Tuesday, September 7, 2010

National Geographic magazine opts for taking the middle road; going with a branded app from a digital newsstand

The term "middle of the road" is usually used when describing music that is not offensive, and very boring. MOR, as it is often written, isn't quite "bubble gum" but it is not taken very seriously, either.
This is the approach, I suppose, of the new National Geographic Magazine app for the iPad. Created by Zinio, this free app is essentially a promotion piece for buying the magazine through Zinio's digital newsstand. The user downloads the app and immediately gets a few pages of the latest issue to entice them to buy the real thing -- though the first issue is free after registering with Zinio.
Is this a blatant attempt at bait-and-switch? No, I don't think so myself, but lots of iPad users who are writing reviews inside the iTunes app store seem to think so as the app is getting quite a number of one-star reviews.

(It is sometimes hard to judge the sincerity of both the five-star and one-star reviews inside the app store. But one way to get a better feel about a reviewers judgement is to click on their name to see their other reviews -- for instance, are they all one-star? all five-star? An example would the very first review on this app. The reviewer has all five-star reviews, and all magazines -- very strange. The next guy only shows two reviews -- a one-star review for this app, and a five-star review for the Zinio app. Make of that what you will.)

Replica apps must be a nightmare for art directors. You spend all that time making your layouts fit the confines of the printed page and then when you see the magazine on an iPad suddenly the whole experience is lost.

The National Geographic Magazine app is a good example. If you are reading an article in portrait mode and flip to the next page you may end up landing on the first page of a photo spread such as the one at left. In landscape mode one immediately sees the layout as it was originally designed. But in portrait mode the layout does not work. The same is true in reverse: landscape mode in a replica edition is great for two page spreads that contain large pictures, or designs that cross the gutter, but when the digital page contains text from an article on one side, and an ad on the other, the whole experience is ruined by pinching and zooming in and out.

What many publishers and developers are failing to grasp is one simple rule: there is no such thing as a two-page spread on a tablet -- it is just one digital page.