iPad Magazine Apps–A Rare Failure

Technology Review Editor Jason Pontin has written an insightful article on why magazine apps on the iPad have been a huge disappointment to publishers–and why TR is abandoning its apps in favor of an HTML 5 web site.

When the iPad came out two years ago, many in the magazine industry, along with Apple itself,  hailed the tablet as the savior of the troubled publication business.  While the iPad has vastly exceeded original expectations for most classes of apps, magazines have been a dismal flop. Pontin explains why better than I ever could, so read his piece.

But I have to admit I am not all that surprised. The goal of most apps seemed to be to recreate the print product in electronic form,  a goal that never felt right. And the apps tended to be big, slow, and buggy.

I still get a bunch of print magazines, but the only publication for which I have a paid online-only subscription is the Kindle Fire edition of The New Yorker.  The New Yorker works as an app better than most simply because it is almost entirely text, laid out in the most boring way imaginable, so the design elements, such as they are, survive. That  said, I actually hate the New Yorker‘s Kindle app. It’s slow and buggy. It violates Kindle user interface standards by requiring a vertical swipe to turn pages; a horizontal swipe takes you to the next or previous article. And it won’t let me rotate the Fire to get that annoying power button out of the way.

But I was surprised by Pontin’s explanation of just how dismal the economics of the app have been. It looks like magazine publishers will have to go on looking for their salvation.

Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

768 thoughts on “iPad Magazine Apps–A Rare Failure”

  1. The publication industry has not learned the lessons of the age of the internet.

    iTunes taught us that given a choice between buying an album or buying only the hit songs from an album, we would choose the latter every time. Magazines have not learned that lesson at all.

    The internet is like a huge information buffet. We can pick and choose from a virtually unlimited selection of articles and we can do so..for free!

    Lesson number 1: People want to read individual articles, not whole magazines.

    Most content on the internet is free. You have to write an awfully compelling article to make us pay for it. And frankly, the content that most magazines are producing is really not that much better, if any better, than what we’re getting for free.

    Lesson number 2: If it’s free, good enough will beat great every single time.

    How long do you think it takes to build a great App? Months? Sometimes years? Yet the magazine industry gives us these dumb replicas of their print magazines and they try to pass it off as something we should pay for?

    I can get some of the highest quality Apps in the world for a dollar or less. I’m not going to pay a subscription to buy an app that doesn’t even fully take advantage of landscape and portrait mode.

    Lesson number 3: Great Apps are hard and great Apps are ubiquitous. No one is going to pay serious money for your lousy App.

    The internet allows us to link from source to source to source. A magazine does not. Why should we read a magazine that gives us less than the free internet does?

    Lesson number 4: In the age of the internet, when everything is available at all times, there is little reason to restrict our options – and pay for it to boot.

    Conclusion: I have not thought deeply on how magazines can survive and thrive in the age of the internet but I can almost guarantee you that I’ve given the matter more thought in this short post than some of the magazine magnates ever have. Their attempts to save the magazine industry echo the attempts of the railroad magnates efforts to save the railroad industry. The railroad magnates forgot that they weren’t in the railroad business, they were in the transportation business. The ones who did transitioned to trucks. The rest simply faded into obscurity.

    Just as the interstate highways made the trains unnecessary, the internet highway has made magazines unnecessary. If the magazine industry wants to survive, it needs to focus, not on magazines, but on its essence – the ability to communicate high quality content to their readership.

    The transition from magazines to whatever their future form may be will be just as stark and just as revolutionary as the change from trains to trucks was. It won’t be easy, that’s for sure. But the magazine industry better start adapting and they’d better start quick…or they’re going to get left standing at the train station watching their future drive away.

    1. I’ve never like magazines. They were a necessary evil. I detest the breaks in the content for ads. I deplore when you get to the end of a page and it says “continue on page 28” 20 pages away from where I began.

