Khoi Vinh: Magazines Are Failing at the iPad

Former New York Times design director Khoi Vinh has been critical of publishers’ approaches to the iPad. Their early efforts have had “dim prospects for long-term success,” he has argued, and poor sales numbers for many of those products would appear to support that argument. But where are they getting it wrong, and what can publishers do to make the most of the tablet opportunity? Speaking with Digiday, Vinh shared his thoughts on the continued shortcomings of publishers’ iPad strategies, why the magazine format won’t survive on tablets, and why HTML5 is the publishing platform of the future.

What do you think of the way publishers have approached the device so far? What are they doing wrong?

Mainstream publishers haven’t generally done a great job so far. This is becoming an old point to make now because the iPad has been out for over a year and the criticism remains the same, but most efforts are traditional in their nature. Publishers seem focused on trying to recreate an order that existed in print, and I don’t think it’s going to work on tablets.

So what, if anything, are they doing right?

There’s really been no resounding publishing success. There were a few interesting offerings early on, such as Entertainment Weekly’s Must List app. Instead of trying to recreate the whole magazine, they just filtered it down to a useful product. That was nicely done, a modest success.

How important is the emergence of HTML5 for tablet publishers? Can you see them gravitating towards browser-based experiences over apps as that technology becomes more robust?

There are two strains here. On the tech side, HTML5 is the way of the future. It’s too expensive to publish native apps for iOS, Android and all the different platforms. HTML5 is a much better delivery mechanism for this stuff than a native app. It’s much more affordable and much more portable. On the other side, though, it’s not just about the tech. I had underestimated how effective Apple’s AppStore would be in terms of distributing applications. You can’t beat that, so publishers will have to stay with apps for at least the immediate future.

To date, publishers seem to have focused on simply updating or transposing their print products for use on the device, but are they missing an opportunity in doing so? Should they be rethinking the way they deliver content from the ground up?

Absolutely. I just can’t see the end-to-end magazine format surviving. The Internet lets people consume media in a-la-carte form. To force a package of content on folks is unnatural. Some folks will continue to like the magazine format, but as social distribution becomes the way we discover and receive more of our content, it won’t make sense to sell it in these virtual boxes any more.

What possibilities should publishers be exploring, then?

One glaring omission in the way we package content for tablets is really relevance. Much like when you go to Amazon, they display similar products other people have bought; we don’t have anything nearly as good in realm of publishing. It’s not just recommendations, though. It’s about understanding true relevance. If you look at an app like Flipboard, that’s the one major thing it’s missing. The tech startup that can solve that problem will push forward this area of digital publishing in a big way.

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