iPad as the new Flash

Jeffrey Zeldman Presents

iPad. Never have so many embraced a great product for exactly the wrong reasons.

Too many designers and publishers see the iPad as an opportunity to do all the wrong things—things they once did in Flash—without the taint of Flash.

In the minds of many, the iPad is like Flash that pays. You can cram traditional publishing content into an overwrought, novelty Flash interface as The New York Times once did with its T magazine. You may win a design award but nobody will pay you for that content. Ah, but do the same thing on the iPad instead, and subscribers will pay—maybe not enough to save publishing, but enough to keep the content coming and at least some journalists, editors, and art directors employed.

It’s hard to argue with money and jobs, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so.

Alas, the early success of a few publications—publications so good they would doubtless survive with or without iPad—is creating a stampede that will not help most magazines and interfaces that will not please most readers.

Everything we’ve learned in the past decade about preferring open standards to proprietary platforms and user-focused interfaces to masturbatory ones is forgotten as designers and publishers once again scramble to create novelty interfaces no one but them cares about.

While some of this will lead to useful innovation, particularly in the area of gestural interfaces, that same innovation can just as readily be accomplished on websites built with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—and the advantage of creating websites instead of iPad apps is that websites work for everyone, on browsers and devices at all price points. That, after all, is the point of the web. It’s the point of web standards and progressive enhancement.

Luke Wroblewski’s Touch Gesture Reference Guide gives designers plenty of ammunition to create dynamic user experiences that work on a wide variety of mobile phones and devices (including iPad) while these same sites can use traditional desktop browser effects like hover to offer equally rich experiences on non-touch-enabled browsers. Unless your organization’s business model includes turning a profit by hiring redundant, competing teams, “Write once, publish everywhere” makes more economic sense than “Write once, publish to iPad. Write again, publish to Kindle. Write again, publish to some other device.”

I’m not against the iPad. I love my iPad. It’s great for storing and reading books, for browsing websites, for listening to music and watching films, for editing texts, presentations, and spreadsheets, for displaying family photos, and on and on. It’s nearly all the stuff I love about my Mac plus a great ePub reader slipped into a little glass notebook I play like a Theremin.

I’m not against iPad apps. Twitterific for iPad is by far the best way to use Twitter. After all, Twitter is really an internet service, not a website; Twitter’s own site, while leaps ahead of where it used to be, is hardly the most useful or delightful way to access its service. Gowalla for iPad is my constant companion. I dread the idea of traveling without it. And there are plenty of other great iPad apps I love, from Bloom, an “endless music machine” by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, to Articles, which turns Wikipedia into an elegant reading experience, to Mellotronics for iPad, an uncannily accurate Mellotron simulator packed with 13 authentic voices—“the same production tapes featured on Strawberry Fields Forever” and other classic tracks (not to mention tracks by nouveau retro bands like Eels).

There are apps that need to be apps, demand to be apps, and I admire and learn from them like every other designer who’s alive at this moment.

I’m just not sold on what the magazines are doing. Masturbatory novelty is not a business strategy.

64 thoughts on “iPad as the new Flash

  1. I think your iPad app critique is generally spot-on, but doesn’t touch on a few things that I think make the discussion a bit more interesting:

    * Web standards, coupled with mobile OS code frameworks, can also be used to design native apps for iOS devices (as well as Android and others). So web standards and native apps can actually play together for the right content-providers, customers, and business opportunities.

    * The above enables a new type of indie publishing that can sell affordable content for mobile devices in app stores (and without the visual costs of being confronted with ads on “free” web sites), rather than going through the more expensive e-publishing route that requires procuring ISBN numbers, etc.

    * One could argue that one of the iPad experiences you defend, reading books, is actually somewhat masturbatory: do digital pages really need to emulate paper to be effective?

    In the end, we both agree that the best way to deliver content to mobile devices is via web standards and native mobile interfaces rather than unnecessarily blinged-up interfaces. But the only acceptable mobile apps need not only be ones that feature free or social content.

  2. In a lot of ways the iPad is like a kiosk at some museum. The cool factor plus the content keeps people engaged. But I agree, in principle…but I wonder if all devices, including the personal computer, will go the way of touch, which may render traditional mouse-based events irrelevant.

  3. Jeffrey, this post is so full of win that I don’t know where to start.

    You hit the nail on the head when you talked about having to publishing differently for every device. This is only going to become more pronounced as more tablets hit the market. Wired is already designing their magazine for 2 different orientations for the iPad, what’s going the happen when they want to publish on 20 different Android tablets with 20 different screen resolutions?

