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On Satoru Iwata and magazines

September 16th, 2012

So imagine you sell an entertainment product. Ten years ago it was very popular, with millions of customers prepared to pay decent money to enjoy the product you made. These days, sales have shrunk – in part because people are getting something similar, cheaper, on smartphones and the web – and some suggest that your product might die out entirely.

Sound familiar?

The other day, courtesy of the 8-4 podcast, I came across this interview with Nintendo's Satoru Iwata, in which he discusses the 3DS and mobile gaming. And he makes the following point:

"I think within games you have two needs that people fill. One is the time-filler need. The other is that it's a very important time for me and I want to have a rich experience. Those are two separate needs, I think."

"The other thing is how much are consumers willing to pay to play. I think that consumers who are willing to pay money for a gaming experience are looking for something that is more rich and are willing to spend some of that valuable time on that experience. I believe that as environments change and as the world progresses we're going to have different ways in which people want to spend their time. That being said, I don't think we're going to see the desire to have, again, rich and deep sort of gaming experiences… we're not going to see that vanish. That's not going to go away."

Which, as somebody currently buried 30 hours into Tales of Graces F on the PS3, but also worryingly addicted to Super Hexagon while riding the train to work, makes a lot of sense. Many people will only ever dip in and out of video games, and 69p apps that can fill five minutes (or before them, those pay-to-download mobile games) will suit them perfectly. Other people want to enjoy splurging 50+ hours on a big immersive experience that sucks them in, and won't mind paying £30-50 for the privilege. And many of us like both. See also: The Simpsons vs The Wire on TV, or supermarket fiction vs, say, Infinite Jest on the bookshelf.

Or, yes, magazines.

About ten years ago I first started writing for magazines. That first year, the mag I was working on recorded an ABC figure (Audit Bureau of Circulation – essentially, your monitored, verified sales figures) higher than the one before. And we celebrated, of course. Since then, year on year, sales have declined. Not badly, of course – I've been lucky enough to work on some great magazines that have held up comparatively well – but always slightly declining. Not something to celebrate, especially as you see, year on year, other magazines shutting around you.

So you can see why some are convinced that magazines are doomed entirely. But, while the audience might have shrunk, that doesn't mean that no audience remains. And what good, thick magazines* provide is not the same as, say, a news website or blog** or cyclone of words, poorly aggregated from the web. Like a sit-down-and-play video game, a big novel or following the same godawful football team every week all season,  it's a decision to spend a chunk of time doing something you actually enjoy. Or, to borrow some words, one where it's "a very important time for me and I want to have a rich experience".

And that's not, I believe, going to go away.

So, money where my mouth is, on Friday I'm launching a new magazine. It will be big, will take time to download and – after the first issue, which is free – will cost money to read. And it will only be available (from launch, at least) on the iPad, because the concept of a magazine is no more tied to print than novels are to paperbacks. But I hope that it will fit into the "very important time" audience that Iwata-san describes, and that readers will enjoy it enough to want to set aside a few hours, and around £2, each month. I guess what we're aiming for is the 50+ hour RPG experience of publishing.

Might not put that on the cover, though.

 

* There's no doubt at all that some magazines are, at best, cheap time-filler – I assume these will survive only as long as their audience lacks cheap access to the same material online

** I like news websites and blogs, and spend a lot of time reading them. I have never, though, set aside a few hours of my weekend to do so

On text on the iPad

March 22nd, 2012

Since the launch of the newer, shinier iPad, some people are unhappy with iPad magazines. Here's an example that's been floating around Twitter:

One of the limitations of The New Yorker app for iOS becomes even more apparent while reading on the new iPad’s high resolution retina display.

I’ve noticed in the past that the first few articles (Talk of the Town, etc.) in each issue are text selectable and therefore able to be copied, words can be defined using a built in dictionary, and these pieces can be emailed and tweeted. The rest of the magazine is like a tiff or jpeg — everything is baked into page and there is nothing you can do with the text.

This has always been annoying and I suspect is part of the reason each issue weighs in at hundreds of megabytes (a magazine of mostly text mind you). … For some reason they don’t use rendered text for their main articles as they do for their first few shorter articles. And the baked in files, whatever they are, aren’t high res enough for the retina screen. And what’s terrible is that if they fix this, the file sizes of each issue will get even bigger. Perhaps twice as big.

I think they are scared of people being able to copy and paste their content and share it. But if they want to win over converts to the digital version of their very fine magazine, they need to get over their fear and make the best possible magazine for the iPad.  Not cripple it in order to try to lock it down.

Similarly, notable Apple fan John Gruber and co on The Talk Show* podcast: "It looks like total ass. It's a really, really stupid way to put a magazine on screen."

Both are commenting on The New Yorker for iPad, which is made by The Condé Nast publications using Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite platform. But the same applies to many magazines using rival technologies, too, including ones that I work on.

At this point, a disclaimer: this post does not represent the views of my employer. It represents the views of a guy who's spent well over a year worrying about iPad magazines every single day, to the point of near obsession. To my knowledge, my employer does not have an official position on this issue.

