What can we learn from the first iPad magazine editions?

The iPad frenzy continues, with Apple announcing last week it had passed 2 million in sales in the first two months since the iPad’s debut. Magazine and newspaper publishers continue to salivate over the possibilities of the breakthrough tablet as a game-changing delivery channel – one in which people pay real money for digital content!

But while many are eager to jump to black-and-white conclusions, I would caution that we really don’t know much yet about how publishers will leverage the iPad and how consumers will embrace this new mode of consuming magazine and newspaper content.

Two early entrants into the iPad publishing game are notable for popsci-ipadtheir different approaches. The June issue of Wired magazine is chock-full of video, audio, slide shows and other animations, tipping the scales at more than 500M bytes – which means you won’t be starting a digital archive on your iPad. Popular Science, by contrast, intentionally avoided videos and graphics-heavy features in order to keep the file size to a download-friendly 20M bytes. Both apps are priced at $4.99 per issue.

Notably, the Wired iPad app was produced with the help of Adobe, which today announced plans to make the digital viewer technology it developed with Wired available to other publishers. The technology converts Adobe InDesign files for iPad and other e-reader environments, and appears to Adobe’s latest answer to Apple’s banning of Flash from the iPhone and iPad.

Not everyone is enamored with this approach. While most reviewers are focusing on the knockout graphics, the site design experts at Information Architects took the typography to task for its poor resolution compared to the printed page. And InterfaceLab blamed the app’s bloated size partially on the design approach:

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.

Nevertheless, criticism over the Wired app’s size, typography and lack of social-sharing tools hasn’t tempered early sales. The app is a hit. Apple named it App of the Week, and it became the top paid app after its first day in Apple’s iTunes store. Wired.com’s New York Bureau Chief, John Abell, said in a blog post that 24,000 copies of the June issue sold during the first 24 hours of its release. For context, Abell added that Wired sells about 82,000 single copies on newsstands every month and has about 672,000 subscribers. At $4.99 a pop, that’s about $84,000 in revenue after Apple gets its 30% cut.

iPad editions from other publishers are priced similarly, causing some backlash among consumers who say the premium over print subs is unfair. (A year’s worth of Wired in print costs $10.) Said one reviewer on the iTunes store: “Just to be clear, I WILL NOT pay 4.99 an issue for this. I expect either 1.99 a digital issue, or a subscription that is the same as the print edition. Once the pricing is fixed, I will be a regular buyer of the magazine.”

Publishers are feverishly working on subscription models. Gregg Hano, VP of publishing for Bonnier Technology Group, said that an in-app subscription plan would be coming soon, with expected pricing for Popular Science of $19.95 for six issues and $29.95 for 12. (This is more than double the $12 annual subscription to the print magazine.)

Consumers may be gnashing their teeth over the pricing of these early editions, but Andrew Degenholtz, president at ValueMags, offered some perspective to Business Insider:

“[Readers are thinking, ‘We’re not knocking down any trees, there’s no ink being used, and there’s no truck being used to deliver it. But there are significant editorial costs, creative costs and research-and-development and production costs. It’s understandable that magazine publishers are going to charge a higher price for the subscription early. You can always lower the price, but you can’t raise the price at a later date.”

He’s right. Pricing models will continue to evolve, as will the design of these iPad editions. The most important lesson for publishers is that no one should jump to any strong conclusions based on these early apps. The iPad magazine model 12 months from now will be markedly different from the ones we see today. More than anything, publishers are beginning to understand that they’re not releasing finished products, but works in progress that will evolve based on the technology and audience feedback. The general consensus among the publishers who are leaping first is that they’re willing to experiment in full public view.

“We’re in the 1.0 stage of this,” Hano said last week during a panel discussion on mobile technologies co-sponsored by the Magazine Publishers of America and eMediaVitals. “Our back end is not even 50% of where we want it to be.” (Hano acknowledged the possibility that Bonnier will license the back-end production system to other publishers.)

In this month’s editor’s letter, Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson offered a similar perspective:

The arrival of the tablet represents a grand experiment in the future of media. 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. There is no finish line.

The experimentation applies to advertising as well. Popular Science, for example, is only running full-page ads in its iPad edition, with Hano acknowledging that fractionals are currently a challenge to produce. But the ad model certainly holds promise, and could provide the revenue stream publishers need to reduce their app pricing down the road.

MediaDailyNews touched on the potential:

Because the iPad alters the way that consumers engage with content, it will also affect they way they engage with advertising. Yes, the novelty of this interactivity will wear off, but will the way consumers think of advertising stay the same once they experience it through this platform? Will they “experience” advertising in a manner they have never before? Will it help make advertising almost as anticipated and desired as content itself?

It could, if the reaction of a colleague is any indication. As he scrolled through the current issue of Popular Science on the iPad, he sounded surprised as he commented, “I found myself actually looking at the ads.”


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