  4. I agree. Much as I love certain iPad apps, it would be a shame if the web space got fragmented by the need to translate every idea into multiple formats. A web site is the universal donor or the internet. The more we keep that format as the standard, the more open the web will be.

  5. I was wondering when you were going to blog this based on your Twitter stream the other day. I agree completely and I think that while the iPad is a great platform it is starting to appear as though it’s becoming just like Flash and Shockwave (remember that?) were years ago.

    To be honest, I think that all this novelty will eventually wear off just like it did with Flash and you’ll probably see these same folks heading back to the Web to do these same kind of things. I believe we’re in a transitional phase right now as HTML5, CSS3 and the shload of new JavScriptacular tricks become more commonplace. Technically-speaking you can mimic “iDevice” UIs quite well in HTML/CSS/JS now with libraries like Sencha Touch. It’s only going to snowball from here.

    We’ve come a long way in making Web Standards more financially-appealing (thank you!), but there’s always more work to be done. Hopefully these folks will begin to see the folly of platform- and/or device-specific development.

  6. On the surface when you talk about the The New York Times magazine it is assumed that you’re talking about the Sunday Magazine. This, to the best of my knowledge, was never the case.

    I believe you are referring to the T Magazine in the Stykes section?

  7. I’ll agree that the New Yorker app has a shitload of problems, many driven by a explicit and inexplicable urge to *not* be a web-like experience (removing hyperlinks being chief among their crimes). But it does contain an emerging interaction design paradigm that I like.

    For small collections of content, where the content is thematically connected but subdivided into smaller subunits of varying length (today’s paper with a collection of a few dozen news stories; 100 drawings by an artist with multiple sets of drawings of different subjects; best short stories of the year with 30 stories of various lengths), I am seeing some UX designers using a model of swiping up and down to scroll through a single article or set of images, while swiping horizontally to skip to the next or previous item in the collection. Scrolling in the X direction to read a long article, just like a web page, but swiping sideways to leave the article and go to the top of the next article, which is nothing like a web page. This is a genuinely pleasant way of idly skipping around through things like, say, issues of magazines.

    I agree that the browser is often the superior interface for experiencing content on a tablet device. But I’m not convinced it’s the best, and I encourage experimentation so that new ideas, like the X-to-read/Y-to-skip model, might emerge and evolve.

  8. All I know is putting a page flipping effect on iPad content to make it feel more like a book is similar to putting a saddle on an automobile to make it feel more like a horse.

  9. I agree on some points.

    For starters, I say ‘amen’ to developing websites and web-based apps as opposed to native apps. In very few cases is native functionality needed for an app to work well (something WhiterApps has set out to demonstrate).

    On the other hand – I hesitate to agree with your condemnation of ‘masturbatory’ apps only because I’m not entirely clear which ones you’d consider to be self-absorbed, and which you wouldn’t.

    For example, I think apps like the Mag+ demonstration and the new Esquire app are doing some very interesting things and pushing the limits of the platform in exciting new directions.

    I agree with you in principle, but I think we may draw the line in different places.

  10. Great post. I think you’re hitting on a critically important issue here Jeffrey.

    I think we should weigh very, very carefully any sort of proprietary means of distributing content that is tethered to one company (that in fact decides what can or can’t get through) and one particular brand of hardware.

    Also, the Web is based on a basic ground rule that changed the world: a single URL represents a unique, shareable resource. We should continue to build atop that piping and deliver richer, better experiences on the Web. I don’t want to share something on a device that requires that same device.

  11. I’m not sure I understand why people get upset when an interface isn’t “standards compliant”. Personally I love creativity and exploration and I’m quickly bored by all those apps that use the exact same navigation. Sometimes you can’t even tell which app you currently have open! If the border is dark blue you must be in the Facebook app, if there’s a bird somewhere you must be in a twitter app…

  12. It’s interesting that you bring up Flash in this context, as I think the problems you’re seeing are intrinsically related. A large percentage of these tepid iPad app-magazines are Condé Nast publications, and guess who it partnered with to deliver them? Why, Adobe. Adobe inserted itself firmly between the ‘write once, publish’ chain and sold them its tools, likely before the iPad was publicly available, seemingly banking on Flash being there on iOS to power all these superfluous interface gimmicks that so appeal to the execs they pitched it to.

