts that don't scale, don't share consumer data, and don't offer a fair revenue share. Unless they do. 

Then there's Apple.

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