I just returned from Publishing Expo 2012 in London, where I was interested (among many other things) to see what newspaper and magazine publishers were doing in the area of offline delivery, or content-to-go. Print has long had the advantage of being able to travel easily with the reader. So in the transition from print to digital delivery, the ability to save stories on a device for offline viewing (available when there is no Internet connection, such as in a subway or on an airplane) is still a necessary requirement.
It’s worth mentioning that subway systems and airlines are already experimenting with wireless Internet, so “offline storage options” can be considered a transitional technology until the day, not too far off, when the Internet cloud will available almost everywhere. When that happens, offline portability of news will cease to matter. This is already a vision that companies like Microsoft and Google are touting for corporate information and office applications.
But today I am interested in what publishers are doing with digital editions–the online version laid out more or less precisely like their print edition–and how many are moving toward tablet and mobile apps capable of storing articles on the device.
Last week I received an email from Ziff-Davis, a reasonably forward-thinking magazine publisher, announcing that they were abandoning digital editions for one of the titles I subscribe to:
“To ensure we focus our innovation on channels that have proven most useful for our readers, we will no longer be sending .pdf versions of CIO Insight, otherwise known as Digital Editions. We experimented with this over the last few months and have now decided to put it on hold. We expect you will continue to enjoy our always improving content through the major channels highlighted above.”
Those “major channels” included their web site content and their tablet and mobile editions. In a recent post I wrote about how different media need to be supported by different interface models; online is a very different user experience from print, and just placing the print edition online (as a PDF) isn’t really a valid model for the way people want to consume articles online. The Ziff-Davis announcement seems to support this.
At Publishing Expo 2012 there were very few (I think I only saw two) software vendors that offered support for digital editions, and I only spoke with one publisher who reported an uptake in their digital edition readership, although she said that it was a new enough offering that the adoption rate could flatten if indeed the trend is moving away from digital editions and more toward, for example, tablet-optimized interface design.
On the other hand, there were at least a dozen vendors touting mobile and tablet app solutions, and almost every publisher I spoke to, if they were going online, wanted to chat about the relative merits of apps vs. HTML5, not about digital editions. HTML5 is a new Web standard that enables web developers to, among other things, more easily support rich media as well as have a site adjust its user interface automatically to accommodate mobile, tablet, and desktop browsing, and I use it for BloggingWrites.com. It is however an online technology, and does not offer any intrinsic offline viewing options. (I’ll discuss HTML5 vs. apps in an upcoming post.)
Apps have a significant advantage over digital editions in that they support multimedia, such as video and interactive content. But very rarely are they being designed such that the video is downloaded, on demand, to the app itself. Digital editions of course offer the same familiar interface that the print subscribers are used to (the “page turning” effects and the Adobe Acrobat features like text search are really the biggest differences in terms of interface design.) But to a publisher that hasn’t yet embraced video or interactive content, are digital editions sufficient?
I would argue that they are not; the digital edition seems lazy to me; a way to leverage the work of the print layouter and avoid engaging in layout and design for the new media. If you accept at all that print is on the wane, and anyone who thinks otherwise is being foolish—just look at the proliferation of digital e-readers for books and the number of magazines and papers no longer in print, then optimizing your interface for digital delivery is an imperative.
I’d be very interested in hearing from publishers as to their plans for apps and digital editions, and I’d especially like to know what their subscribers are asking for.