    The only problem was that it didn’t quite work out that way. There was no Flash, so the desperate workarounds commenced. Hence, the early app-magazines were huge: as the linked Switched article points out, the premier New Yorker iPad edition weighed in at a portly 173MB megabytes, and Wired’s first edition was a mammoth 500MB, because each page was actually a large bitmap image. That’d explain why you can’t select or reflow the text, and the absence of links. Classy, and oh so accessible.

    Things have changed again now that Apple has relaxed the iOS developer license to allow compiled Flash, so it’s possible that some of the newer app-magazines will actually *be* running Flash, with all its taint. Perhaps the WaSP needs to resurrect the Adobe Task Force to assist them with these iPad tools so they generate HTML5 instead? (As an aside, if anyone thinks that Adobe was responsible for the licencing change, maybe they should look in the direction of the desperate screams from the publishers that they’d sold solutions to.)

    I’m hoping that these are teething troubles that will be eliminated with time, that they’re merely a legacy of the Old World of publishing where the dominant workflow still feeds from printed magazine downward. I’m not against repackaging to better suit each platform per se – it’s not hard to make a mobileSafari app that behaves like a native app, for example, as Kristofer says – but I thoroughly agree that the target’s foundations should be powered by web-standards and therefore automatically sympathetic to the platform, not individually compiled apps or a 3rd party controlled format like Flash.

    The other complication is how to charge for each issue. They’re currently all individual $5 apps because there’s no other way for publishers to sell them to their satisfaction, but I’m not convinced they’ll continue to sell for this price – will people really continue to pay this amount monthly, or will they purchase the first as a gimmick and then give up? What’s really needed are subscriptions. If rumours are true, Time Inc. wanted to sell a Sports Illustrated app through the store then charge subscribers directly, but Apple takes a cut of all in-app subscriptions and the publishers aren’t having that – it’s likely that this is the reason none of the majors have a subscription plan in place for iPad apps yet. Because, by God, they’ve still not figured out how to sell digital content themselves but they’ll be damned if they’ll find themselves beholden to Apple like the record labels are.

    The interest thing out of all this is that if they went down the route you hint at and roll their own web apps for each issue, not only could they achieve similar results to the compiled apps, but they could reuse much more of the code & content, distribute them themselves, manage their own subscriptions and charge what they like, and Apple wouldn’t get any cut whatsoever. (Of course, they’ll have to do without the App Store benefits, such as advertising, Apple’s DRM, etc.) If anything’s going to convince them to take the standards-based route, perhaps that is it.

    (Oh my, did that turn into an essay. Sorry.)

  13. I think the benefit of combining both is you can create a website using web standards that can play in a webview embedded in a native app. using authentication and subscription through the native portion to ensure access to the content, and allowing you to create a thin wrapper for each of the competing platforms out there. What’s wrong with having a small wrapper?

  14. Thank you for this post! I felt always uncomfortable by seeing publishers and designers delivering content for a proprietary device (in the past and in the present). I strongly believe in media neutrality and standards conformity, and we fought hard fights to publish content without having a special browser or device in mind. Now I am afraid we might end up at the same point as we were 10 years ago: browser war starts again, but now it’s more a (mobile) device war.

  15. Scrolling in the X direction to read a long article, just like a web page, but swiping sideways to leave the article and go to the top of the next article, which is nothing like a web page. This is a genuinely pleasant way of idly skipping around through things like, say, issues of magazines.


    You’ve got me there; I agree. It’s the one thing that really works about my New Yorker iPad subscription. It’s an interesting innovation and while it would certainly be possible on the web, we likely wouldn’t do it there. Yet I wonder if the costs to the user experience (leaving aside the cost of platform dependence) don’t outweigh the benefits of a pleasant innovation.

    Off the top of my head, limiting my example to the movie reviews in the front of the “book,” I can’t bookmark a movie review I like, I can’t save it (except by saving the entire 200 MB magazine), I can’t share it, I can’t refer to it online or in print by linking to it (or printing the URL, as there is none), I can’t even share it privately by copying and pasting, as that is not supported.

    Once I stopped being confused by the X/Y interface, I found it mildly delightful. But, much as I admire and enjoy The New Yorker, I’m unlikely to keep buying issues for my iPad. Not because I’m a “standards purist,” but because I find the experience so unlike what I expect from hypertext as to be deeply frustrating.

