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6 posts from June 2010

Where Are All the iOS Magazine Subscription Apps?

Sports Illustrated is the latest big-name magazine publisher to offer an iPad edition.  It's a nice looking product, btw.  The app itself is free and it includes a sample of what's to come.  It joins the likes of Time, Wired and Newsweek...but they all currently have the same limitation: You can only buy individual issues, not sign up for a one-year subscription.  Worse, most of them seem to think they can charge the full print cover price for each iPad edition.

I bought the initial Wired edition for $4.99 but I'm not buying the second one.  Over the weekend I realized I played around a bit with the Wired iPad edition but never finished reading it.  In fact, I'm more likely to read the print copy that's sitting on my desk than the iPad version.  And since I get the print version for $10/year, why in the world would I even think about paying $4.99 per iPad issue?

I'm certainly not the first to blog about this and I doubt I'll be the last.  What I can't understand though is why, after Apple made in-app subscriptions possible months ago, are none of the big guys selling their magazines that way?

Does it have to do with Apple's 30% cut?  Are they all trying to find a way to get around this and sell direct?  That's what Amazon does.  When you buy a Kindle edition via the iPad app you're actually just going direct through the browser, not buying through iTunes.  I'm assuming Amazon therefore doesn't have to pay Apple a cent on the transaction.  Why wouldn't magazine publishers want to do the same, especially on longer-term subscriptions?

Of course, with magazines and newspapers we're talking about publishers who aren't exactly on the cutting edge when it comes to technology solutions.  They're still clinging to their print models as much as possible.  Why else would I get at least 2-3 "please come back" snail mails from BusinessWeek every month?!  So all these magazine/newspaper publishers are probably operating independent of one other, each trying to come up with their own direct sales app/tool.  I wonder how much time and money is being wasted because they're not working together on this.

Here's a crazy idea: Maybe they should consider pushing it all through Amazon.  If Amazon were smart, they'd pull an end-around on Apple and tell the magazine/newspaper publishers, "hey, sell your subscriptions through us...we won't charge you 30% like Apple...how about 20%, or maybe even 10%?"  Amazon already has the infrastructure in place to push content to the iPad as well as a terrific customer service operation, so why shouldn't they leverage their platform for something like this?

One potential pitfall is that Apple might decide it was OK for Amazon to sell their books for the iPad without getting a percentage, but if they're going to be magazine/newspaper distributors for the platform they'll cut off Amazon's iPad access.  Let's hope not.  After all, if Amazon could take this on, it would create a very healthy competition with Apple, and that would likely be a good thing for consumers.


Why Bookstores Should Cozy Up to Apple

Have you seen the iPad display at your local bookstore?  I haven't either and it doesn't look like we will anytime soon.  The only places you can see an iPad on sale are at the Apple Store or your local BestBuy.

Meanwhile, B&N is still trying to make the Nook fly and Borders is hoping to make a splash with the Kobo.  I hate to break the news but I don't think either of those devices have much of a future ahead of them.  Borders is smart to play the price card, but the only way we'll see a mass market hit here is with a sub-$100 reader.  That means it's nothing more than an eInk display that gets new content by tethering to your smartphone's Internet connection.  I don't see anyone working on one of those and I'm not holding my breath waiting for one.

Even Amazon is obviously feeling the pain.  Remember way back when, as recently as a year ago, Amazon felt they didn't need a brick-and-mortar presence or any advertising other than on their own site?  Now, of course, the Kindle is carried by Target and, although I don't watch a lot of TV, a week never goes by when I don't see a Kindle ad.

Chalk it all up to the iPad.  But rather than trying to fight the iPad with these inferior devices, why not embrace it?  Why shouldn't all the brick-and-mortar bookstores sell iPads?  The big guys obviously want to sell their books on the iPad; that's why B&N and Borders released iPad reader apps weeks ago.  That was smart, now take the next step and become an iPad reseller.

Seriously, have you seen the "Nook specialist" at the front of B&N stores?  This poor employee has the unfortunate job of pulling you over to the Nook display with the hopes of wowing you with the device's many features.  It feels like the teenager serving orange chicken samples on toothpicks in the mall food court, only more awkward.  Imagine the buzz the store would generate if that employee was showing demos of the iPad, featuring the store's app and books.  I guarantee you it would drive a lot more interest than the Nook display (or the almost completely abandoned new media section at my local Borders store, where they try to sell Sony Readers).

And hey, you can keep selling your Nooks, Kobos and whatever other device you want to.  Give your customers a choice and may the best device win.  I'll bet it's the iPad though.

Most importantly, take all that money you're currently wasting to promote your eInk display readers and pour it into iPad app developmentAs I recently suggested to Amazon, become known for offering the most amazing, feature-rich reader app on the Apple platform.  I can already choose from the iBookstore as well as Amazon's and B&N's for my iPad reading, but the reader apps are largely the same, so that means the best price generally wins for me.  More often than not, though, prices are identical across all the stores, so the reading experience becomes the distinguishing factor.  Why not make yours the best, the envy of the entire industry?