Rasterising text is not DRM

With that out of the way, here's the thing: I very much doubt the people who make The New Yorker have ever considered rasterising text as a method to prevent copying-and-sharing. Preventing the copying and sharing of magazine content is depressingly difficult once you've printed it***. I'd put money on them having chosen it for the same reason that many others have: because they're working on a magazine.

Let me elaborate.

There are, broadly, three ways to put text onto an iPad screen: native, HTML and rasterised. Native text is rendered by the iPad inside a textview, HTML is rendered by the Safari webkit engine in a webview, and rasterised text is rendered as an image containing text. There are very obvious benefits to the first two options: both native and HTML text can be selected, copied, dynamically resized (given the option is coded in) or even read aloud. And, if Apple releases a newer device with a higher screen resolution, it'll render out beautifully with no amendments to the issue or app required. Over at Tap!, one of very few magazines to use native text, editor Chris Phin summarises the benefits neatly here.

And none of this is possible with rasterised text. So why do we use it?

Layout and text control.

Use native or HTML text in an app and you're at the mercy of the engine that renders it out onto the screen. In many cases – including my own non-magazine apps, incidentally, which use a combination of the two – this is just fine. If the text is relatively short and principally functional, and you don't really mind where the lines break, or if paragraphs end up with orphans, then it's OK. Text in columns is a particular pain, although CSS3 has made some strides towards improving matters on this front, and we've managed to come up with usable solutions for news-based text.

If you're working on a magazine with long format text, however,  where the layout of the words on the page is fussed over to a frankly obsessive degree in order to give the very best possible experience to the person reading a 4,000 word feature, this borders on the unthinkable. Let the device handle text layout and you'll end up with nasty line breaks, widows, orphans, the works.  And if you want to wrap it elegantly around image runarounds, or tweak the tracking on headlines so that they're exactly right, you can forget about it (obviously, giving the user text size control makes this even worse).

And this matters. If you've ever been distracted by a nasty break in a poorly set book, you'll know why. Well set text is invisible, badly set text is not. It's one of the reasons why it's more comfortable to read, for example, an article in the print New Yorker than it is an online version: websites, which of course are entirely dependent on browser text rendering, have precious little text flow control.

Raster, man.

And so, rasterisation. You set the text perfectly in a tool such as InDesign, run that down to bitmap images (not Jpegs, in our case, as it happens, but still bitmaps), and you put it on the screen. And it gives readers the experience of a magazine, with the perfectly honed reading experience they expect. And we care about this stuff – I've even seen a grown man break out a type depth scale on an iPad screen to check the leading.

The iPad 3 arrived with a screen that's twice the resolution and, yes, text rasterised  on an assumption that it'll be shown on the iPad 2 screen doesn't look perfect – the images used to hold text are being scaled two times by the iPad. Many magazines will have to update. You can bet that, like us, they've been stockpiling retina-resolution art for some time in preparation for this, and no, it's not always going to double-to-quadruple issue filesizes (each page is not a single flat image). And we plan to deliver retina-quality images only to retina-capable devices, of course.

So while rasterising text is not a perfect system – to state the blindingly obvious, there is no perfect system – and for a few weeks after the launch of a new iPad product it's one that can be troublesome, but there's a simple reason that we do it: an iPad magazine should look as good, if not better than, a print one. And those who see only a few jagged edges and declaim it as the stupidest thing ever, and so on, are seeing only the technology, and missing the point: in a magazine, it's not only the words themselves that matter.

 

* There's some odd stuff said in this podcast, incidentally. "There's a reason why the New Yorker was not included in the Newstand by default", it says, suggesting that this was an Apple call – Newsstand status needs to be flagged by the developer. (UPDATE – Thanks to @bobrudge and @wmerrifield, who both tell me that J Gruber is referring to the titles pre-loaded, or not, on an iPad given to him by Apple).

**  Previously there was a moan here about pixel doubling. I checked with a loupe, and that is indeed what's going on. My error.

*** Don't ask. I'll become even more boring.

Life

January 17th, 2009

life_oak_ridge

Photo: Oak Ridge, taken by Ed Clark for Life Magazine in 1945. Details here.

Since visiting the Cold War Modern exhibit I've been looking for more information on the American National Exhibition held in Moscow in 1959. So far I've turned up depressingly little that I didn't already know, but I did stumble back into Google's Life Magazine archive.

When it was launched a few months back I vaguely noted that this project sounded interesting. Now I'm convinced that it's one of the best things on the internet. Search for anything from 1860 to 1979 (the Nixon/Kruschev kitchen debate, for example) and it turns up photo after photo after brilliant photo. If you have a few hours to lose, do go take a look.

On an entirely unrelated note, I've made some changes to the design here: out go the red leaves, in comes something more blue (this is a decision entirely unrelated to politics). If you spot any oddnesses, please let me know.

Cat fame, again

March 27th, 2008

Cats in the magazine

Furthering their attempts to take over the world, and branching out from previous appearances in magazines published by Dennis, Hunter and Ralph will soon be invading a WH Smiths near you in the CA Ultimate Guide to Easy Website Building. Check them out – and enjoy a special guest appearance by Boris the Myspace Panda – on pages 13 and 14.

Oh, and there's advice on website building, too. Well worth £6, if I say so myself.