Thursday, May 19, 2011

Playboy magazine finds a natural home on the iPad, but HTML solution is not as optimal as a native application

The App Store seems to be acting up for me, preventing me from downloading new media apps, so this is a good time to look deeper into Playboy's browser based tablet solution.

America has serious issues with sex. Over half a century after the founding of Playboy magazine, America still is both obsessed and repelled by it. The nation watched as a President, overseeing the most prosperous era in the nation's history, was impeached over sex. Now the majority party in the House is working to end reproductive rights for women, including the right to contraception.
PhotobucketSo maybe it is fitting that today we are still talking about the magazine Hugh Hefner started in 1953, partially out of a $1,000 loan from his mother (gotta love mothers). Playboy was at one time, but is no more, an important American institution. It was born in the fifties, America's Victorian Age, with a nude picture of Marilyn Monroe no less, and continued growing and improving right into the early seventies.

Playboy, despite its male-centric posture, was a platform for women's rights (and civil rights), even if was the end product of a philosophy that said "nice girls like sex, too."

More importantly, it was symbol of "liberal" America: intellectual, educated, a bit snobby, funny, and sexually adventurous. No wonder that the sixties didn't kill off the magazine, it actually strengthened it. Playboy's editors recognized great authors and plenty of funny men, too, like Woody Allen, and Brooks and Brooks (Mel and Albert), and gave them plenty of space thanks to the magazine's great fiction editors like Robie Macauley. (Macauley left Playboy in 1977 to become a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, clearly a career at Playboy was not considered a negative at the time.)

But that was all so long ago. From a circulation level over 7 million to today where it now is less than a third that, Playboy has fallen on hard times. Many say it was the rise of more accessible pornography that did in the magazine: first competitive magazines that were more raw (think Hustler and Penthouse), then the VHS, and finally the Internet.

I won't argue with that assessment other than to point out one thing: I never thought I'd read another issue of Rolling Stone, but thanks to several provocative articles by writers such as Matt Taibbi I've found myself reading the magazine occasionally, whether in print or online.

Such is the power of great editors that their work can rejuvenate even legacy periodicals. But can Playbook be reborn? Not in print, I would argue. The tablet seems to me to be the perfect platform for the magazine thanks to its display, its multimedia capability, and its portable nature. It is a leisure-time device, as studies have show, and Playboy has always been a leisure-time read.

Left: Peter Sellers on the cover in 1964; Middle: an interview with Miles Davis from 1963; Right: the first cartoon asks "what is the past tense of 'virgin'?."

(Let's stop right here and point out the obvious: many people couldn't care less for this magazine, and are even philosophically opposed to its success. Fine, let's deal with this issue as an exercise in turnaround publishing.)

Although it may be too early to be sure, but it appears that The New Yorker Magazine has found new life thanks to the combination of editing and the iPad. Even without the technical wizardry that is possible on tablets, The New Yorker has found a new, natural home.

I would argue that Playboy, too, is a natural on tablets – and I think the executives at Playboy agree. But the problem is that as of today there is only one game in town, Apple, and that company is the as prudish and backward about sophisticated media as any company out of the fifties. It is not just sex that has the company tied up in knots, but satire, politics, and the like.

Apple's review team is a confused bunch: one the issue involves free speech, the next it is native versus non-native apps. Apple review team is totally inconsistent. Look at the App Store right now: Condé Nast's Vanity Fair is being promoted, a product that uses Adobe's digital publishing solution - not exactly native app development, but not replica editions either.

But Apple's team is also promoting the new app from MagAppZine, New Criterion, a company that says all a publisher need do is submit a PDF and they will create an app. So when Apple says they prefer publishers create native apps you simply can not take them seriously.

I'm quite sure Playboy would have wanted to create a native app rather than their web based solution. Scrolling on the new website is a bit jerky, and my iPad's Safari browser crashed several times while on the site – something that has never happened before.

But would a Playboy iPad app get by the review team? No way.

What Playboy needs is two things: new editorial energy and Android tablets – and, I might add, Google to have a more sophisticated view of the magazine than what could be expected from Apple.

Meanwhile, Playboy will test whether a browser based publishing solution can succeed. I doubt that it will be a good test of the platform, though. From my own perspective, the real lure of subscribing to Playboy via is the access to back issues – current issues do not interest me in the least.


Tablazines said...

So does Playboy use an enhanced elements or does is more like an html5 replica?

Unknown said...

No, it's a replica as you would expect since the purpose here is to get 57 years worth of issues online.

The question going forward, however, is if the team at the magazine begin producing issues with digital in mind now that they have a platform for it.