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Harry McCracken

Adobe Opens Wired, New Yorker Tablet Platform to Publishers, with Analytics

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 10/25/2010-04:29 AM

Back when I was editor of PC World, creating a magazine that newsstand buyers and subscribers loved was one of the great pleasures of my job. It was also something of a dark art. There were plenty of signs we’d succeeded: issues flying off the stands, renewal rates staying healthy, high scores in the pricey reader surveys we conducted. But in the end, connecting the dots of reader satisfaction was difficult, and agonizingly slow.

(The closest I got to instant gratification, incidentally, was when I traveled on an airplane and happened to sit next to someone who was reading PC World. Rather than introducing myself, I’d peek out of one corner of my eye and see which articles my neighbor lingered on, and which ones he or she skimmed right past.)

On the Web, things are different.  Analytics services such as Omniture let editors and other media types see what’s getting read, what’s getting ignored, and how consumers navigate through everything a site has to offer. They let you make decisions in real time, rather than waiting for months.

At Adobe’s MAX conference in Los Angeles this week, the publishing software company is announcing its Digital Publishing Suite, the fully-commercialized version of the system that Wired, The New Yorker, and other publications have been using to create iPad versions of their magazines. It’s rolling out in pre-release form for publishers who’d like to try it out; the final version is due in the second quarter of 2011.

The Digital Publishing Suite aims to be a comprehensive solution for turning traditional magazines created in InDesign into digital publications that can be distributed to devices of all sorts. But the one aspect that intrigues me most is this: It includes Omniture analytics for digital magazines. (Adobe acquired Omniture a year ago for $1.8 billion.)

If you use the suite to produce tablet versions of your magazine, you can use the analytics service to get a bevy of information about how they’re being read—all aggregated and anonymized to avoid privacy issues. You can see whether readers are opening the issues they’ve bought. You know which stories they’re jumping to, and whether they tap through every page of an article or abandon it after the first one. You can confirm whether they’re watching ambitious multimedia elements such as embedded video. And you can tell whether they’re reading front-to-back, back-to-front, or hopping around randomly.

It sounds like a goldmine of useful information that publishers could use to make publications that serve their readers better. And much of it might help with a magazine’s traditional, dead-tree version, too—I suspect that there’d be a correlation between covers that prompt tablet subscribers to open the issues quickly and ones that are newsstand winners.

Analytics can’t tell you everything you need to know about your readers’ relationship with your content. Seeing that a lot of people chose to read a particular article, for instance, says nothing about whether they liked what they got once they finished. So traditional research such as surveys and focus groups still have their place, and free-form feedback such as reader comments on online versions of stories can be very useful. But I know that if I were editing a magazine with digital editions produced with Adobe’s suite, I’d be hungry for the new clues about reader behavior that these analytics could provide.

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Harry McCracken

Twitter’s Great Leap Forward is … Great

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 09/15/2010-10:25 AM

I can’t remember many–any?–examples of a popular service or piece of software changing so much all at once as Twitter is doing with its new redesign. (If you don’t have it yet, hold on: The company says it’ll be a few weeks until it completely replaces Old Twitter.) It brings elements other than words onto Twitter for the first time–photos, videos, and maps. It fundamentally changes the service’s interface, with a roomy, context-sensitive right panel that reminds me of Twitter for iPad. It displays threaded conversations. It includes a bunch of subtleties, like keyboard shortcuts. (TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has a good roundup of some of the revamping’s less obvious improvements.)

In short, it moves in the direction that Twitter was clearly going in anyhow–but it’s one big leap rather than a series of baby steps over months or years. And it still feels like Twitter.

There are certain things I don’t like or–worse–don’t understand. (For instance, the right panel shows different information for different hashtags, and if there’s a pattern I can’t spot it.) And the embedding of media takes so much of the mystery out of browsing around Twitter that cryptic short URLs such as Bit.ly links l00k even more cryptic than before. But after using it for a few hours, I’m awfully impressed.

(Okay, one petty, pointless complaint: The far wider interface means that virtually everybody who’s tried to plop useful information on their Twitter backgrounds will have to redo their wallpaper, and there really isn’t enough room left along the edges to do much of anything useful. I get why that’s the case, but it’s a little like coming home and discovering that your landlord expanded your apartment by building an extension into your flowerbeds.)

