May 312010
 

(This is the second part of our three part review – here is the first part)

Wired Magazine has made a name for itself with its slightly edgy and forward-looking journalism and commentary on how technology affects culture, economy, and politics. Founded in 1993, and now owned by media giant Condé Nast, the magazine has won a number of awards, not only for its stories, but also for its design.

It comes as no surprise then that Wired Magazine appointed itself to be on the cutting edge of new media publishing, and decided to launch a ‘state-of-the-art’ electronic version of its magazine, making best and full use of the features and interactivity open to it on the iPad.   The magazine’s editor in chief, Chris Anderson, said that they wished their iPad edition to be a ‘game changer’, and by all accounts they invested heavily in developing a whole new magazine presentation/paradigm (or so they claimed), and spent a year working closely with Adobe (who were creating the underlying tools to drive the new format’s interactive capabilities) developing the new e-format which finally appeared on Wednesday of this week as an electronic version of their June 2010 magazine.

Rather like the iPad itself, there was a lot of hype associated with the release of Wired’s e-magazine.  In the 24 hours immediately following its release, 24,000 copies of the e-magazine were purchased.  That sounds like a lot; indeed, it is.  It probably represents about one in every 80 iPad owners buying a copy (there are now 2 million iPads sold).

But there’s another way of viewing this number.  To put it in a different perspective, the magazine has approximately 672,000 subscribers and sells an extra 82,000 single copies on newsstands every month.  So the first day’s sales represent 3% of their print sales – I don’t know how many additional copies they will sell during the rest of the one-month life of the magazine, but guess that if they sold 24,000 in the first day, they might in total manage to sell somewhere between 40,000 – 50,000 copies.

Financial implications

To look first at the financial implications, selling 50,000 copies electronically would bring them a net return of about $175,000 for the month (after paying 30% to Apple’s iTunes store).  In addition, boosting their total circulation by about 5% may allow them to charge a slight premium to their current advertisers who are now getting extra distribution.  In addition, nine of their advertisers probably paid more for the ability to augment the electronic versions of their advertisements.  Perhaps, in total, there might be almost a $200,000 benefit flowing through to Wired as a result of this single issue.

That is not to say this would be sustainable for each subsequent month as well – was the initial rush of people buying copies of the launch issue merely people curious about what it was, or people who are committed to ongoing readership (at $5/month)?  However, and based on nothing more than information about the first day of sales and a lot of guesswork, there could be a gross annual contribution to Wired’s bottom line of $1.5 million or more from its e-publication.

From that number will need to come the additional creative costs of editing the content from the print form to the slightly altered and occasionally expanded form for the electronic publication.

So, all in all, a net contribution perhaps of maybe $1,000,000 a year – not a great deal of money, and from Condé Nast’s point of view, hardly the savior or the game changer they are hoping for, and which they need.

Furthermore, one has to wonder how sustainable this business model is, when most of the information that is being sold for five dollars an issue is available for free on their website, or can be read in the regular print magazine, for which subscription prices are available for as little as 83c an issue.  90% of their print readers at present are paying vastly less than five dollars an issue for the print publication, and no one has been paying anything at all to access their content online.

It is far from certain what impact this new e-publication will have on their business model, longer term.  It is more likely that current readers of the print publication may migrate over to the e-publication, and perhaps a very few might choose to subscribe to both, but only if a combined subscription was offered at a fair price.

The reader experience

And what about us, the readers?  Is this the first of a new wave of ‘killer apps’ that the iPad so desperately needs?

The first challenge was downloading the file.  Whereas most eBooks range in size from 100kB to 1 MB, this single issue of Wired is a massive 527MB in size.  This is so huge that you can’t download it via 3G (which limits downloads to 10MB), only via Wi-fi or by downloading it to your computer and then synching it to the iPad.  Either way, downloading it is a problem, and can be more of a problem if your iPad has the strange Wi-Fi connectivity bug (which both of mine have had so far).

527MB for a single issue of a magazine?  You’ll surely not be storing many back-issues on your iPad at that sort of size!  Chances are that you only have 10GB – 20GB of free space on your iPad to start with – taking up over half a gigabyte per issue will soon leave you with no space remaining.

The reason for the huge file size is that everything is downloaded to the iPad so that nothing needs to subsequently be downloaded while reading the file.  If you see an embedded video and click on it, it instantly runs from the locally downloaded video file.  And so on.  One can understand the reason for wishing to have everything on the iPad; it makes for a much faster and more interactive user experience.  But it sure does also make for a massive download.