P.S. -- When is someone going to create an app that quickly tells me which ebookstore (for iPad reading) offers the best price on the book I'm considering?  Apple probably wouldn't let an app like that slip through, so why not create a website that looks good on the iPad and I'll put a shortcut to it on my home screen?


The Social Networking Potential for eContent

Kiss It Good-Bye I recently finished reading Kiss It Good-Bye, another take on the Pittsburgh Pirates and their miraculous upset of the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.  (It's a pretty good book, btw, if you're a Pirates fan!)  I bought the Kindle edition and read it on my iPad.  That's when I discovered a feature Amazon slipped into the reader that I hadn't noticed before.  It's called "Popular Highlights" and you can see an example of it in the screen shot on the left (click on the thumbnail version for a larger view).

You'll notice a small pop-up bubble that says, "3 other people highlighted this part of the book."  The popular highlights have dotted underlines, setting them off from the rest of the book.  In fact, you can see another one at the very top of that same page.

The cool thing about this is I can see what other readers felt were the most interesting aspects of the book.  That's nice for a story about the 1960 Pirates but it becomes even more compelling when applied to how-to guides or textbooks.

What if a chemistry e-textbook included highlights from everyone else who used it in previous semesters?  That capability exists today and becomes more valuable the more the book is used and highlighted.  Take it a step further.  What if you add notes to that e-textbook?  Again, the more it's used the more valuable it becomes.

One problem here is that each e-reader platform (e.g., iBooks, Kindle, etc.) will implement their own versions of these highlighting and commenting features.  So, unfortunately, the comments/highlights added by Kindle readers won't show up when iBooks readers use the same book.

Nevertheless, this could easily grow into a very valuable feature.  So valuable, in fact, that I could see a model where it helps distinguish one retailer's version of the book from another: If the iBooks edition has more highlights and comments, it's a more attractive option than the Kindle one with fewer highlights/comments; that leads to more people buying the iBooks edition, adding their own highlights/comments and creating a snowball effect.  If ebook retailers are smart, they'll invest heavily in this functionality since it will help distinguish them from their competitors.

Btw, I'm sure somewhere deep in Amazon's end user license agreement (EULA) I allowed them to share my highlights with other readers.  OK, but wouldn't it be nice if publishers and authors could turn the tables and say, "sure, you can capture all this information, but when you do so with our products you need to share the results with us."  We'd learn more about what readers think of our products, which pieces they felt were most important and if we're smart, we'd use that knowledge to create better products (e.g., revisions, related titles and supporting materials).  That's wishful thinking on my part though, I'm afraid.  As a publisher, of course, I'd love to see the Amazon's and Apple's of the world simply share this information with their publisher partners, but I figure it's more likely they'll charge for it as they do other services.

Why does this feature have to begin and end with books though?  I think it could be even more useful for newspapers and magazines.  I can't keep up with all my news sources and I'd find it extremely helpful if I could just quickly glance at the key elements of a story, as highlighted by all those people who read it before me.  Sure, the newspaper sites offer commenting functionality today but they don't let readers highlight what they feel is most important.  Newspapers feel they're being ripped off by Google and other search engines?  They should make this highlighting feature a key element of their e-subscriptions, something that's not accessible through their free website.  Wouldn't it be cool if your local e-newspaper subscription showed up on your iPad each day with yellow highlighting of the key pieces of each story?  What we're really talking about here is convenience, time-savings and a service that's not accessible through the free access option of a website.  I'd pay for that!


eBook Indexes & User Interface Features

The more I talk to people about the uber index idea, the more I realize the significant effort required to create and implement it, particularly in the e-reader app.  I still believe it's a viable solution for rich content, but maybe it's not something we'll see in the short term.  So how about a few simple thing between now and then?

Let's start with a "back" button in the e-reader, to take you back to where you just came from.  Every time I've clicked on a link in an ebook and it takes me to an earlier/later spot, there's no easy way to go back.  (Note: Regarding the back button, I'm talking specifically about the iBooks reader on the iPad.)  Or how about when you're in the index and you click on an entry, hop to it but it's not what you were looking for?  You're stuck on that page and you have to manually find your spot back in the index again.  Imagine a web browser without a back button.  Pretty awful, right?  So why do we have to live with e-readers without back buttons?

How about pop-up windows?  Why are all the popular reading apps typically built with just a single window in mind?  Imagine how frustrated and less efficient your day would be if your computer only let you open one window!  In the index, if I press and hold an entry, show me a preview of where I'll be taken if I make that selection.  It's the same concept I use all the time in my Bing search results, so that I can preview where I'm heading before I leave the current page.

