My mother always comes up with these get-rich quick ideas whenever I’m looking for new work. Early last summer, when I found myself in such a predicament, she came up to me with this “great business model” she’d been speaking to somebody on the phone about: a distribution model in which I, as a third-party vendor of sorts, contact doctors’ offices and laundromats and other such businesses and sell them advertising-heavy magazines at “discounted” rates. I get to keep a big portion of the cut, pay for some of the print cost for smaller, local publications, and get to tour the city a lot looking for crummy joints who might be interested in my sales pitch.
I told her that there was no way I’d get involved in that — as far as I was concerned, people were all reading the news on their smartphones and tablets. And I was certain that magazines would become digitally replaced as soon as somebody figured out the best way to format a magazine for such devices. I told her I was tempted to get in on it and make a curated news app myself, just so I could prove to her that the market for paper magazines was seriously diminishing by comparison.
Well, Marco Arment beat me to it and his newest app, fittingly (and maybe a little egotistically) named The Magazine, has blown me away.
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Finally Putting the Newsstand to Good Use
If anybody understands the digital revolution of paper, it’s Marco Arment. The developer is famous for Instapaper (still my favourite read it later service, and easily the most sophisticated), and more or less created an app genre that we didn’t know existed by solving a problem we barely realized was there. And now I’m hooked on the concept. Arment has a penchant for beautiful typography and clean design, and knows how to create sophisticated algorithms that make complicated things look beautifully simple.
You won’t necessarily appreciate what makes The Magazine great unless you’ve tried out other magazines on the iPad. Although some of them are cool (and multimedia features are always interesting), they are often not Retina-enabled and as a result look terrible. And it’s more or less like reading through a PDF with embedded video and audio. There’s no compelling reason to read them on my iPad instead of reading the paper copy that came in the mail. And reading a magazine like National Geographic without Retina resolution seemed like such a waste.
Marco’s app strips out all of the multimedia, although he does say there may be the occasional picture. Not unlike Instapaper, the focus here is solely on the text. You can tap on embedded notes to bring up info bubbles that might contain footnotes, a brief link summary or an author’s bio. You can select text and define it or copy it before pasting it elsewhere. You can save the articles to Instapaper (but the app is, not surprisingly, incompatible with competitors like Pocket or Readability).
Designing the Future of Digital Magazines
The user interface for this is simple and drop-dead gorgeous. I really can’t give Marco enough credit here. This is making design choices that effectively make a product so simple and intuitive that it doesn’t seem like there was any other possible way to make it. When a design feels this obvious, you know it really wasn’t.
Consider the night mode as an example: often, this is simply a black screen with white text. Marco has reconsidered even that simple notion and the text is now a blue colour that is simply much easier on the eyes. When you read a footnote or a summary of an external link (pictured above), the text is white instead of blue for additional contrast. That kind of minor refinement is ever-present; even footnotes and links have been reconsidered as to how they should be displayed. Refinement like this is what separates big boys from minor players, and make no mistake, Marco Arment is in the big leagues.
Text is easy to read and the font is beautiful. It’s the perfect size for me (although that is adjustable), and it feels like you’re reading the printed page. If there’s one gripe I have, it’s that I would like a real fullscreen mode while I read. I don’t want to see the battery level of my iPad or what time it is; I just want to read. Instapaper is full-screen, and the fact that this feature is missing in The Magazine might be a limitation imposed on Newsstand apps by Apple instead of from Marco himself. I can’t say for a certainty, but it seems an odd (albeit minor) exclusion in what is otherwise perfectly executed, down to the smallest and most trivial detail.
The Content Is What Matters
Design is one thing, but the content is another. Marco’s app is for technology lovers. Every two weeks, there will be four long-form articles published about technology. I don’t think you should expect any app reviews in there, but you can expect articles that delve deep into what technology does for us in its most complex and most basic forms. Marco is now a self-declared editor. His rules about article ownership are very liberal, and I could see a lot of authors being attracted to the format.
Reviewing the writing is hard because quality could fluctuate (and likely will) from issue to issue, but it should be said that if the first issue is indicative of overall future quality, the writing is superb. There’s a certain lightness to the articles; they’re not too long, too short or too serious. That being said, it’s easy to spend quality time reading them. The articles all feature embedded links that take you to the web for further reading (gratefully, Marco does not have an Instapaper mobilizer for webpages built into the app). It’s easy to spend just a little time or a lot of time going through Arment’s work, depending on how much you feel like reading.
The Overall Experience
Most developers are happy if they strike gold once. Marco is the opposite. He’s in relentless pursuit of the next great idea, and it shows in The Magazine. The article quality is great and easily worth the $2 monthly subscription; this is the best iPad reading experience to come along since Instapaper. This is a new way of publishing a magazine, but I hope it has the brightest of futures.
The first issue includes articles about things like baseball and divorce as well as tech, but every article is written from the perspective of people who are in love with technology. They love the way it enhances our everyday lives and have nothing but respect for its power. This is the same sort of loving admiration that The Magazine was made with. It’s an idea I can’t believe I didn’t come up with first, and it gets my highest recommendation.