The iPad and Digital Publishing: Digging Deeper Into Newsstand

When asked why Apple didn’t license its Macintosh operating system, Steve Jobs always quoted Alan Kay: “People who are serious about software should build their own hardware.” In the same sense, his Newsstand app on the iPad is starting to fuel a similar revolution amongst writers. If fact, if I may approximate the quote for my own purposes, it’s become my belief that if you love writing, you should want to build the content platform yourself.

With Newsstand, this is exactly the sort of creative thinking Apple is fostering.

Welcome back to our discussion on the iPad and digital publications. In our first article, we took a look at the current state of affairs and analyzed the difficulties the platform has faced in its first few years. In part two, I’ll be walking you through the advancements many publications have made using Newsstand as their backend. Keep reading to find out more about how the iPad is changing the publication industry.

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What Makes Newsstand Unique

In part one, I explained that Newsstand and other apps like Zinio are separated in the fact that Newsstand is a glorified app folder, and Zinio is solely a magazine newsstand. This means that any publication sold through Newsstand is searchable in the App Store. It also means that Newsstand doesn’t have its own unique store, which I think is problematic, but not a deal-breaker.

In this case, though, this becomes Newsstand’s greatest advantage. While Zinio is locked into a traditional method of thinking, apps created for Newsstand aren’t bound to any conventional rules. It’s an open playing field on Newsstand, and app developers can experiment with digital publishing however they please. As you might expect, that’s exactly what’s started to happen.

But why use Newsstand? Why not try to develop individual apps and succeed on their own terms? It’s simple: Newsstand has the infrastructure to support easy billing cycles for subscriptions and makes it easy to update magazines with new content — or at least easier than developing your own payment cycle and such would be.

The Magazine

Last October, Marco Arment introduced The Magazine, a Newsstand publication that he called a “truly modern digital magazine” in his announcement. The whole announcement is worth reading, because he accurately dissects many of the problems that most publishers face with the digital business model.

In short, as mentioned in part one, most publishers aren’t making big changes to the way their magazines look and feel because they can’t afford to. It’s a huge risk for big publications already risking lots of money on the development of every issue of their magazines. There’s no way they’re able to experiment with a new business model when their current one is barely sustainable.

The Magazine is easy to read and navigate, but most importantly, the interface respects its readership.

The Magazine is easy to read and navigate, but most importantly, the interface respects its readership.

What Marco was able to do was capitalize on this: He built a magazine simple enough to be run by a small team with a small budget, but with a potential readership large enough to net a profit. And what he achieved is, in my opinion, relatively spectacular.

There is a term in the development industry for apps like Marco’s called “opinionated software.” Apple makes opinionated software as well: It’s simply software design that involves “a thousand no’s for every yes.” What it often creates is software that is stark in comparison to its competitors, but also powerful in its simplicity.

The Magazine is all of those things and more. It’s meant to be read, but because of its simple layout, photos are really striking. The typeface is easy to read. Articles are easy to peruse, and accessing older content isn’t difficult. It also doesn’t require gross downloads of up to half a gigabyte, unlike my excursions with Empire Magazine.

it's really easy to navigate The Magazine; its simple layout is its strongest aspect.

it’s really easy to navigate The Magazine; its simple layout is its strongest aspect.

The Magazine, like the best software available, respects its users. It respects people who simply want to read content. It makes the content beautiful and easily accessible. By stripping away all of the things people don’t need from the glossy, PDF-like magazines with big productions, it creates something entirely new and easily better.

Now, The Magazine is owned and edited by Glenn Fleishman. Even after the transition of ownership, The Magazine continues to improve and always features great content. It’s $2/month for a subscription, and has a two-week free trial. Did I mention that it’s been an extremely successful endeavour for all involved parties? It has, and other people are starting to take notice.

TypeEngine

TypeEngine sprang up earlier this year, debuting with Jim Dalrymple’s The Loop Magazine on Newsstand. (Full disclosure: Although it does not change my opinion on Newsstand apps, I am writing an article for an upcoming article of The Loop Magazine.) TypeEngine is a platform for Newsstand apps, not an app itself. So there is no TypeEngine magazine, but there are are magazines made for Newsstand with TypeEngine. (In fact, our own Mac.AppStorm and Web.AppStorm editor, Matthew Guay, recently launched his own magazine with their service.)

TypeEngine magazines like The Loop Magazine don't look too different from Marco's endeavour.

TypeEngine magazines like The Loop Magazine don’t look too different from Marco’s endeavour.

You may notice that TypeEngine looks a lot like The Magazine, and you wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, TypeEngine is quick to acknowledge The Magazine’s influence. At the time, this caused quite a stir, but I’m not sure it’s worth making a fuss about. TypeEngine is continuing to grow and, from the looks of it, there are enough subtle variations that one could say they are different.

Even the in-app navigation is strikingly similar. But is this really a bad thing when it means that magazines are easy to read?

Even the in-app navigation is strikingly similar. But is this really a bad thing when it means that magazines are easy to read?

TypeEngine’s apps and The Magazine do share some similar design philosophies, though. Of course, those involve putting the user first. By emphasizing stripped-down and easy-to-read layouts, TypeEngine is further proof that Newsstand, thanks to its folder of magazine apps, could be the future of digital publishing.

Taking It Further

Of course, TypeEngine and The Magazine hopefully aren’t the end of Newsstand innovation. There’s a lot of room left for other developers and designers to leave their mark. TypeEngine and The Magazine have both made great strides towards emphasizing the reader. And in the digital age of narcissistic social networking and constant Internet access, there’s nothing more important than respecting your audience. With that being said, wouldn’t it be a shame if all the best Newsstand apps shared similar design languages?

One undeniably wonderful thing about magazine layouts is that they all shared one commonality: they all started with a blank piece of paper. This created a world rich with a variety of visual styles in publication. I’m hoping to see Newsstand developers embrace similar ideals of design variety, all in service of the reader. The iPad screen is a blank canvas, waiting for a beautifully designed magazine. TypeEngine and The Magazine are great places to start, but I can’t wait to see what other reading and design innovations Newsstand apps bring.

In our next and final article on digital publishing, we’ll dive in-depth into the other options available for content publishers.


  • JC Shin

    wish they had rss in newstand and have newstand in ipad, iphone, mac.