      I think that for once technology was their biggest problem, even more so than pricing. Huge download sizes, no text selection…let me stop there. This is big. Bigger than big. When apps could take advantage of the iOS dictionary, why on Earth can I not select a word and get the definition, or select a name and search for it or Wikipedia it? And personally, no multi-column layouts. Why can’t I just start reading at the top and end at the bottom?

      And a crucial point, you make: What advantage do I get paying for your content over what’s out there? If you cite the same report as a blog, there is none.

  2. I think magazine publishers should just go the iTunes way and sell their magazines through digital newsstands like Magzter and Zinio and forget the idea of spending tons of $$ to create their own apps and hope for revenues and profits! They sell well on physical newsstands and surely will sell well on Digital newsstands as well. I wouldn’t add Apple’s newsstand to this as it again needs apps to be created and cost a lot of $$ which is not being earned back by the small volume of sales!

    1. There are a number of initiatives that are looking to create more of a channel approach – see http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2012/05/an-itunes-playlist-for-magazine-articles-zinio-thinks-outside-the-brand129.html and http://www.emediavitals.com/content/aggregation-app-targets-niche-content While the concept of a magazine issue in the print world has much to recommend it – it does not translate so well to digital so traditional publishers need to develop new business models before new entrants do it for them.

  3. Nonsense > Apple demanded a 30 percent vigorish on all single-copy sales through its iTunes store. Profit margins in single-copy sales are thinner than 30 percent; publishers were thus paying Apple to move issues.

    And how much does TR’s distributor charge on the physical newsstand – over 50% – so are all publishers losing money on newsstand sales – no (even with the horrible sell through numbers) .

    Publishers boxed themselves into a corner with Apple – complaining about the 30% and lack of customer data – turns out that compared to other channels the 30% is not unreasonable and it turns out that most customers are willing to share their basic info. Publishers have failed to adapt – look at http://www.technologyreview.com on an iPhone – it’s not mobile optimized ! I’m not a big fan of digital replicas but there are solutions that do enhanced digital well (www.mazdigital.com) as publishers transition to HTML and native – in the interim there is no excuse for publishers not optimizing their sites for mobile access. Seems as if Technology Review made some poor choices as they looked to develop a digital strategy.

    The comments made above by Falkirk are very valid – the launch of NextIssueMedia , a consortium of the top 5 US publishers could have addressed an article approach but they did not – they also spurned the iPad so they are on devices with marginal market share – as they now scramble to get back in with Apple. There are a number of initiatives such as The Magazine Channel who are exploring the article approach and it will be interesting to see if they pull it off.

    Magazines such as some of my my favorites – National Geo, The Economist , The WEEK all seems to be doing well on the iPad – and I enjoy the iPad experience on all of them.

    Magazines have strong brands, they have loyal customers but publishers need to focus less on the content container and more on delivering a great experience to their customers – one that blends original content, aggregated and curated content and content linked and discussed by the audience. To date few publishers are adapting – rather complaining that the new world order does not sit nicely with their previous business models.
    .

  4. ” When the iPad came out two years ago, many in the magazine industry, along with Apple itself, hailed the tablet as the savior of the troubled publication business. ”
    No they didn’t, they hailed it as the saviour of their troubled Business-Model. the only thing they were interested in was how to monetize the existing system in a new medium.
    The certainly weren’t thinking Apple – Think Different.
    Apple offer them the option of doing it their way, well they have tried and failed mostly.
    Now they can either wake up and seriously revise how they operate and connect with their audience, or they will end up as roadkill.
    I’ll bet most of them are roadkill. They simply don’t have the imagination or courage to deprecate their existing systems. Thats what happens when you leave leadership to Accountants and MBA’s. These aren’t “think outside the box” kind of people.
    The comments above nail the issues, and a bit like RIMM, they will be ignored. There is none so blind as those that WILL not see. And the big publishing companies are too enculturated with what USED to work.

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