Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A first look at Vanity Fair's new iPad app

Yesterday the New York Times was able to get a sneak preview of the new iPad app for Condé Nast property Vanity Fair. Today the app appeared in iTunes. Here are some first impressions.

On April 3, the day Apple delivered the Saturday Apple delivered the first iPad to those who had pre-ordered Condé Nast had two apps ready to go -- one for GQ and the other for Epicurious. I gave the Epicurious app a big thumbs up (not literally) on the following Monday for two reasons: the app itself was pretty useful and well designed, but more importantly, the first mover advantage of being there on Day One would pay dividends for the Epicurious brand.

Now, five and a half weeks later, the app for Vanity Fair is ready in time for the June issue of the magazine. The app itself is really two magazines in one: the landscape version of VF is an exact copy of the magazine, while the portrait version is Condé Nast's current take on tablet publishing. The price is the exactly the same as the print edition: $4.99. Some reviewers in iTunes will likely give the app a one-star rating for the fact that the app is not discounted (as has happened with the Time magazine app). But, as you will see, this would be short-sighted of them.

Load times are a bit long, more due to the healthy size of the magazine than any problems with the app itself.

The first thing the user experiences is the loading time: Vanity Fair is not some 32 page trade publication. The inside back cover gives readers a page number of 188, but there are additional unnumbered pages here, as well. As a result, the app takes a while to load. No big deal: in the end you get quite a lot of content.

I can honestly say that loading an issue of Vanity Fair does not make the iPad heavier (yes, I'm kidding). But more seriously, when going on a business trip which would you like to carry around: one iPad, or several magazines the size of Vanity Fair or Vogue? iPad wins every time.

As mentioned, the landscape version of Vanity Fair is an almost exact copy of the print issue. I don't know if the reason for this is the recent rule changes adopted by the ABC governing tablet versions of print editions, or an editorial decision. The new rules state that in order for an iPad version of a magazine to be counted as paid circulation, the tablet version must contain the same content and advertising. The rules, however, say the layouts do not have to be identical.

Despite this, the June issue of Vanity Fair, when viewed in landscape mode is almost identical to the print version, though there is some added content. What is missing, however, are links embedded in the index page. This simple addition could make navigating the landscape version much more pleasurable.

The portrait version of the VF app is where it shines. Navigation is assisted with a Contents button on the top left of the pages that pull down a navigation bar, allowing readers to jump from story to story. (Both the landscape and portrait versions contain a navigation slider on the bottom of the page, as well.)

The first thing users notice immediately is that the advertising now is interactive, containing embedded video and links. The added time Vanity Fair took to launch their first iPad app was time well spent working with advertisers to add interactive content. It is this addition that makes the app worth its price and a good lesson for publishers: if you want to maintain your price point on a mobile device, make sure you put at least some time into the customizing the product. A direct porting over of the print edition, without layout changes or added content will be negatively received.

Ads that appear in portrait mode often have embedded video. The links take you to a new page that contains the added content.

As a reader, I find Vanity Fair hit and miss: one or two stories of interest combined with some mind numbingly banal copy (that's a bit harsh, isn't it?). But this app begins to show the promise of tablet publishing, and because of that I think readers should find it a winner. iPad users are hungry for content, complaining online of the lack of publishers who seem to get the potential of the tablet format. This should be encouraging.

Now, with the iPad entering Europe at month's end we should start seeing different visions of tablet publishing appearing in iTunes -- and summer should see a flood of new apps in the iTunes store, including, we hope, the app from Wired.