In reading the ePub, the first thing that struck me was that it was very analogous to the print magazine.  It was ‘linear’ – unlike the Internet, where any given webpage typically contains many links to many other webpages, allowing you to read through something in a semi-random manner, there were no links in this ePub at all.  No links to other pages within the ePub, no links to external content.  Apart from a somewhat obscured contents listing, the only way to navigate through the ePub was page by page by page.

This is actually even more limiting than in the print publication.  At least, in the print publication, you can quickly skim through, and while there are some methods of attempting to re-create the skim-through in the ePub, the overall result  is very linear and traditional, even if the graphics and layout are not so traditional.

Interestingly, the ePub tries to closely match the look and feel of the print magazine, preserving similar page layouts, and also including all the advertisements that were in the print publication.  My feeling about the advertisements is a bit like advertisements on television.  If one goes to a different country, to start with the advertisements are interesting and different, and one finds them entertaining and diverting.  But quickly, the advertisements become intrusive and unwanted and uninteresting (just like at home); and in the case of this ePub, to start with I found the advertisements interesting, but I can’t help wondering if after a while, they would start to become obtrusive and interfere with the user experience.  In particular, the advertisements are even more prominent in the ePub than in the magazine, with more of the logical ‘pages’ in the ePub being advertisements than in the regular magazine.

The reason that the advertisements appear more prominently in the ePub is because typically you scroll horizontally through the ePub to go from article to article, and scrolling through advertisements between articles.  But to read an article, you then start scrolling vertically down the page.  So in terms of the horizontal scroll, more of the logical pages are advertising than editorial content.

There were a number of added extra features in some of the articles and advertisements.  There was the ability to get 360° views of some objects, there were a number of embedded videos, and there was even a music track on one piece.  There were some other interactive features as well, whereby you could for example click on objects or numbers in a graphic and have a related panel switch its content to match the relevance of the selected object in the graphic.

A lot of these added value features felt a little artificial and forced and gimmicky.  They felt unnatural, and seemed to be artificially introduced into the process, more for the sake of the effect itself, then for truly adding value to the storyline.  It reminded me a bit of early color television programs.  There was a very self conscious and unnatural feeling to the color.

Possibly this effect will go away as the designers and content providers become more familiar with the new features and capabilities and integrate them more closely into the stories.  However, this raises an interesting issue – writing for this new format will increasingly be different than writing for a ‘flat’ print publication, and if the new media and its new potential is to be best developed, writers will not be able to use the same story the same way for both formats.

Sometimes these extra features interfered with the scrolling experience, of moving between pages.  And sometimes, one would look for some interactivity in an image, but fail to find it, and then be disappointed.  Yes, I know, often I can see my glass as half empty rather than half full!  But with sometimes only subtle clues as to whether there was some added value and interactivity in an image, readers necessarily would have to be experimenting on most images to see which ones had something extra concealed within them.  A more obvious indication of added value content would be a good idea.

Is it really the start of a new usage paradigm? Is it really revolutionary?  Probably not. Is it worth $5? Again, probably not.


The future

Wired has this to say :

Over the next few months, we’ll integrate social media and offer a variety of
versions and ways to subscribe in digital form. We’ll learn through
experimentation, and we will watch closely as our readers teach us how
they want to use tablets.

Translation
– you’ll be able to comment on articles direct from your iPad.  Maybe reader comments will also display on the iPad (but there goes the ‘no need for realtime downloading’ concept).  And look for discounted ongoing subscriptions, to be sold directly to you from Wired, presumably cutting out Apple and their 30%.

Summary

This is a noble experiment, but flawed in its execution and presentation.  Most significantly, the underlying concept that a single article can be presented in both print and ePub format with little or no change is one that will increasingly prove to be flawed.  A different style of writing is called for to match the different means of presentation.

Perhaps worth $5 to have a look at, but not worth $60 a year to subscribe to.

Without a doubt, in another six months or so, there will be much better and more mature use made of the capabilities of tablet style devices.  As such, this ePub is an initial step on a long journey rather than a complete mature expression of the new ‘best practice’ of writing and designing articles for tablets.

Kudos to Wired for their experiment, even if it is only partially a success.


Click to go to the third part of this series which has sample screenshots.

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