And how about similar functionality in the body of the book? Press and hold a word or phrase and you get a list of related entries and "see also's" from the index.  For example, let's say I'm reading the "Get Online" chapter of iPad: The Missing Manual and I see the term "3G".  If I press and hold it in my iPad ebook reader there should be a list of links to where 3G is first defined in the book.  But there should also be links to where related topics are covered, such as AT&T, cellular network and even wifi, so that I can understand the difference.

Next, similar to pop-ups, why not let me have a split view into the book, or, heaven forbid, allow me to have two books open at the same time, both visible on the screen, one using the top half and the other using the bottom; these are basic features we take for granted in apps like Word or Excel but they're nonexistent in the ebook app world.

The index is such a critical element of a print book and it could take on so much more functionality in ebooks.  Which reader app will be the first to enable these types of enhancements?  I'm not particularly loyal to any one of them, so I just hope at least one of them offers these features sooner rather than later.

Vook App: Reckless Road Guns N' Roses

Picture 1 I've mentioned before that I'm skeptical the road to rich content is as simple as integrating video with the written word.  So when I was approached to review a Vook app called Reckless Road (Guns N' Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction) I said I'd be happy to review it but I also explained my bias up front.  The fellow who requested the review was pretty convinced he's got a terrific product and still wanted my feedback, good or bad.  Now that I've had some time to read through Reckless Road and watch many of the videos included in it I can see the value of the Vook approach. It lends itself well to a product like this. Earlier Vook samples I looked at last year felt forced, as though there had to be a certain number of videos for every written piece; the result wasn't all that interesting to me.

With Reckless Road, however, I became more curious as I went along. This is probably due to the fact that I'm always fascinated by behind-the-scenes looks at things, especially rock bands.  It also helps that the author, Marc Canter, is a close friend of the band and collected all sorts of great photos and other memorabilia over the years.  That said, I was never much of a fan of Guns N' Roses, but reviewing this app makes me wish similar ones were available for the bands I followed back in the 70's. Remember that old VH1 series, Behind the Music (the original ones, back when they covered great bands like Thin Lizzy)? Canter's Vook app feels like a modern version of that approach, with the added benefit that you can hop around the story to your heart's content, without having to remember to record it on a VCR!

For $4.99 this is an app any Guns N' Roses fan would greatly appreciate.  I'm hoping the Vook folks can get insiders to create similar ones for Led Leppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and some of the other timeless bands from the greatest era in rock.

Wired's iPad App

Wired One of my major disappointments with the iPad has been a lack of good magazines to choose from on it.  I used to gripe about this all the time on the Kindle and I never thought it could be worse on the iPad.  This is probably more of a timing issue than anything else though.  A few more magazines have trickled in with their own apps over the past few weeks and none had a bigger launch than Wired.

Shortly after their app arrived they announced they sold 24,000 copies in the first 24 hours.  Nice start.  So is this really worth the $4.99 price tag, especially since your five bucks only gets you one issue?  I don't think so.  I wonder how many people will go back and buy the next edition for $4.99.

First of all, there's no cut-and-paste functionality.  On top of that, there's no social media connectivity.  Wow.  How could they overlook these incredibly important features?  Seriously.  These guys cover all the latest and greatest technology developments and they can't implement features from the 90's in their initial app.  Truly amazing.

There are also so many missed link opportunities.  For example, DoubleTree's URL is shown at the bottom of their ad.  Wouldn't it be convenient to let readers touch it so that it takes them to DoubleTree's website, possibly featuring a special deal for Wired readers?  The magazine could get a finder's fee for any reservations made through that link.  Even something as simple and obvious as this was missed.  Btw, you'll find a mixed bag of ads with and without links in this issue.  My guess is some advertisers agreed to pay more for their ads to include links in the app edition.  Perhaps Wired thought this would be a good way to test ads with and without links. The result is a very confusing user experience for the reader as you don't know whether touching a URL will open Safari or do nothing at all.  Here's a simple rule they should follow: All URLs should open a link!

You may have also heard that Wired tried a new UI approach where you scroll horizontally from one article to the next but you scroll vertically within an article.  The mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling feels forced, like a gimmick that sounded interesting in theory but has no real value in practice.  And as others are starting to complain about, if everyone implements their own UI tweaks we'll never have standards and nothing will seem intuitive.  Apple really needs to get their arms around this.

Like many people, I'm not wowed by interactive ads.  I'm very much wowed by interactive content though, which is why I love The ElementsThe Wired app tries too hard to just create the "faster horse" that Henry Ford referred to rather than the next gen content app.  If Wired wants to draw readers into the ads they'll need to better integrate them with the content, not have them as standalone pages, separate from the content.  They're still thinking like magazine publishers and it's holding them back.  Build an integrated approach so that I discover the ads while I'm doing a deep dive in an article.

Bottom line: if this is as good as it gets I'll keep my print subscription. There's no need for me to fork over 5 bucks more for each pseudo-enhanced digital edition when I can get an entire year's worth in print for $10.