Necessities for digital magazines

Ben Hammersley poses the question which has been on my mind for a while (tweet) now after seeing the various concept demoes of rich magazines on high resolution tablets.

There have been a couple of these concepts floated around recently among which the digital Sports Illustrated and the Mag+ demo for Bonnier:

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

These magazines with rich media and builtin games and other interactions look great, but who’s going to make them? From what I know assembling a publication is an efficient but quite messy proces. It gets the thing out the door before the deadline, but not much more.

The web part of the publication is usually bolted on and content is copy pasted from one into the other usually to the detriment of the web versions. And now we need to add another layer of richness somewhere inside this flow?

Like Hammersley says digital publications are just a symptom of a bigger problem. And the bigger problem of assembling such a magazine is just part of the transition from the old process of creating, assembling and publishing print media to the new way of doing things.

Device capabilities

Of course everybody is waiting for Apple’s tablet offering which will most likely set the industry standard, but imagining what a flat high resolution interactive tablet will look and work like, is not too difficult. A (multi-)touch screen, some hardware buttons, network connectivity and HD image and video display. Do you need much more?

Using that hardware to reimagine the concept and use of a magazine including its more indirect properties such as coffee table displayability, spine information etc. are what Jack Schulze talks about in the Mag+ video by BERG.

Toolmaker and platform

Being a more technically inclined1, I’m very interested which platform will be used for these publications. Right now two obvious contenders would be:

  • A Flash/AIR version which is not very hopeful from an openness point of view. And also what we’ve seen from the current Flash web magazines and applications, the user experience will probable be nothing to write home about (page turn animations anybody?).
    If the current state of Flash on the iPhone is an indication, Apple will not allow this.
  • A HTML5 version which seems a very likely contender. Apple is already pushing this hard for advanced stuff using HTML5 on the iPhone and with a similar sprinkling of Webkit specific extensions it should be more than possible to deliver the experiences enivisioned in these prototypes.
  • Native applications seem too cumbersome for the publication release cycle and building a CMS-like solution for digital magazines in a native language yields the same problem: how to markup the magazine in the CMS? Which would result in a more or less complex markup language (such as HTML).

Adobe probably already has tools that make it ‘easy’ to create rich publications from their existing publication tools such as InDesign and Flash though I can’t find anything about such tools except this news release on a collaboration with Condé Nast. If I go to Adobe.com, there’s nothing about what I can do to ready my business for this transition.

It seems that there is a big opportunity for new toolmakers working from agile principles and using open standards to create the authoring and collaboration environments for the publications of the future.

What’s also interesting is how much of the magazine will be downloaded offline (like the podcast, App Store model) and how much of it will rely on a web connection. And how big will a Sports Illustrated filled with high res images and HD video be? Probably more than 1G. How does that impact your immediate reading experience?

Photo-/Videographers

Another thought is that because most of the publications are not as space constrained as print media, they can allow much more space for beautiful photography and video material (as the Sports Illustrated issue does). Depending on the compensations paid, the increased demand could at least herald an interesting new age for professional photographers.

Future

I’m interested in what Hammersley will write as a solution to all this. I have no experience in print and am writing this as a bystander with an interest in the web.

  1. And interested in open platforms.

7 thoughts on “Necessities for digital magazines”

  1. Good one, Alper. I love these kinds of practical questions as they act as process catalysts.

    Your view is on rendering technologies. If asked to model the problem, I’d split it in three areas,
    1) Authoring environments. These should be very rich in input capabilities; able to cover a multitude of functions and devices as you design a magazine; handle rich media very well. I could see a new hybrid of a whole bunch of Adobe tools (InDesign, Flex, Premiere, …)
    2) Rendering tools. These need to be lightweight, fluid, support pristine image and font rendering, and work according to some kind of standard in performance and functions (font sizing, …) that you can rely on as a publisher.
    but many questions posed in these two areas boil down what’s really the core thing to solve:
    3) Format. What kind of format is rich enough to convey what the concepts show but doesn’t need to get all specific? Both HTML5 and Flash seem way to specific. We may not want to hardcode swiping animations, but let the rendering tools take care of that. Same for zooming behavior, same for text re-flowing according to a rich set of guidelines (parenthesizing rules, minimum/maximum flow sizes, etc). A toolkit or library around HTML5 (i.e., HTML5 augmented with a javascript/CSS library) and/or around Flash is an avenue I would see working. The library would take a bunch of resources in a specific format (or folder structure, taking a cue from iTunes LP) and take care of things.

    How about we organize a little espresso-shop back-of-the-napkin get-together to sketch it through and come up with something?

  2. I think the biggest issues around rich magazines is the content itself. It combines the expertises related to “radio”, “television” and magazines. Where the production is one thing, the understanding of the value and “best use cases” for each and mixed is another.

    I (as usual) do not agree with your view on neither Flash or HTML 5. To me the biggest issues regarding both are not the openness. (HTML 5 is as closed as Flash as the browser itself renders the content in a black box and thus you are dependent on the parties delivering those browsers to be able to implement stuff – and they all have their own implementation of CSS, JavaScript, DOM and specific tags like Video)
    The main reason why Flash still sucks are these:
    1) Slow and processor intensive rendering of visuals using your CPU instead of your GPU
    2) Crappy memory management / inefficiency in resource management

    HTML 5:
    1) mainly suffers from a lack of “one approach serves all types of browsers”

  3. @Taco:
    The biggest opportunity would be in making a web based authoring environment with rich collaboration features built in.

