Is This Really the Future of Magazines or Why Didn’t They Just Use Html 5?

I just downloaded the Wired iPad application, and like most iPad applications (and most magazines for that matter), I found myself bored with it within the first 20 minutes. I’m sure the content is engaging, I’m sure the articles are worth reading – but I am stumped as to why I would chose this over the physical magazine itself, or their website for that matter. In fact, for reasons I’ll get into below, I’m starting to believe that the physical magazine’s “interface” is vastly superior to it’s iPad cousin.

However, what strikes me most about the Wired app is how amazingly similar it is to a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990′s. This is not a compliment and actually turns out to be a fairly large problem…

1990′s here we come … again

The only real differentiation between the Wired application and a multimedia CD-ROM is the delivery mechanism: you download it via the App Store versus buying a CD-ROM at the now defunct Egg Head store at your local strip mall. And I really mean that comparison. For all of the interactivity that was touted in the Flash prototype, what we’ve really ended up with is a glorified slide show. Instead of the “Next” and “Previous” buttons you might have been used to on those old CD-ROMs of yore, you instead swipe left and right to change pages (well *cough* images of pages).

There are certain interactive elements to the articles, but – and I apologize to all of the people who put in a lot of back breaking work into this – they’re pretty lame. Tapping on a button-looking element switches out part of the page with another image. You can drag your finger across certain images to make them sort of animate like a flipbook (and in truth, that’s what it is – a series of PNG or JPEG images). There are videos you can tap on to view fullscreen. There are audio clips that you can play. The interactivity in the Wired application is very 1990′s. I am not trying to be insulting either, it’s simply the truth. The Wired application has pretty much brought back image rollovers.

And that’s about the extent of the interactivity. Which makes me wonder if that should be the extent of it or should we be wanting more? I don’t have an answer to that, though my gut feeling is that there is a massive opportunity to reinvent the concept of a magazine – yet we end up with something akin to what the web was like in the mid to late 90′s. This basically boils down to a print designer’s vision of what the web should be like – but in this case it’s a print magazine person’s vision of what an interactive magazine should be like.

If you can think back that far, and you were doing web development during that time, you will glumly remember the frustration of web development driven by print design, where pages were essentially huge images cut and sliced and then reconstituted back into insane table structures for pixel perfect layouts. That’s what we’ve essentially gotten with the Wired app: a giant step backwards and a complete dismissal of the lessons we learned from that dark period of interaction design and development.

holy shit, that’s big

With the Wired app weighing in at a whopping 500 megabytes – just 100 shy of a full CD-ROM – how do they intend to maintain new editions of the magazine? 500 MB is too large for a 3G download (no help from AT&T’s less than spectacular network performance) and for those with iPad’s with the smaller storage, each issue will take a significant chunk of space on the device. With no apparent means for managing which issues you keep on your device, this will become huge issue for a lot of people. Obviously they will fix this with updates to the application, but I’m still wondering what they were thinking to begin with. I’m hoping there were voices of dissent that pointed out the end product was not worth it’s weight in megabytes. A PDF version would have been a tenth of the size, though without the interactivity. But is the interactivity worth the 500MB price? I personally don’t think so.

Why is the magazine so large? Being the intrepid hacker that I am (*wink*) I mounted my jail broken iPad via AppleTalk and quickly tore into the app itself to see how it was constructed. Similar to the PopSci+ magazine application, each Wired issue is actually a bunch of XML files that lay out a bunch of images. And by “a bunch of images” I mean 4,109 images weighing in at 397MB.

Each full page is a giant image – there are actually two images for each page: one for landscape and one for portrait mode. Yes, I’m laughing on the inside too. There is no text or HTML, just one gigantic image. The “interactive” pieces where you can slide your finger to animate it are just a series of JPG files. When you press play on the audio file and see the progress meter animate? A series of PNG files.

