Mashable’s Lauren Indvik writes about magazine apps looking bad on the new iPad. She mostly refers to publishers who wanted to retain print-like magazine design and therefore cunningly churned out rendered PNG or JPEG files for each page, rather than using native text. Now the new iPad has a resolution far greater than that of its predecessor, these magazines all look like blurry crap.
Indvik lists a bunch of examples, stating they all looked terrible, and noted that Vogue was the sole exception, because the company
was able to optimize for the iPad’s “retina display” ahead of time
She then worries about file-sizes, stating that magazine apps are already big enough, and so we could see titles ballooning to unworkable levels. The problem is in the methodology used to create the apps:
Magazine publishers who use Adobe’s software all begin with InDesign to develop layouts, [Zeke Koch, senior director of product management of Adobe’s digital publishing arm] explained. Those layouts can then be exported in three different kinds of formats: as images (.png or .jpg), PDF or HTML. Different kinds of files — images, for instance, or video and audio files — are embedded within those larger file types.
Since magazines began publishing on tablets, “virtually all” publishers have chosen to export their digital editions as PNG (.png) files, Koch said. “The primary reason they did that is because the fidelity is perfect. What you see on the desktop when you’re designing is exactly what you see on the iPad when you’re finished. Images are the fastest thing to load, and if you’re trying to create a quick, effortless browsing experience, images are the way to do that,” he explained.
One of the magazines I write for, Tap!, took a wildly different approach. Instead of designing its app by thinking like magazine designers, the team started with a blank canvas and designed an app (YouTube). It developed a publishing platform that works on the iPad (TechRadar), to create a digital magazine for the iPad. The net result is that Tap! looks great on the new iPad, largely because it’s using native text rather than rendering to flat images. It looks so good that a prominent UX designer I recently chatted with initially refused to believe me when I said the app had not yet been optimised for the new iPad.
The Tap! team isn’t blind to Apple’s new device. It is working to optimise those relatively few components that require optimising for the next issue, but because of the nature of the app itself, it will grow rather more subtly than its contemporaries. To my mind, this is a way forward: create something new and don’t root yourself in publishing’s past. This is why the following claim from Indvik’s article almost makes my brain explode:
What Vogue did — and what all other titles will have to do in the coming weeks — is begin exporting their digital editions as PDFs, said Koch.
Great. Bin any innovation in magazine apps in terms of navigation and new interfaces and return to literal virtual versions of magazines. And it doesn’t end there:
But what about file size? I pointed out to Koch that Vogue was nearly as large as Wired‘s first issue for the original iPad. Unfortunately, he said, magazine files will be larger for iPad 3 readers because the image and video files need to be delivered at a higher resolution.
There are ways around this. Tap! doesn’t hold videos locally, but pulls them down on demand. From a user experience standpoint, this does mean if you’re on a crappy connection you can’t watch the videos, but it also means that a few issues of the magazine don’t fill up your iPad. It’s about balance, which, to my mind, is what a lot of the future of publishing is about. Trying to cling on to the old ways of doing things will prove fatal to the industry.
Indvik does at least ask about an alternative in her piece, essentially treating mag apps as compiled websites:
But why not render in HTML? I asked Koch. Wouldn’t that make the files smaller, and give readers the added benefit of selectable text?
Koch claimed that publishing in HTML wouldn’t substantially reduce the file sizes. “In both cases, you have a bunch of words, and descriptions of where things should be, and multimedia. Those multimedia files are still the same size.”
I’d argue this is inaccurate. Native text is smaller than rendering text to flat images—even newbie web designers understand this. It’s also ignoring the accessibility drawbacks of rendering to flat images.
To be fair to Koch, he’s also talking about overall file sizes, because assets like video won’t drop in size, but I’ve already addressed this point. But he also makes an argument that is the crux of the matter, showcasing why so many publishers are working with systems that are not optimal for tablets:
He said the big disadvantage with HTML is that it’s “not very good at layout out things predictably and perfectly.” Rather, it’s optimal for helping people create content that will adapt to any size screen. [sic]
This pretty much sums things up: ‘predictably and perfectly’. Almost everything in digital magazine publishing reminds me of web design in the mid-1990s. Back then, I had to fight hard against people who would attempt to render entire web pages as images, because this would enable everything to be laid out precisely. Never mind the fact this screwed things up from an accessibility perspective, and also totally ignored the benefits of the new medium. But at least there was some excuse back then—browsers were basic and no-one had experience to draw on. The arguments were new. Today’s web standards, however, provide a ton of control from a typographical and layout standpoint, but things are just different to how they are in print. You define anchor points and containers within which your content can move and shift, reflowing depending on the needs of the user.
But the thing is, Tap! showcases that you needn’t just jump from PNG to PDF to HTML: there are alternatives to all of these things that give you enough precision while also providing accessible content that enables you to keep more than a couple of issues on your iPad before being forced to delete your entire music collection. Again: try something new. Build for the medium. Start with a blank canvas, not a readymade that essentially forces you into a particular way of working that is not optimal.
The article’s conclusion is particularly maddening in this respect:
So there you have it. Magazine readers need not despair about the appearances of their magazines for too much longer, as publishers are working to optimize their editions. The fix is relatively simple: publishers will have to increase the resolution of their image and video files, and export their digital editions as PDFs. iPad 3 owners will have to suffer longer download times, and won’t be able to store as many magazines on their devices as iPad 1 and 2 owners, but that’s the price one pays for a visually stunning reading experience, no?
No. That’s the price we pay for publishers not following Apple’s own advice and thinking different, instead choosing to cling to the wreckage of essentially deprecated ways of working.