There’s certainly going to be a thriving market for third-party Twitter clients until Twitter.com supports multiple accounts–and for a long time after that, probably. But for the first time, Twitter.com is one of the best Twitter clients. The company says it put this sweeping update together in about six months; if it keeps working at the same pace, I wonder how cool Twitter will be in mid-March of 2011?

If you’ve got access to the new version, I’d love to know what you think.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: McCracken's post originally appeared here.]

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Harry McCracken

Another Sports Illustrated Digital Prototype Shows Off HTML5’s Power

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 05/24/2010-00:24 AM

Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell has lately taken on a busy part-time second career: digital seer for the entire magazine industry. A few months ago, he was showing off a slick prototype of an SI designed for reading on tablet computers. And last Wednesday at Google’s I|O conference in San Francisco, McDonell strode on stage, joked that he might be the oldest person in the room, and then unveiled another digital reimagining of his magazine—one with all the visual splendor of dead-tree SI, plus rich media, personalization, community, feeds of the latest scores, and more.

As terrific as it looked [click here to see the video demo], much of its beauty lay beneath the surface. That’s because this incarnation of SI was built entirely with HTML5, the nascent set of standards for creating Web sites and services. McDonell was at the Google event as part of a demonstration of something called the Chrome Web Store, an online catalog which will only work in Google’s Chrome browser and upcoming Chrome OS.  This wasn’t a proprietary app, though:  It was a sneak preview of a new sort of digital magazine that could work on any PC, tablet, or other device with an up-to-date Web browser.

HTML5 magazines have the potential to be a breakthrough for readers and publishers alike. The Sports Illustrated prototype shown in McDonell’s video looks like an appealing mashup of what readers love about both the Web and print. Media companies could distribute them to every platform they chose; middlemen who impose rules and demand a cut of the profits would be optional. (With magazines distributed as iPad apps, by contrast, pleasing Apple is as critical as pleasing readers.)

HTML5 isn’t yet fully ready to roll: No current browser supports it completely, and the geeks who are masterminding it are still squabbling over details such as video formats. (Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, still the most-used browser, doesn’t do HTML5 at all yet; the next version will, though.) So magazines built specifically for the iPad, the Kindle, and other tablets and e-readers are part of a necessary phase in digital-magazine evolution. By the time HTML5 is fully baked, publishers who are creating apps right now will have learned plenty of valuable lessons.

I still get more excited about digital magazines that actually exist than ones that exist only as demos. But if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about the future of the magazine business, HTML5 should be at the top of your list—and McDonell’s latest next-generation SI shows why.

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Harry McCracken

Enough With the E-Reader Prototypes—Give Us the Content

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 03/17/2010-13:53 PM

On Monday, I was in Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Interactive conference. I sat in a crowded ballroom and watched representatives from Wired and Adobe talk about a concept digital-magazine version of Wired for tablets, iPhones and other gadgets. Then I hopped on a plane and headed to New York for Tuesday's Future of Publishing Summit, an invite-only gathering attended by a hundred executives from the magazine, newspaper and book industries. One of the sessions featured representatives from Adobe, once again showing off the Wired digital-mag prototype.

At both conferences, we saw how the Wired e-magazine lets readers swoop through a publication that's just as classy as Wired's dead-tree version. They'll be able to luxuriate in beautifully-designed long-form pieces, take in embedded video, and spend quality time with full-page interactive ads.

That's assuming that Condé Nast does indeed launch a digital Wired, and that it figures out how to produce something as slick and ambitious as the prototype on a monthly basis.

For me, the Future of Publishing confab's highlight wasn't the Wired walkthrough or the hardware demonstrations by companies such as HP, Marvell and Spring Design. It was an afternoon working session led by Time's Josh Quittner, with guest appearances by Sports Illustrated legend Terry McDonell and representatives from other magazines. No digital magazines or reading devices were shown—McDonell didn't bring his own much-discussed video of an electronic version of SI. It was just a bunch of magazine people sitting around talking.

And yet this brass-tacks session was more tangible than the flashier show-and-tell segments. Quittner and McDonell said that digital editions of their respective publications are only weeks away; McDonell disclosed how many additional editors he intended to hire to produce the tabletized SI (four). We learned about Monkey, a digital-only lad magazine from the U.K.'s Dennis Publishing that already exists and has paying customers. Pricing strategies were debated.