Something is wrong with this picture. Something wrong and something very lazy and/or desperate.

over architect much? (or how desperation ruins good ideas)

I have no inside knowledge on how the Wired app was produced, so the following is all conjecture on my part. That said, my guess is that Adobe sold Conde Nast on doing the thing in Flash. Or if Adobe didn’t do the selling, some Flash loving technologist at Conde Nast sold them on it. Either way, since Flash CS5 was going to be able to target the iPhone/iPad, they’d be able to publish the thing as it had been shown to the press. But then Steve Jobs came along and threw section 3.1.3 into the iPhone licensing terms and … well … Adobe and Conde Nast were pretty much fucked. So fast forward to this moment in time and the best short term solution they could come up with was some jury rigged XML based layout framework and an epic shit ton of images.

The Wired app isn’t alone in this weird architectural choice either. The PopSci+ magazine is based on a very similar architecture. There are also other magazines that work along the same lines, or simply go the route of PDFs with a customized PDF viewer application.

The problem with these XML + images architectures is that they are essentially reinventing HTML with no added benefit. When I showed the Wired app to a colleague of mine, someone I consider to be one of the top HTML/Javascript developers in NYC, his assessment was the same: Why the heck didn’t they use HTML5? We stepped through each “page” of the Wired application, looked at each interactive piece – but failed to find anything that ruled out the use of HTML and JavaScript.

The argument might be that it needs to be cross platform – the very thing Adobe and Conde Nast were banking on by going with Flash – but guess what? For all of the tablets about to fall on the heads of consumers in the coming years, each one of them uses WebKit. If anything was built for this type of application, it most certainly is WebKit. And even for harder interactivity puzzles – in terms of how do we do X and Y – one can easily hook into WebKit to enable that stuff that might otherwise be more difficult to do in straight HTML + CSS + JavaScript. I have yet to see anything in any magazine application on the iPad that would really require this though.

So why didn’t they choose HTML5 and build a custom viewer application around WebKit? It comes down to either a sense of desperation, a sense of Adobe overselling a bad idea or simply a dumb technology decision. Possibly all three. It certainly isn’t a development challenge and it certainly isn’t because WebKit isn’t capable. I had a thought that perhaps memory management was an issue, but by going with HTML5/WebKit, you wouldn’t be showing pages and pages of huge images – you’d actually be able to build those pages the right way. And doing it this way, in my professional opinion, the magazine itself would be slashed dramatically in size, as well as acting and reacting in ways familiar to people who’ve been browsing the web for the last 15+ years. Furthermore, the cost savings from a production standpoint would be drastically lower as Wired already maintains a staff of web developers. There wouldn’t be an impetus for Adobe to create some “solution” at Conde Nast’s expense and a lot of the great interactivity you saw in the YouTube videos of their prototype could very easily come to life.

But as it stands now, the Wired iPad app is even far behind their own website. That’s embarrassing. Did anyone at Conde Nast look at this and wonder why someone would choose to use this over their very own website? That iPad – unless you are in a subway – is constantly connected to the intertubehighway. That fact alone makes one wonder what the point of the whole thing is. Specifically since they’ve not done any sort of interactivity or visual presentation that I think anyone can say is amazing. Sure, it’s a print designers wet dream – but it really should be a consumer’s wet dream. And it most certainly is not that.

So, from a technical perspective, I think what we are looking at is the result of equal parts desperation and ignorance. Desperation on the part of Adobe to carry forward their relationship with Conde Nast in this new publishing market and ignorance on the part of their development team for ignoring the best solution to their “No Flash Allowed” problem: HTML5.

is this the future for magazine publishing?

I hope not.

I actually think it’s a huge step backwards and I think the wrong people are working on the problem – just like the wrong people were working on the web problem back in the day. Sure, we corrected course and we’re seeing the web done correctly more and more these days – but can the magazine publishing industry afford to get this wrong for any amount of time? Once could argue that the internet is quickly making their industry irrelevant. By the time an article is published in Time, I’ve read six or seven different takes on the same story on the web well before it hits the newsstands. I don’t think that’s a unique or new insight. But now you want me to download 500MB a month just so some print designer can have pixel perfect layouts with custom fonts?

Unfortunately, as long as Conde Nast allows Adobe to dupe them into believing Adobe has a solution, it’s going to fail. They need to go outside the box to get this right, and all the technology to do it is sitting right there in front of them. And they’ve been using it very well … until now when they’ve chosen not to even use it all.

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