It’s been almost two years now since Wired launched its iPad Magazine App. What happened after the initial hype about the app being “the future of magazines” was that people stopped downloading it, Condé Nast’s “digital wonder boy” Scott Dadich was put on the hot seat, and hardly any other publisher has been able to monetize their fancy magazine apps.

The tablet was supposed to be every publisher’s dream: unlimited pages, more room for extras. But there were unexpected costs. The size of these apps is not optimal for download and when images are used to render text, it’s hard for search engines to find your content.

It seems like the more designers tried to innovate with navigation and layout – shoehorning print techniques into digital form – the more confusing it became for the user. It turns out this print-to-screen approach comes with all the constraints of print publishing and none of the advantages of new media.

Nobody wants your “extras”

I was at a conference recently where Jim Meigs, the editorial director of Popular Mechanics (another early adopter of the custom magazine app), admitted that the science magazine’s iPad edition isn’t profitable, and that it accounts for about 0.2 percent of their circulation of 1.1 million.

They’re not alone. Even with turnkey solutions like Mag+, most publishers have discovered that nobody is ditching print in favour of an iPad edition with “extras.” In the second half of 2011, subscriptions to digital editions numbered only 3.1 million — less than 1 percent of total print circulation.

Popular Mechanic‘s iPad edition isn’t profitable, it accounts for about 0.2 percent of their circulation of 1.1 million

In some industries, extras do work. Take video games, for example. Players of blockbuster video games are happy to purchase DLC (downloadable content – like extra levels or character skins) for a game they’ve invested a bazillion hours in. For the most recent Call of Duty game, more than 2.3 million players purchased a premium account, which costs almost as much as the game itself.

The difference is that a gamer is way more motivated to invest in extra content than a magazine reader. People don’t simply consume a video game, they are consumed by it.

Your typical gamer will spend an average of 14 hours a week shooting people in the face. Show me a magazine that has that level of engagement.

A much better analogue to the magazine experience is watching a movie, which we sit and engage with for a couple of hours and then discard. Do we want the director’s cut, the deleted scenes, the commentary? No, we want Netflix. We want a bare-bones experience that’s fast and reliable.

WIRED creates an alternate cover for each issue just to match the landscape view of a tablet. It’s a bit much.

The power of words

I can think of exactly two magazines with successful magazine apps: The Economist and The New Yorker.

Why are these apps successful? I think it has to do with what people want and expect from these publications, which have something in common: They’re full of text.

Word-heavy publications seemingly translate well to tablets, which might explain why e-books are so successful, while magazine apps are not

These magazines’ apps require minimal effort to make the jump from print to digital, keeping costs low. They do include some extras, but only the easy, natural ones, like The New Yorker’s cartoon compendiums. They don’t include any superfluous bells and whistles just because they can.

Here’s the thing: Readers like to read. Letters, words, sentences, paragraphs. Word-heavy publications seemingly translate well to tablets, which might explain why e-books are so successful, while magazine apps are not (apparently e-books “enhanced” with multimedia elements are bad for children – so maybe the tablet is simply a better fit for text than other forms of content).

…and the connections between those words

So, everything is just words? That’s the future of magazines? Not quite. The future of magazines isn’t text. It’s hypertext. Digital readers expect more than just words. They expect to be able to do things with them: share, click through and sometimes even have a robot parse through them (for search or for screen readers). If content doesn’t contain metadata, then it’s not truly digital. It’s merely an image of text, a facsimile of the printed page.

It’s easier for text-heavy magazines to bridge that gap, but it’s still not enough to take something that has been crafted into a perfect little print package and then copy-paste it to a digital screen. The key to digital content is defining what all those words mean to each other, not just to the larger story. Their findability, editability, relatability, and shareability are dependent on the editorial process of publishers as they navigate the fast-changing world of technology.

Apps like Instapaper and Flipboard are getting better at this. They are able to harness the power of this hypertext and present content in rich ways that only the web can support. But the ultimate “app” might just be the one that we use all the time, the one declared “dead” two years ago by Chris Anderson in – where else? – Wired.

Long live the web

The Financial Times web app allows you to cache the latest updates to read without an internet connection. Also, their digital subscriptions recently surpassed their print circulation.

While Apple has built their app-based ecosystem by capitalizing on the limitations of the current web, it’s clear that with the plethora of new implementation techniques like responsive design and HTML5 local storage (the new version of cookies, where a browser is able to cache data in a user’s device, enabling her to use a website without an internet connection), the future of the magazine lies in the open plain of the web browser rather than within the walls of a closed native app.

To traditional publishers, finding a way to squeeze their print editions into the glossy cage of the iPad may appear to be the path of least resistance when “going digital.” But that’s not doing digital. It’s ersatz digital, like recording vinyl onto a CD.

The future of the magazine lies in the open plain of the web browser rather than within the walls of a closed native app

Digital publishing will be about trying to offer more engaging experiences that work for everyone, rather than going all-in on a single platform, no matter how shiny it is. It will be up to us to meet readers wherever they are.

Rather than trying to force magazines into all of these digital devices, perhaps we should be figuring out how to bring the digital world into our magazines.

Related