I left the conference on a high. But I was also well aware that I might be suffering a temporary bout of irrational exuberance: No matter how cool the iPad and iPad wannabee devices may be, it's not entirely clear why many people would choose to pay for electronic magazines rather than visit magazine Web sites which are deeper, faster-paced, more community-oriented and free.  

We'll never know for sure until we give readers that choice—and that's why it's time to retire the sexy videos and put real digital magazines into the hands of real consumers. 

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Harry McCracken

Apple's iPad: A Question for the Magazine Industry, Not an Answer

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 01/29/2010-13:12 PM

In the weeks leading up to Apple's launch of its tablet device Wednesday, a strange fairy tale started to gain currency. It cast the publishing business as a hapless Sleeping Beauty—and Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a Prince Charming who'd kiss the industry out of its slumber with a combination of hardware, software, and services that would instantly restore consumers' willingness to pay for quality content.

As I sat in the audience at the event, I slowly figured out that it wouldn't provide a ready-made happy ending for magazine publishers. Apple did reveal that the gizmo includes an e-book reader, iBooks—but as the name suggests, that software is meant for books, not periodicals. It also let the New York Times show off a handsome app for reading that paper. But the only magazine that came up during the event was Time—and that was when Jobs showed how good its Web site looked in the iPad's Safari browser. It mostly served as a reminder that it's not entirely clear why many consumers would choose to pay for digital magazines when the same content is available on the Web for free.

Despite everything, the great unveiling left me feeling optimistic about the the iPad's impact on magazine publishing, as did the hands-on experience I got with a unit after the presentation. The PC has never been a very satisfactory device for reading magazine-style content—even the landscape orientation of desktop and laptop displays is all wrong. And for all the things that are right about the Kindle and its competitors, their sluggish monochrome E-Ink screens are a massive compromise that leaves vibrant print (and online) content feeling lifeless.

The iPad, by contrast, is the first device that packs all the visual punch and interactivity of the Web into a form factor designed with reading in mind. The 9.7-inch color screen may suck far more power than the Kindle's E-Ink, but it does crisp photos and smooth video and elegant typography, making it an upgrade over print's visuals rather than the Kindle's downgrade. And Apple took everything it learned about touch interfaces, added some potent hardware components, and came up with a breathtakingly fluid, intuitive user interface. (Trust me on this one: You need to touch an iPad before you render a verdict on it.)

But Did Apple Have Magazines in Mind?

What Apple didn't do this week is to solve most of the magazine business's problems for it. The iPad doesn't come with e-reader software designed with magazines in mind, so it's neutral on the subject of what a print periodical should look like in iPad form. Apple also said nothing about selling periodicals through its iTunes Store, a move which would have helped kickstart new paid-content initiatives.

In time, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the iPad added magazine-ready software and services. For now, though, the gadget is a fascinating container for the ideas of any magazine publisher that chooses to support the platform. "Here's an amazing piece of hardware," Jobs seemed to be saying, by not saying anything about magazines. "You figure out how to make magazines make sense on it."

What's In It for the Publisher?

My guess is that the publishers who take up the challenge won't realize any immediate financial windfall. But they'll get something better out of the deal: A chance to reimagine their content and their business on a device that offers infinitely intriguing possibilities for both.

That's no fairytale. But wouldn't it be more magical if our industry wound up solving its own problems rather than complying with Steve Jobs' vision of its future?

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Harry McCracken

The E-Reader Revolution Isn't Revolutionizing Magazines

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 11/03/2009-11:21 AM

From Barnes & Noble's promising nook to dark horses such as the EnTourage eDGe, a bevy of e-reader devices are about to take on Amazon.com's groundbreaking Kindle. They won't transform the way most folks read immediately, but they're a major step in the inevitable, ongoing digitization of nearly everything we're used to reading on on dead trees. As a reader of fat hardcover books I can't fit in my briefcase, I'm a Kindle fan who's excited about seeing Amazon get some competition.

The magazine lover in me, however, is far more skeptical about the next round of e-book gadgets. The Kindle isn't a very satisfactory magazine-reading device, and there's no evidence that any of its imminent competitors will be great leaps forward for our industry. Here's why:

The screens simply aren't up to the job. Every e-reader that's on the market or imminent uses a monochrome E-Ink screen. They do a respectable job of displaying plain-text pages but magazines are anything but plain, and most are anything but monochromatic. Take away high-quality color imagery and you rob them of much of their life.

