Too Many Magazine Apps Are Still Walled Gardens

When Wired launched its magazine app for the iPad in May, it got a wave of publicity — in part because it was the first, and also because it released a gee-whiz video pointing out how the ads actually moved, and so on. But now there are more and more iPad magazine apps every day, with Esquire’s only the latest example from the Hearst empire, and one thing is becoming clear: publishers mostly just want you to look at their content, and are hoping that you will forget all about the Internet and social media and all of those irritating things that get in between you and the consumption of their wonderful content.

Everyone talks about how what publishers love about apps is the ability to charge readers for their content again, especially now that Apple says it will allow them to charge subscriptions. But the app economy marks — for now at least — a return to the good old days when the walled-garden approach to publishing was the norm, and the Internet was just some pesky chat room for nerds. Wired’s app provides a slick interface to the magazine, but no way of actually sharing it, or of linking it to related content somewhere else — not even to Wired’s own website. It’s like an interactive CD-ROM from the 1990s.

The new Esquire app also has plenty of “interactivity,” if by that you mean the ability to click and watch an ad for a new Lexus, or listen to cover boy Javier Bardem recite a Spanish poem, or swipe your finger and watch a timeline of the construction of the new World Trade Center. All of those are very cool — but if you are looking for the kind of interactivity that allows you to post a comment on a story, or to share a link via Twitter, or to post anything to a blog and then link back to the magazine, you are out of luck. In fact, if you like the app or any of the stories within it, your only option is to close the app completely and then email someone to tell them that you liked it.

Esquire editor David Granger admits in his editor’s letter for the inaugural iPad issue that magazine apps are “a mixed bag” so far. “They’re convenient, I guess, but boy, some of the added features are either stupid or annoying,” he says — while assuring the reader that the Esquire app is “pretty good [and] it’s certainly not annoying.” I’m going to have to take issue with him there, however; I found it quite annoying in a number of ways.

To take just a few examples, it isn’t clear that you need to tap on the screen once in order to remove the table of contents, which obscures the text and can’t be moved. And whenever you click on the cover image, you have to watch a Lexus ad, or click the “close” button, even if you have seen the ad already. Also, when you click on the Bardem story, it’s not obvious that you have to swipe down to see the rest, rather than swiping to the right (which moves to the next story). If you swipe right and then go back, you get the ad again. And the ad itself, which is a movie clip, first appears as a tiny square, so you have to tap on it and then use the pinch-expand motion to enlarge it — and while the magazine is only viewable in portrait mode, the ad is designed to be viewed in landscape mode.

But even those are mostly just design irritations — the biggest flaw for me is the total lack of acknowledgment that the device this content appears on is part of the Internet, and therefore it is possible to connect the content to other places with more information about a topic, or related material of any kind, let alone any kind of social features that allow readers to share the content with their friends. Some magazines have made some tentative steps in this direction, but so far they are few and far between. Meanwhile, Flipboard and Pulse have taken Twitter and Facebook and RSS and turned them into magazines — and much more appealing ones in many ways.

About the only magazine that has taken any kind of creative steps in this direction with its iPad app is Gourmet magazine, which used the services of Anil Dash’s Activate design consultancy to come up with an interesting experiment: the Gourmet Live magazine app is what Dash calls a “massively multiplayer magazine.” As you read the contents — and share them via Twitter and Facebook — you gain points and thereby “unlock” new content, in the same way a player would in World of Warcraft. The content that is unlocked in some cases is a profile of a specific person or a set of related recipes.

I’m not convinced that the Gourmet Live approach is going to appeal to readers, but at least they are trying something different — and they are taking advantage of being connected to social media and the Internet, instead of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

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