    I think most of the questions are already answered and will fill themselves in. What remains to be done is to make a HTML facsimile demo of the UI in Mag+ to show that it is possible. If there is a likely Javascript library that handles multi-touch and animations, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

    But of course an espresso-back-of-the-napkin session is always cool!

    @Peter:
    Yes, the authoring competencies and the bleed over from the various disciplines is going to be a very difficult organization problem for the coming years. The merger of NRC and het Gesprek could be a precursor to these developments if they can create significant synergy.

    If we set aside the technical and UX issues (yes performance-wise it is a disaster), Flash is still a nonstarter from a business perspective.

    Firstly there is such a plethora of diverse Flash technologies and marketing bs both on the Adobe website and outside that it is nearly impossible to make heads of tales out of the platform fragmentation, capabilities, device support, authoring support etc. It’s a fucking mess.

    Besides your claim that HTML is closed on a similar level has no merit. Flash is controlled by a single entity with a vested interest in platform lock in. HTML is an open and joint effort by implementing parties. If that is not an obvious difference, I don’t know what is.

  4. Good points all. I recognize a lot in the thoughts of Hammersley. It is sad to read that there seems a lot the same as ten years ago when I worked within a publishing company. We had to strip Quark Express documents to the bare content and copy them into the CMS system to make a valuable web publication. The final versions of the content where edited in the repro-ready-files.
    The challenge was to turn the process around and let the editors work in a central database for the content and the art department work separately from the content. Divided content and form, something we preach in online magazines for years, is harder for traditional magazines.

    I am positive however that the transitions are made. I know that within that same company the process is turned around and sharing content via different media has become easy. And the same editors are responsible for different media. That is a start.
    Next phase will be telling a story in a new way. Like the examples shown. Luckily journalists see more and more the value of adding moving content, nice graphs etc. It will however take some time it is fully integrated in the content making, and even as important, the workflow.

    The front-end technology is maybe not even the most important. The way we are gonna let editors and art directors work together, or merge into new disciplines is one. Something that is a difficult concept as the move away from crossmedia publishing by PCM shows.

    Last issue are the investments that are necessary for such media neutral publishing. This will be a hurdle for smaller titles. And that is especially the movement that is going on for years now with a cheaper paper publishing process. I hope smart mashups between open technologies can help there.

  5. @Alper – I notice a strong biased vision in your opinions regarding HTML 5 and Flash.
    To avoid a conversation similar to “PC sucks, Mac is superior / Mac sucks PC is superior” I state that both suck and both are promising. Both have their uses, misuses and misconceptions.

    I left the DHTML / Ajax / CSS camp years ago due to the inconsistant and sometimes incompatible mess that the makers of web-browser made and make of this. [HTML + CSS + JavaScript] is something that could have been totally awesome by now. This incompatibility is still there and not only because of Microsoft.

    I started using Flash because I was sick of the crappy and unreliable implementation of it all (Netscape tended to introduce new fuck ups every new .0x release that sometimes even countered previous implementations) and because Flash is fairly stable on all platforms regarding workings, styling and “what you created is what is been shown to your audience”.

    Each argument from both Flash and HTML side is counterable, as they approach and (attempt to) solve the same issues from two slightly different angles. Each platform can be used to build amazing online magazines and if you want to elaborate on Flash vs HTML5 I suggest we start a separate thread and make one single document with our combined knowledge to end it all.

  6. I don’t get it. I’m not convinced the whole concept of a magazine has any meaning in digital form. Aren’t blogs the real digital magazines? As Marissa Meyer said: the article not the newspaper is the new building block of news consumption. I don’t see how the rise of smartphones and tablets could change that, and the fact that digital magazines have always been a fad, being an answer to a flawed question: how to publish bundles of paper content in digitized form – ignoring the way the web has fundamentally changed both publishing and consuming content. The web will adapt to new screens and platforms; probably and hopefully evolving from the current networked infrastructure that is the blogosphere. I see little value in new, expensive and complex publishing methods that would only be accessible to the happy few. I realize that the popularity of iPhone apps is unsupportive of my argument, but the mobile web will – have to – catch up.

  7. @Peter: Yes, I am a proud supporter of the Open Web: http://codinginparadise.org/weblog/2008/04/whats-open-web-and-why-is-it-important.html

    @Jaap: I believe the concept of a magazine or any other publication has several layers of meaning which are ill served by blogs and may be valuable enough to recreate in a new form on a tactile high resolution device (though it is more probable that new and currently unimagined applications of these tablets will blow the whole digital magazine thing away).

    Right now what I don’t see most blogs doing is applying rigid editorial oversight to create richly multimedial, aesthetically pleasing content that is directly monetizable and tightly integrated with the editorial workflow.

    You could do any and all of these things on a blog, but it’s nowhere near common practice. Why is that? I think the externalities and the experience of creating and consuming content online in its current form make it very unattractive to do so.

    It remains to be seen whether digital magazines will have a very long life on devices (like I said maybe other experiences will be more interesting or make more money) but there is a large group of people with an established practice in the publishing profession who could use this device trend as a path forward to the digital age. That alone makes it both interesting and worthwhile, I think.

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