Friday, July 9, 2010

Hearst's Popular Mechanics releases iPad 'showcase' app

A few weeks ago Hearst unloaded its share of the start-up Skiff to Rupert Murdoch and (imo) may have decided that competing with Apple and Google in tablet technology was a pretty bad idea. Let Murdoch try his lock with Skiff, Hearst will move forward with developing tablet solutions for its print products.
One of the very first to appear on the iPad is Popular Mechanics. If this app is any indication, Hearst has made the right decision as this app is one of the very best examples of magazines for the device.

The new app is fairly priced at $1.99 -- a significant discount over the cover price of $3.99, but still higher than a print subscription will cost you. (The Popular Mechanics website lists a one-year print subscription at $12, a three-year commitment will cost you $28. If you want to read the magazine on your PC, phone or tablet, you can buy a subscription through Zinio for $12 -- you'll get a flipbook version of the magazine, far less than the iPad version has to offer, but you will be able to read the magazine on multiple devices, and Zinio's iPad app is at least well designed compared to some of the others being offered by third parties.)

The Popular Mechanics app features both simple animation (click on picture at left), as well as more complicated layouts.

The result is that the reader has a choice of three very different products: a print magazine that can also be accessed through Zinio, a website which is (frankly) not very attractive, and a new tablet magazine that combines the print edition with interactivity. My preference would be for the tablet version which tells you that this is a very well designed application.

Like the iPad magazine for Infiniti I wrote about earlier this week, the app does a good job with video and interactive animation. Here, however, the app is of a modest size -- only around 27 MB -- meaning that the reader will need an Internet connection to see the video content.

Left: Tech Watch feature with a video player embedded; Middle: Interactive Earthquake Finder forces the reader into the landscape mode to view the animation; Right: an ad for the History Channel with an embedded video.
need an Internet connection to see the video content.

My one big -- very big -- complaint about the Popular Mechanics app is that it is not a complete issue of the magazine. "This first Popular Mechanics app is not a complete issue of the magazine; it is a showcase for what will be produced monthly starting later this year," Hearst states in its press release. This is a bad decision in my view. Releasing a partial magazine may have taken some of the pressure off of Hearst as it tries to launch its tablet apps, but it is dissing readers who will expect that they are getting a real look at the magazine. It would have been better to present the rest of the magazine in a less interactive form. Publishers should not shy away from presenting text to iPad owners -- most books are being presented without any interactivity at all and this is not presenting iPad owners from buying them in large numbers.

I think Hearst was feeling a bit of pressure to launch something -- you get that feeling in their press release:

“Popular Mechanics lives in the tech world, so we really wanted to examine what’s already in the market in order to do ours right,” notes Jim Meigs, editor-in-chief. “While our first app is mainly a test issue to see how PM translates to the iPad, we believe our readers and the technologically curious will be entertained and informed by what we’ve created.”

As someone deeply involved in the media world, I can appreciate the idea of experimentation -- I just don't think readers like to feel like guinea pigs. Hearst is promising enhanced monthly issues of their magazines (or at least some of their magazines) by the end of the year. In the meantime we have this "showcase" -- a very good app, but not a complete magazine. One can only conclude that the company is staffing up for the new electronic media formats after previously moving in a somewhat different direction with its Skiff project.

Hearst has also released a YouTube demo video of their first app:

One interview that has stayed in the can because I've scaled back my activities here at TNM is my interview with James Sweeney, editor of the tablet-only magazine Sideways. You can find the first of three posts I did in June here.

Well, Sideways is out with its July issue. It is still $3.99 and you can find it in iTunes here. The issue appears to move the magazine towards being a more iPad-centric publications -- that is, what is the one thing all readers will have in common? Owning an iPad, duh. Good move.