With the new Wired app, Conde Nast has built, unequivocally, the best magazine for the iPad. And yet I find myself asking, is this it? And will it cost this much?
I love Wired. I love magazines. But with the launch of the magazine app, Wired's much-previewed, profoundly hyped and unexpectedly controversial claim on the future of the magazine, the uneasiness, and the pit in my stomach that I felt during the first wave of iPad magazines—dominated by PopSci's ambitious re-imagining of the title, but comprised mostly of blatant halfassery—has only grown deeper.
Like PopSci's app, there's a lot of wow here: Infographics are interactive, and even 3D. (At one point you're presented with a 3D rendering of Mars, which you can rotate, and which contains pop-out rundowns of five decades of orbiters and landers.) Galleries aren't designed to a template as we're used to on the web, instead designed to the format of the page, such that it's not terribly obvious that they're galleries—your eye just wanders to a graphic, then is pleasantly surprised by the option to alter it, or swap it out. Navigation is as straightforward as you could want: Swipe to the right for a new page, and scroll down to see the rest of an article. Video is embedded, but kicks you out to the iPad's video player. In text, this may sound a bit like a well-designed website, and to an extent, that's what it is. But there's is a perceptual difference, in the tactile feel, the instant responses, and the general sharpness of everything (the photos invariably pop, though that's more a function of image choice than anything else). Things, on the surface, look pretty good. So... what's the problem?
Consider the facts:
• Wired's app is $5. I could buy a subscription to the magazine, for a year, for around $10. A year of Wired purchased from the App Store would cost $60. Conde is apparently working on a unified pricing scheme across print and digital for the New Yorker, so maybe it'll filter over to Wired? Who knows. I know it must have cost a ton to develop this thing, but readers don't care about that: They care about the words. These words cost too much. (Also, it's not like this magazine doesn't have ads. It's got a fucking ton of ads.)
• It's over 500MB. Don't get me wrong, the graphics are lovely, and the videos look great. But in the time it took me to download and install this app on my iPad, I was able to walk to a bodega, take out cash at an ATM, get a cup of coffee, come home, and send a few emails. Hell, I could have picked up a copy of Wired while I was out; I spotted a few copies in a stand next to the counter. (Last month's issue, but still.)
• It's still quite obviously a magazine. It may seem like a fine distinction, but with this app Wired hasn't reinvented the magazine, they've just reinvented Wired. Wired's graphic design is legendary, and I'd hate to see it sacrificed for the iPad app. But some of these magazine conventions don't really work—in this app, I never feel like I've truly tucked into an article, as I do with the print edition, or even an Instapaper bookmark. PopSci had this problem, too, and it's worrying that none of the mag world's stars have figured out what to do with it. (Interestingly, the best handling of long-form writing I've seen in an iPad app came from Vanity Fair, which is published by the same company as Wired.)
• The little things! For example, you can't copy and paste, or share an article. (Some of this is coming in the future, apparently.)
And then, well, there's the experience, the look, the feel—there's the app itself. We saw the demos before launch, in Wired Reader, and we gushed. Rightfully! Even watching them now, I'm impressed. But in my hand, it's... emotionally underwhelming? Visually overwhelming? I don't know. It doesn't really click—the layout and design are to my eye impeccable, and the interactive infographics are objectively impressive, but I find myself wishing for a web page, some flat text, or something.
But man, those early demos! Magazines were going to be interactive, y'know? There was much talk of the future, of revolution. And following the buzz, there was execution. This is that app, minus about, dunno, 15 experiential percent?
The video, the diagrams, the interactivity—it's all here, but in my hands, it doesn't capture the magic it had before, on that video, and more importantly, in our eager imaginations. Wired didn't break their promise; we just bought too far into it.
Wired's app is a broad step toward the ideal of an interactive app. Sure, it's a pain to swipe through all those ads—I don't know why digital mags should adhere to the same ad conventions as paper ones—and there's still a lot of tuning to be done, but I guess I see what they're going for, vaguely. It's attractive and flashy, impressive, but expensive. It's aspirational.
The alternative ideal for digital magazines is a stripped-back approach—either scanned PDFs, or near-bare OCR scans of the current issues, more or less like web content. These cost very little to make, so—and this is why I call it an ideal—publishers could give readers their entire archives, on tap, for almost nothing. But that's only attractive for a certain category of readerly, word-heavy magazines, and again, it's unclear how you'd sell that, either: Is it a bonus to the regular mag? A separate subscription?
These aren't new questions—they're the same ones that more cynical observers have been asking since the first eruptions of iPad hype around the press. It's just that with Wired, the uber mag app, they still haven't been answered. [Wired]