Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Project: the developers have conducted a coup d'état, and now editors and writers are slaves to the programmers

Have you ever received a magazine in the mail where the trimmer was misaligned and all the pages ended up stuck together? It's very rare, of course, but when it happens it kind of ruins the whole magazine experience, doesn't it? That's what reading Project is like sometimes.
Project is the tablet-only (actually, iPad-only, since there is no Android app) magazine from Virgin Digital Publishing. TNM looked at the first issue produced back in November and was generally kinder to the publication than many of the traditional media writers -- but then again they are fighting hard to convince their colleagues not to develop for the iPad.

Unfortunately, with issue three the developers appear to have taken over and what has been produced is a bit like that print magazine with its pages not trimmed -- it is exceedingly hard to read.

Once again the magazine opens with a video cover. This time we have Stephen Colbert and a nude model doing . . . something. But the video can not hide the fact that they people involved here don't look very happy. Check it out yourself, the model is lucky she didn't have a heart attack.
The silly cover aside, I struggled to get past the first page, an ad from Lexus. As I swiped to go to page two I became stuck. The ad is creative enough, a Lexus swinging from a hook. But the ad's motion was jerky and scrolling was not smooth. Is this the fault of the agency or a lack of computing power by my first generation iPad?

Worse, I simply could not exit the page by swiping to go to the TOC. I was stuck. I tapped the page hoping that the navigation tools on the bottom would pop up and I could use those to move on. No luck. I was dead in the water.

I stopped the app by hitting the home button and the powered down my iPad. It had been a while since I rebooted the thing, so I felt now was a good time to get a fresh start. By the way, a lot of users are so used to the instant-on feature of their iPhone or iPad that they forget they have an actual computer in their hands, and like any computer it needs to be rebooted occasionally.

So now I was back live and went immediately into the app again. Damn, that cover video is on again! OK, onto the ad. OK, a little better, but still jerky. Swipe . . . and . . . nothing. Yikes.

A tap did bring up the navigation tools this time so I could move on, but this was not good. On I went as page after page challenged the ability of my iPad to render and properly display the magazine. Come on guys, give my iPad a break!

Seven Publishing's Marc Langsman and Jolyon Segal are listed as the magazine's digital producers, with Michael Pledger as the lead developer. These guys should be listed at the top of the editorial credits page because the developing here is far more obvious and apparent than the editorial content. The writers and editors are taking a back seat as the developers drive the car -- and its heading towards a wall.

By the way, issues are now only 99 cents so if you have not checked Project out yet it won't now is a pretty good time to do it. The app itself is free. The latest issue was around 335 MB and took awhile to download, and then to install. It is continues to be one of the drawbacks of these native magazine apps. But the app works in both portrait and landscape and all the media is there for you for offline reading. This is certainly one of those magazine app that will wow fellow travelers on a long distance flight -- and consequently sell more iPads for Apple.

The funny thing here is that issue three of Project was created for the first generation iPad. On the magazine's website blog the editors playfully consider what the new, more powerful iPad 2 will allow them to create in future issues:
Still, it’s set us thinking . . . specifically: what can Project do with the iPad 2′s new features? By the end of March we’ll have two cameras, a gyroscope and a faster processor to play with – but what does that mean? So far, our slightly jetlagged brainstorm has suggested:
- “…a live FaceTime webcam of us, y’know, actually typing a feature.”
- ”…the ability to walk round a 360º, 3D, full-length image of Megan Fox, scrutinising her every feature.”
- “…some sort of haircut-judging service.”
- “…exactly the same stuff we did before, but with a white bezel.”
I shutter to think what they will come up with.

This situation reminds me of when Shockwave was first created and was being demoed on primitive websites. The animated content took forever to load on dial-up connections and then the things would simply explode on your screen -- and occasionally crash your computer.

Programming has often been one step ahead of the hardware required to render it properly. That is certainly the case here. But this is where experience publishers and editors need to step in and remind the creatives that the user experience is what counts. Developers shouldn't create magazines for fellow developers, they are supposed to be for the readers.