    Interestingly, I’m only mildly peeved by my inability to share or cite passages from ePub and .mobi digital books. This is inconsistent of me, or seems to be. But I’m used to a book being a large—and largely personal—experience. There are no real examples on the web of genuine book reading experiences (unless you consider downloading an unstyled Project Gutenberg text a “web experience”), thus I have no user expectations of sharing.

    (Indeed, I consider the budding sharing experiences built into iBooks and Kindle somewhat freaky. Highlight a passage and you can’t share it with a friend, but it will go into a database of shared passages, and unknown users will eventually notice the most highlighted passages. This seems like the kind of feature Google would have invented. Brilliant for robots.)

    By contrast, we’ve been putting magazines and newspapers online for nearly 20 years, and we expect all kinds of interactivity. Thus I expect to be able to share, save, and bookmark content in a magazine’s iPad app. When I can’t do that, I find the experience emotionally unsatisfying.

    The “advantage” of saving all of a magazine issue’s content on a device with limited storage capacity, and in a format where I can’t really access and use that content—I can only look at it—doesn’t match up to the benefit of being able to digitally cite content that is stored online at a permanent URI. Does it?

  16. Every time the touch-app-vs-website conversation resurfaces it reveals some pretty stunning misconceptions held by members of our own community regarding the so-called “limits” of the native Web. Precious few of the interactions mentioned for the iPad are indeed the sole domain of the iPad. (Swiping? Yeah, websites can be built to do that too, folks.) In a medium as broad and technically diverse as the Web, a “Web-like experience” is precisely what you make of it. And what folks have often been making of it is just a subset of the full toolbox. If you’re a designer/developer and you’ve been answering the question, “What’s a Web page look and feel like?” with anything other than some version of, “That depends…,” or if you think much of what’s being built for iPad apps can only be built with iPad apps, it’s time to broaden your gaze.

  17. Though I don’t know that I have seen anyone come out and say this, it seems to me that the print world sees the iPad as their savior, the one who will deliver them past the limits of the icky web browser that confined to much of their creativity. David touches the same nerve I have with all of this. Web creators should not take a defensive position in response to mobile content apps UX but instead find ways to re-create some using the web standards we fought so hard for–especially in the last year. As designers we now have everything we need to create almost any kind of user experience: responsive layouts, colors, typography, and effects, all with very slight limitation or none. Most of us may not have control over an iPad app design but we do create and manage web-based publications. So lets show iPad designers a thing or to about publication design.

    > All I know is putting a page flipping effect on iPad content to make it feel more like a book is similar to putting a saddle on an automobile to make it feel more like a horse.

    I nominate this as best comment of the thread.

  18. As incisive and though-provoking as ever. I think there’s a parallel between this and what happened when the web first took off. Companies saw it as an opportunity to, ah, well, make HTML versions of their marketing brochures. Today, publishers, swooning over the iPad (which I adore and take everywhere with me) are, well, dumping their magazines and newspapers on the iPad without any thought for what the iPad is and how it is used. I have not seen a single good magazine on the iPad. The same goes for newspapers. The WIRED app is Flash for iPad; the WSJ has driven me to start buying print newspapers. The iPad is an opportunity to completely rethink the book and the magazine. What surprises me most is, that with all that talent out there, no-one has yet to take up that challenge.

  19. Totally agree that we can use html/css/js to create online magazine, with out an app. but if we present news to the users in a browser, they sees it as being free, and it’s this that make the publishers put their news in an app, cause if it’s an app, we are more likely to pay for the content.
    A currently working on a magazine app, where all content is created using html/css/js, but is made as an app, simply to get people to pay, and that is really the only thing the app layer does.
    So magazine apps is coming, cause the publishers need a way to get people once again pay for online news.

  20. I definitely agree with this and unfortunately it was the “cool factor” that made all of these publishing companies rush to be the first with a magazine app without considering the consequences of what other devices will soon come out. I guess you can call this “agile publishing” to steal the term from “agile programming.”

    Things will continue to go down this road until there is an ePub+multimedia standard for rich content such as magazines.

  21. Great article. I was one of those saps who got an iPad straight away and though I think it’s ace, one of the first things I did was download the Wired magazine app. I watched as this newest of devices instantly transported me back to the mid ’90s, with pixely graphic text set in stone everywhere, and contrived grainy animations.

