Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In the race between the car and the horse, there are some publishers betting on the horse: in some cases, replica editions make a mockery of the tablet platform

Watching the App Store, and in particular, the Newsstand, one sees a lot of new magazine and newspaper apps. Most are unimaginative replica editions sold by vendors taking advantage of the ignorance of publishers. Occasionally one comes across an app that is genuinely worth talking about such as the first tablet edition from Australia's The Intermedia Group – an app that understands what the platform demands of a publication to be "read" on a tablet.

Most replicas, on the other hand, are rather inoffensive. In fact, sometimes a replica is probably the way to go: a magazine that relies on photography, for instance, can look great in replica form as long as the resolution is right.
The replica form has some advantages, of course. They are generally cheaper to produce than native apps, and the production work is limited. Replica makers will say that their replicas can be made interactive. This is absolutely true, but is also irrelevant. A publisher that goes with a replica usually is trying to avoid any additional work and is therefore less likely to make their replicas truly interactive.

If the publisher's goal is a true tablet magazine, one that takes advantage of the tablet's features, the publisher will eventually understand that they need a design system that is dedicated to the platform. A good example of this truth is the original team that worked on the Popular Science iPad app: they first produced digital editions using a replica platform before moving on to create what later became the Mag+ platform. (Read about the history of that app and more here and here.)

But sometimes one sees a replica edition app released into the App Store and one can not help but fall on the floor laughing. "What were they thinking?" is what goes through my head. The answer, of course, is always "they weren't."

Two such media apps appeared this morning: Tips & Tricks Series, a universal Newsstand app that shows a cover talking about the iPad, and Hawaii Drive Guides Magazines, a traveler's guides to the islands. Both apps were sold to their publishers by PixelMags.

If one doesn't see the irony in a digital magazine that talks about the iPad, that is designed for print, but is converted to the iPad... Then there is the driving guide magazine that can not take advantage of GPS, the built-in camera, etc.

Obviously, I could go on forever about why these are such a terrible idea. But does it really matter? There will be many, many more of these. In fact, of the last 300 media apps launched into the Newsstand, almost 90 percent of them appear to be replica editions – music magazines without audio, visual magazines without slideshows or video, travel magazines that don't use location services, etc.

I bet that if these replica makers were around at the end of the twenties they would sold the film studios on their own idea of talkies – a guy standing on the stage reading the intertitles.