Monday, January 9, 2012

Sandhills Publishing, publisher of Smart Computing, releases a half-dozen apps into Apple's Newsstand

As someone who looks at just about every new magazine or newspaper app for tablets that gets released, one quickly gets jaded by the steady stream of replica editions. I tend to quickly jump to a conclusion about the app and then move on.
One thing that I see all the time is that apps that utilize Apple's Newsstand try and reverse the previous trend of giving away digital products while still charging for print. Newsstand is seen by many publishers as a chance to make up for the decision, made many years ago, to give online readers free access to content.

But some publishers seem trapped in the nineties, still seemingly lost when it comes to their digital strategies – whether on the web or now on tablets.

That is certainly my first impression of these apps from Sandhills Publishing. The publisher of magazines such as Smart Computing and PC Today have launched a half dozen apps for their magazines all of which contain Newsstand support, but all of which give away their magazines for free. (Smart Computing, for instance, charges $29 for an annual subscription online.)

But reading the company's website one gets the idea that the publisher also gives their magazines away to certain locations, so it is possible that Sandhills employs a mixed distribution model. That would help to explain why a company would launch apps into Newsstand but not charge for the issues or for a subscription.

The half-dozen apps are replica editions, but they are also somewhat different in that some layouts are modified to fit the display while in landscape. But each page is a simple jpg or pdf of the page, without any ability to adjust fonts, use pinch-to-zoom, or embed interactive material or links. Without pinch-to-zoom, some pages are simply impossible to read – even taking a screenshot in order to zoom in using Photoshop reveals only a blurry mess.

Without more information one must assume that the business rationale behind these new apps is simply to extend the reach of the brands, as well as the ads inside the magazines. For an alterative weekly, or a free city/regional magazine, this would certainly be a logical.

(It is possible that these apps were created by 3D Issue, the company contracted to produce Flash flipbooks for the magazines – but no mention is made of an outside vendor)

It is always tempting to bash these simple replica apps, especially ones that give away the digital product while continuing to charge for print. But I suppose it is possible that the simple explanation is experimentation, or the need to impress advertisers. Who knows. It is possible that over time these apps will get updates that add in very important features like pinch-to-zoom, or a paid subscription mechanism. Then one could look back at these early apps as simply getting ones foot in the door.

Sandhills, based on the look of their websites, is not a company I would look to when it comes to digital publishing (their own corporate home page looks like an homage to 1995 web design.) But they now have six tablet editions inside Newsstand, something a lot of print publishers can not claim, so let's see where they can go from here.