Two different conversations I've had this week brought to the forefront an issue that is at the center of the tablet publishing debate: replicas versus native app design. By looking at what book publishers are doing, publishers of newspapers and magazines might be able to work out their own tablet strategy.
This post by Jakob Nielsen about the Kindle Fire has gotten a fair amount of attention for the criticism it levels at the new 7-inch tablet.
"The most striking observation from testing the Fire is that everything is much too small on the screen, leading to frequent tap errors and accidental activation. You haven't seen the fat-finger problem in its full glory until you've watched users struggle to touch things on the Fire," Nielsen writes.
Later Nielsen says about magazines found in the Kindle Fire that they simply don't seem to work. "The magazine reading experience could be good but actually is miserable because the content isn't designed for the device or for interactive reading."
But this is nothing new. The objections voiced here really apply to the kinds of magazines being released for these smaller tablets, whether they are the Motorola XOOM or the BlackBerry PlayBook. Yet publishers seem eager to release replica editions for these small tablets, as well as for smartphones. For me, Hell is where you are forced to read material on a mobile device, forever.
So why are publishers releasing these replicas for small tablets? I think the answer is simply convenience. It is easy to create a replica for all the new tablets being released by Apple competitors. If you are a magazine publisher on a budget – and who isn't – having an cheap and easy solution that covers all new tablets seems fantastic.
The second conversation that involved this topic was one I just concluded with Mark Gross, President and CEO of Data Conversion Laboratory, a company that provides electronic document conversion services. The question of eBooks and apps was asked (see interview tomorrow): is the electronic book publishing industry moving towards two kinds of digital products: eBooks and apps, and will these two merge at some point?
The recently released biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is a good example to look at. Reading the book in ePub format on a Kindle or iPad is acceptable, but the use of this format on the iPad is like driving to the grocery store in a Ferrari. Where are the photos and videos of Jobs giving keynote addresses? Where is the audio from the interviews Isaacson conducted? I don't want this material interactive on my eReader, but it would feel at home on my iPad.
Likewise, reading magazines that are not converted into a more text friendly format on a 7-inch tablet is like driving a 40-year old Pinto cross country. You might get there, eventually, but it more likely that either you or the car will burn out first.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Kindle Edition format, or rather the ePub format, is not sufficient today for magazine publishers. Any magazine simply converted into text seems a non-starter, and so the alternative is seen as the replica edition rather than creating native apps for every sized tablet in the market.
In my opinion, the Kindle Fire is no worse a reading experience than the Motorola XOOM – they are both poor when reading an 11-inch magazine reduced down. On the other hand, I can read my Kindle Store books fine (though it isn't as pleasant an experience as it was on my old eInk Kindle).
Tech writers can talk all they want about the poor scrolling found on many Android tablets, but this isn't as big a deal as the size issue. Let's face it, Apple hit a home run when they went with the 9.7 inch display. Many people thought it was too big and that Apple's competitors would beat Apple by introducing a smaller tablet – there are even rumors that continue to swirl around about Apple introducing a smaller sized iPad. It's possible but I would consider it highly unlikely.
Of course, magazine executives are being hired and fired for their commitments to digital, so what are you to do? Isn't it better to launch first and ask questions later? It is if you have an endless budget for tablet editions.
For me, the answer lies in creating the best possible product for the device that it is to be consumed on. For the iPad there are many digital publishing solutions available, and the costs are dropping as companies attempt to attract publishing customers. For the smaller tablets, the solution may be to look at these devices more as eReaders than as tablets. Looking at it from this perspective the question a publisher might ask a vendor would be "what digital publishing solutions do you have for the Kindle and NOOK?"
But the urge to create one-size fits all publishing solutions is very strong. You've designed your magazine for print, you don't want to redesign it again for digital – hence the continued life of the online Flash flipbook, probably the most worthless product ever shoved down the throats of a publisher.
But here is my word of caution: a poor digital product will be blamed on the publisher, not the tablet. Here is a typical review of Hearst's Popular Mechanics edition for the Kindle Fire (spelling corrected):
Like the previous reviewer, I've canceled my subscrition due to the poor compatability of the layout of the pages of this magazine with the Kindle. The text is broken into multiple columns, sidebars, and boxes which are difficult to continually scroll and resize to read, there is no provision to zoom into photos, etc. I was really looking forward to using my Kindle Fire not only for reading books, but magazines, too. Unfortunately, until the magazine publishers start formating their emagazines to optimize them for viewing on a reader or computer screen, I guess I'll just keep waiting.
Notice that the reviewer didn't blame Amazon for the poor reading experience, they blamed the publisher.