    There’s a lot of bandwagon jumping, and a lot of design posturing. But it doesn’t feel as heinous as the early days of Flash, and everyone’s just figuring this whole thing out. When it comes to digital publishing (and the design that comes with it) I think the tools and standards we need will come.

  22. As soon as something becomes digital, all friction is removed from making copies. That means all of today’s media – books, magazines, newspapers, music, television and movies – can be instantly and effortlessly duplicated. The web was built on that principle and continues to thrive when that principle is amplified. When content on the web is searchable, indexable, translatable, transcludable, quotable, or copy-and-pastable it matches an expectation web users have had for decades. Mess with that, and you fundamentally break the user experience.

    I think the iPad is a fantastic amplifier of web-native content. It helps me aggregate and attenuate the content I’m interested in through feeds and shared content from my social networks. It makes me a better reader by reformatting and re-presenting that content in more digestible ways. The irony isn’t lost here: I read far more content from sources – mainstream or not – than I did before buying that device. But not one mainstream producer of content has helped me do that. The innovation has come from other sources: Twitter, Feeder, Instapaper, LongForm.org, Apture, and more.

    In fact, the mainstream sources seem determined to do the opposite.

  23. While I agree that there are some masturbatory apps out there that are annoyingly self-absorbed, design-wise, and a bit hostile to the user in terms of the way they’re built, I’m not at all convinced this is a widespread problem. By and large, the popular iPad apps, and especially those from big brands, are pretty well-designed and quite useful.

    I definitely agree that most magazines and newspapers would be better served to put their time and resources into building great websites instead of iPad apps, though.

  24. You raise some interesting points, but let me play a bit of devil’s advocate before circling around and agreeing with you.

    First, a confession – I write ActionScript3 for a living. I’m a Flash Platform developer. This doesn’t mean that I automatically disagree with criticisms of Flash – for the most part, I’m right there with you getting irritated at all-flash sites that break the back button, don’t let me copy-and-paste text and leave me scratching my head at mind-boggling interface decisions. That shit gets old, fast.

    But it also means that sometimes I get excited about innovations in interface design. I really like it when I’m looking at some sort of Flash experience and at first I’m confused but then clarity dawns and I suddenly understand the vision of the creator. If I’m browsing around the Flash Web Awards, I’m the first to admit that sometimes it’s hard to get at the content – but I think the big mindset that a talented Flash developer has is that sometimes, it’s not about the content. It’s about the experience.

    Was the first Wired iPad issue a complete UI Clusterfuck? Absolutely. But I sure did enjoy holding it in my hand, playing with it, seeing how it worked. It made me feel like a kid, in a way – “I wonder what happens when I touch this – oh look, it’s a video!” The content is not accessible, the filesize is huge – but it’s the most fun I’ve had flipping through a magazine in quite a while.

    At the end of the day, if you’re buying a magazine to read the articles then I absolutely agree with you – it should be perfectly obvious how to access those articles, and if you’re reading it on a 500 dollar piece of bleeding-edge internet-centric hardware then I absolutely agree with you that it’s ridiculous that you can’t link, copy, tweet etc about the content you’re reading. That’s just ridiculous.

    But hot damn, isn’t it exciting sometimes to pick up a piece of concept art masquerading as a user interface and just play with it?

    So I dunno, I don’t disagree with your larger point but I do feel like it’s a bit of a matter of perspective. It really depends on what you want to get out of it. I personally like the idea of magazines reinventing themselves as practically avant-garde interactive art pieces.

    That said, it really wouldn’t kill them to implement some accessibility features. Who knows, maybe they can invent a new UI Standard for referencing areas within a digital magazine?

  25. I seem to recall some recent studies on cognitive psychology that indicate that the physical act of the page turn actually aids in content retention for the reader, giving him or her the momentary break to process on a regular basis. Can’t find those links now, of course.

    Anyone else?

  26. “Page-turn effects to make iPad feel like a book are like a saddle in a car to make it feel like a horse.” Found it at Joshua Cohen within Linkedin, then with couple of extra clicks I found this place here, read again”sith couple of extra clicks”. No doubt it is a point driving one´s mind to many directions (including colective mental-masturbation), although I´d prefer to take a positive road onto: the thing is, the majority of developers out there are now as we speak trying on “getting” ($$$, time, pessession, traffic, etc) instead of “espreading” which is the original principel of Internet and so the Web. Now, Apps, web or any other form of “spreading” info, data, services and products that may will yet to come must be thought as “sharing interconection” NOT thouhgt as “this is mine and mine is better than everybody lese”. I think there is side explanation to this Internet development webXapps environment: too many youngers eager to make it there to the topo of hill, and less and less mature professionals, so that´s why the world has been going on towards a colapse, but again this is another history.

