Reading on the iPad

The iPad makes a fantastic reading device:

  • It carries all types of reading material in it at once: the books and magazines I’m reading, my RSS feeds, and any other Internet articles I want to read later. Its versatility in this regard is primarily what makes the iPad such a great reading device.

  • The battery lasts forever. There is little to no stress or issues related to using the iPad for long periods of time.

  • Since it’s connected to the Internet, I can get the latest news, buy a new book anytime I want, and download the latest magazines as soon as they’re available.

There are a few cons:

  • Though the iPad is thin and relatively light, it is not very easy to hold with one hand. And even when holding with two hands it still gets a bit heavy after holding it for a while.

  • You can’t read outside on a sunny day.

  • The iPad does not have a print-quality display like the Kindle or iPhone. And though the current display is not bad, a retina display on the iPad would certainly make the reading experience better.

My iPad’s primary function has always been as my reading device. I read and skim headlines in Reeder, I use Instapaper to catch up on articles I came across during the day, I read ebooks in iBooks, and I read Wired and The New Yorker in their respective apps.

Ironically, the worst reading experiences are with the apps designed by the “professionals” that are based on the age-old history of reading in print: Apple’s own iBooks, and the Condé Nast apps. The best reading experiences on the iPad are Instapaper and Reeder. In part because they are easy to keep up-to-date, but also because their designs have the least amount of frilly bits, and therefore make reading of the actual text the easiest.

A few months ago Frédéric Filloux wrote an article on Monday Note about the Publishing Failures on the iPad. In short, Frédéric’s point is that it’s nice to have your magazines all in one spot and delivered there via the Web, but there are some deal-breaking shortcomings. Such as: the time it takes to download a media-rich magazine app (in Frédéric’s case it took a few days for an issue of Vanity Fair), and the quality of reading on the iPad isn’t yet superior to a printed magazine.

Anyone who’s spent time with a magazine-ported-to-iPad app (such as the ones from Condé Nast or The Daily) knows the pain of having to wait for the app to download. When downloading an issue of Wired, you literally cannot do anything with your iPad but let it download the magazine issue. They weigh in around 300 MB and easily take 20 or 30 minutes to download on a decent Wi-Fi connection.

Downloading is the biggest of the pain points, but that’s not to say that once you’ve got an issue of the magazine onto your iPad that the reading experience is wonderful. It’s not so much in the layout itself, but in the attempt at being magazine-like. While I somewhat appreciate and enjoy the unique layout of the magazine articles, there is still something to be desired.

I don’t think the magazine industry has failed on the iPad, it just hasn’t hit a home run yet. This is what Frédéric was saying, and I think it’s what most of us would nod our heads to as well. In short, it’s time for the magazine industry to step it up.

Khoi Vihn said something similar in his article and follow-up on iPad Magazines last fall:

There are no easy answers for content publishers right now, which is why in some ways they can hardly be blamed for their iPad enthusiasm — at the very least, they aren’t ignoring the sea change that tablets represent. Perhaps like many of us, they need to fail their way to success. That’s a legitimate strategy, and if they’re nimble enough to recover from these wild miscalculations before it’s too late, then I applaud them for it.

More likely, they will waste too many cycles on this chimerical vision of resuscitating lost glories. And as they do, the concept of a magazine will be replaced in the mind — and attention span — of consumers by something along the lines of Flipboard. If you ask me, the trajectory of content consumption favors apps like these that are more of a window to the world at large than a cul-de-sac of denial.


The strategy that these apps are following is a stand-in for true experimentation. True, it gets something into the market that can then be learned from, iterated and evolved. But in truth it’s really just stalling.

The default reaction of most print publishers since the advent of the Internet has almost always been “Let’s make it just like print.” It’s been tried again and again and it never works. So the fact that publishers are trying it yet again on the iPad doesn’t strike me as experimentation at all. There might be a grain of truth when we say that this is “an experimental year” for publishing on the iPad, yes. But that doesn’t mean we also need to repeat the same mistakes that we made when Flash promised that we could make Web sites flip pages like print magazines, or when the Web was still so new that the only model we had to understand it with was print publishing, or when CD-ROMs tried their best to recreate magazines in ‘multimedia’ form. Those lessons have been learned already.