Good formatting isn't a given. A good magazine artfully weaves together words and pictures in a wonderfully inviting, browsable manner. The Kindle-edition magazines I've subscribed to look like dreary raw text files, in part because the standard Kindle's six-inch screen is too small to replicate a standard magazine page with any fidelity. Some upcoming e-readers, such as the Que, have larger screens, but most will struggle with the same layout issues that the Kindle does.

E-readers lack the Web's benefits. Such as links, comments, and fresh daily content to supplement the stuff that comes out on a weekly or monthly schedule. By contrast, the lifeless presentation of magazines on e-readers reminds me of what I used to see on CompServe, circa 1988.

Don't get me wrong—it's possible that at least some of the upcoming devices will be more pleasing containers for magazines than the Kindle is. And it's dead certain that e-readers will get better at doing periodicals over time, especially with publishers such as Hearst getting into the game.

Overall, though, I'm far more intrigued by the possibility of digital magazines showing up on tablet computers—such as the rumored Apple device—than I am by their appearance on dedicated e-readers. Tablets will have high-resolution color screens which should do a far better job than E-Ink of replicating the vibrancy of print design. Their batteries will conk out in hours rather than days, but that's okay—you don't need days to read a magazine.

Show me a portable reading device that renders magazine content more engaging and not less so, and I'll happily give up paper. For now, though, I pack two types of reading material when I hop on a plane: my Kindle and a stack of my favorite magazines.

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Harry McCracken

Magazines: A Reality That Doesn't Particularly Need Augmentation

Harry McCracken emedia and Technology - 10/14/2009-07:36 AM

All around us, magazines are undergoing the futuristic process known as augmented reality. It started this past summer, when Popular Science worked with a company called Metaio to create a cover which, when held up to a computer's Webcam, appeared on-screen in a form that was half live video, half 3-D animation, with 3-D animated wind turbines that spun when the reader blew into the computer's microphone. (The whole extravaganza was sponsored by wind turbine maker GE.)

More recently, Real Simple announced that its December issue would use similar technology from Total Immersion to create a 3-D gift box filled with video content from advertisers. And the December issues of gaming titles from Future US will feature augmented-reality ads for a game called Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Hold the ad in front of your Webcam, and a 3-D animated battle will break out on your display.  

In multiple ways, it feels like deja vu all over again. Magazine publishers keep attempting to inject interactivity into their print publications via high-tech features that appears to great fanfare and never seem to go much of anywhere. I'm thinking of everything from the CueCat, the legendarily unsuccessful feline-shaped barcode scanner adopted by Forbes and Wired in 2000, to Esquire's flashing e-ink 75th anniversary cover from last year. Augmented reality is sexier than either the CueCat or e-ink, but in its current form, it produces the same sort of  basic cognitive dissonance.

Such "breakthroughs" attract attention, but they usually seem to get in the way of print's virtues rather than to accentuate them. Both the CueCat and augmented reality presume that magazine readers want to sit at a computer, magazine in hand—when effortless portability is one of the key benefits that the printed word retains over the Web. And Esquire tried gamely to deal with the limitations of the still-rudimentary, monochromatic e-ink technology—but the resulting cover was far less compelling than most of the ones it produces with plain old non-electronic ink.

The best magazines have infinite potential to thrive in the digital age, but that the secret to success won't lie in trying to be digital. Letting magazines be magazines is a far smarter strategy: If I were a magazine editor today, I'd be redoubling my efforts to deliver the most useful, imaginative, well-packaged service journalism possible. And if I were a marketer investing print advertising dollars, I'd want my messages to appear in the publications that did the best job of engaging readers through high-quality, ever-evolving editorial content.

I don't mean to entirely dismiss augmented reality. The technology has the potential to develop into something genuinely useful. Imagine, for instance, seeing exactly what you'd look like in a particular pair of eyeglasses by viewing an augmented-reality feature that digitally painted them onto your on-screen image.

And hey, gimmicks can be fun, at least for awhile. Yet another faddish innovation that augmented reality reminds me of is the spate of ads back in the 1980s that played tinny music via embedded sound chips. Anyone want to argue that those changed the magazine industry for the better?

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