  27. The way I see it, this is less about the technology and more about the talent. In my own humble opinion, the magazines that are available on the iPad (whether they were built using Adobe’s tools or those from other vendors, like Woodwing) are only marginally different from their print versions, if at all. We really didn’t experience anything incredible about the web revolution until the 2.0 days when suddenly there was a two-way street — the web communicated with us and we were able to respond and interact.

    I believe the onus here is on the publishers to find a way to create and deliver compelling content. Taking the same content and making horizontal and vertical layouts, and embedding a video here or there, and adding slideshows doesn’t change the content. The web has completely changed the way companies think about how they run their business.

    I don’t think it’s the medium. I think it’s the content. Taking the same magazine and wrapping it up in a fancy touch-screen device does nothing. What we need is a redefinition of what a magazine actually is. And that hasn’t happened.

  28. I think it’s the other way around: the web usability has totally failed us! It’s a sad state of affairs when I actually send articles I want to read to Instapaper instead of continuing to read them inside a desktop browser, just to save myself from using various newspaper and magazine websites…

  29. I think Kristofer Layon (post #1) has the perfect idea of where we need to be headed in development:

    Web standards, coupled with mobile OS code frameworks, can also be used to design native apps for iOS devices (as well as Android and others). So web standards and native apps can actually play together for the right content-providers, customers, and business opportunities.

    If you design the information architecture once, using web standards, then port that into OS code frameworks, you’ve provided what customers expect from iOS, Android, WebOS, etc. while maintaining the integrity of design. I’m complete amateur-hour, but the lesson I’ve learned is that it’s always better to exclude a feature across the board, then to awkwardly cram it into a framework to satisfy a small percentage of users.

    What hasn’t been discussed as much as it should is the fact that the real lack is in content. Content is what keeps people in your app or on your website. The easier it becomes the churn out quality content, the better you’ll do.

  30. Companies seem to be treating the iPad like they treated the web with Flash: like interactive CD-ROMs of the 90s.

  31. As someone who has worked for a print magazine when the iPad hit (but now develops iOS apps full-time), I can tell you the typical print publisher is excited about the iPad, but they don’t really know exactly how to treat it – they thrust it on their dev teams: “make us an iPad app!”. Sometimes it’s just for the desire to have an app for the iPad, other times it’s because of their fear of the web: publishers don’t want their content “stolen”. And the web is home to web scrapers who regularly do just that.

    Speaking as a former web dev, now an iOS dev, I can tell you that I prefer native apps for viewing content in many cases because of the little details that web sites still can’t match. Even Apple has put aside efforts to make JS-based web frameworks that mimic native apps, because of little things like scrolling and animations that don’t. quite. match. They call it the “uncanny valley” in computer-animated movies. A lot of JS-based “write once, run anywhere” frameworks for the iPhone suffer from this issue.

    The scary thing is that Flash developers are excited about their ability to compile for iPhone, Android, etc. If you have a fear of Flash now, you’ll be terrified when you see how giddy they are in their Twitter accounts about this. It means that they won’t be able to take advantage of the latest features in the platforms, and if something breaks in a new OS, they’re hosed (as are their users) until Adobe releases an update.

    Don’t fight against native apps when they’re appropriate. Your fight should be against these “write once, run anywhere” frameworks and Adobe Flash/AIR, since they encourage these custom UIs and apps that look or feel out of place.

  32. Sure, we should all adhere to standards and create ubiquitous content, but I’m just curious… has anyone here tested any of these apps with groups of print readers?

  33. Zeldman is making a few questionable assumptions here.

    First, that publishers will essentially be remaking “masturbatory” interfaces ala the Flash sites of yore. Some will but I think most won’t, e.g., the NYTimes or New Yorker apps seem perfectly usable to me. And I appreciate that I’m not inundated by links, sharing options, and other things Web.

    Second, that open beats closed. Zeldman, like me, uses and loves his Mac. We don’t use open alternatives because the overall experience of OS X and native OS X applications is simply better. It may ultimately behoove publications to go the open route but it’s a rather arbitrary line Zeldman is drawing by saying some “apps…need to be apps…” and some do not. I’m more interested in what delivers the best user experience.