The Print Mindset

There is a mindset that says printed content is of a higher quality and value than online content. Or, put another way, content in printed form has value simply by virtue of being printed. Therefore, the content provider is justified in selling that printed content, yet has a hard time selling non-printed content.

In part, this is due to soft costs versus hard costs of content creation and distribution. People don’t mind buying a magazine because they know there is a hard cost involved with printing it. On the Web the hard costs are less obvious to the average consumer; some people have a difficult time understanding the need to pay a company to cover its soft costs.

There is a history of value and novelty associated to the printed word. How can publishers build upon that value and novelty while fully embracing new technology and its delivery formats?

Randy Murray, in an article on the digitization of magazines, wrote:

While you can make a fully digital copy of a magazine, you lose something when it no longer exists as a separate, physical object.

And so — perhaps intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally — digital magazines that replicate their printed versions are, in some ways, feeding on the mindset that printed content has a higher value and novelty than digital content does.

They replicate their printed magazines in digital format because they are trying to convey some of that perceived quality and value that historically comes with the printed page. The reader may not be holding a piece of paper, but at least they’re looking at what would be the printed page through the window of their screen.

Unfortunately, replicating print onto a digital format doesn’t best serve the problems of great user experience, sharing through social media, and taking advantage of the rich media possibilities our iPads provide. It does, however, appease the publisher’s need to convey value with their content.

A Better User Experience

I don’t have the answer for Condé Nast and the other publishers about precisely what to fix in their distribution models and their layout and interaction designs. I do, however, have some thoughts about what is valuable and worthwhile to me as a reader.

For starters, here’s what I care about in a magazine subscription on my iPad:

  • Notify me when there’s a new issue.

  • When downloading the latest issue, I want an option to keep past issues downloaded on my iPad or else remove them. If removed, I want to be assured that I can download them again for free anytime I want.

  • When downloading the latest issue, the app should take advantage of iOS multitasking and complete the download in the background whenever possible. When it’s done downloading, it should notify me that the magazine is ready to read.

  • The app should remember where I left off reading when I quit it, and put me there again when I return.

  • I want the articles to be easy to read and have an attractive layout. I am a big fan of form and function, but never should the former win out over the latter.

One area of trouble with digital distribution of magazines on the iPad is that they’re trying to bridge a gap between two very different, but great, user experiences: print and iOS. A printed magazine has the tactile feel, 300 DPI text and images, and a long, rich history. iOS has animation, rich media, user interactions, and more. Digital magazines have been trying to find a middle ground between the two, and it’s not easy.

Instead of trying to find that spot between print and iOS, they should leave the historical traditions of print design altogether. Instead of leaning on the perceived value of a physical printed periodical they should look to the iPad’s new value of delight, ubiquity, and instantaneous digital access. Moreover, they need to find better ways to bring their articles to their iPad readership. Magazines need to cater their layout design and interaction design to the iPad rather than attempting to fit the iPad around their previous print-tested designs.

My favorite iPad apps to read in are Instapaper and Reeder. These two apps are free from unnecessary design elements and simply display large text on a simple background.

A “media-rich” article in Instapaper means there are inline images between paragraphs. Every article in Wired, however, is media rich with its custom graphics designed to compliment each article, fancy text layouts surrounding the graphics, and other frilly bits.

And while I appreciate the customization and care surrounding each article found in Wired or The New Yorker, wouldn’t it be something if the magazine industry took a few cues from Instapaper and Reeder? What if, instead of fancy, two-column layouts they had simple, large-type layouts that you could scroll through? Because, honestly, it’s the forced pagination and multitude of various layout designs that I dislike the most when reading in a magazine app.

Apps like Instapaper and Reeder offer more of a “reading environment” (like a library); Wired and The New Yorker are more like an amusement park with words. One isn’t better or worse than the other, but people who like to read a lot certainly don’t spend the majority of their reading time at a noisy amusement park.

Reading on the iPad