    Third, and related to the last point, is the idea that the “…same innovation can just as readily be accomplished…” with open technologies. This is partially true. You can reproduce much of the look and effects of iOS but there are many inherent, deal-breaking functional limitations. For example, if you need access to the device APIs you’re SOL. And I haven’t found an HTML5 app yet that didn’t feel…clunky. (Has anyone actually tried the Sencha Touch demos?) Publishers, at least for now, have valid reasons for building native apps.

    As more tablets emerge the functionality gap between open and native may narrow and the attractiveness of “write once, publish everywhere” could win out (though some argue, rather persuasively, even that’s not desirable). But it’s simply too early to say what path will be best for users and publishers and what technologies should get us there.

  34. It seems to me that a lot of the “masturbatory” nonsense of Flash 1990s-onwards era in fact inspired, extended, and eventually structured Web UI practices. While most of these Flash and iPad custom designs were and are of low quality, a few weren’t, and they eventually became parts of the standards we now praise.

    There is also a subtext to this article’s critique that I think is a worrying mindset among Web developers: perfection through universal standards. ‘There is an ideal design, and all must adopt it or we won’t leverage our communal intelligence.’ Common standards help us share, easily re-publish and re-purpose content, but so does eviscerating all human languages and cultures in the world except one.

  35. One thing I’ve been wondering about is whether this “masturbatory design” is actually a normal part of the process of design standardization.

    I mean, think about web design in, oh, 1998, three years after the web really entered the mainstream. We were feeling our way through what web design, what interface design should be. There was a lot of terrible stuff. There was some great stuff, too. Eventually, we began to standardize around the same basic concepts — header, footer, nav, content. As that happened, the “masturbatory” stuff either merged into the standard or became isolated as Bad UI/Bad UX.

    The iPhone was the first time most mainstream users ever held a touchscreen, much less a multitouch screen. That was 2007. We’re now three years in, with a new form factor in the iPad and a deluge of Android pads about to flood the market, and we’re in the exact same spot. Yeah, we want to say we’re “informed” by web design, but iPad app design is as “informed” by web design as 1998 web designed was informed by print design — haphazardly and in ways that did not work for the media or the form factor.

    So, yeah, it’s bad, and it’s masturbatory right now. But I think it’ll straighten itself out in the coming year as designers come to grips with how a tactile interface should be designed for.

  36. This title really has been eye opening to me. As you say its not very efficiënt for developers to build an application for more devices with its own programming language. Specially for magazine development. The online publishing of rich experience magazines is relatively new and has yet to be defined. Open web standards are not that far developed and the tablets, which are the perfect environment for that kind of content, are also slowly gaining marketing share.

    I love the experience of motion, sound and text and besides magazines, Im most exited by storytelling books. I very curious about these two and the technology that drives them.

  37. The iPad is a new device, but many of the institutions publishing for it are not new—they have systems and personnel and workflows and whatnot that were created for a different era. The Wired app is like most ebooks: a byproduct of a print production process. The people and procedures in the publishing industry have only barely caught up to the web; now the iPad stands before them as an opportunity to bring what they do well to a new market, without going through the long, painful, expensive process of adapting. That won’t last.

  38. So, yeah, it’s bad, and it’s masturbatory right now. But I think it’ll straighten itself out in the coming year as designers come to grips with how a tactile interface should be designed for.

    Design doesn’t straighten itself out. Designers talking about design does that.

  39. though some argue, rather persuasively, even that’s not desirable

    The cited article contains numerous mistaken assumptions about responsive design—mistaken assumptions which will soon be addressed elsewhere. Among them is what I cheerfully refer to as the Blood Libel on Responsive Web Design, first posited by Jeff Croft, successfully rebutted at the time, and continually repeated by new authors ever since. It’s like weeds. Cut them down and they pop up again. It’s like politics. But I digress.

    The Blood Libel is the notion that responsive design is naively posited as a full-time replacement for mobile sites, i.e. that it removes the need for a mobile site, for all sites, for all time.

    Not true. Sometimes you need a mobile site; sometimes you don’t. Like everything else in web design, it depends on the content, the purpose, the uses. When you need a mobile site, you need a mobile site. When you don’t, responsive design may do the trick. Ethan Marcotte, the creator of Responsive Web Design, said this at the time, but perhaps he did not say it loudly enough. I suspect that even if he had shouted it, people would still be coming along attacking Responsive Web Design for a claim it never made. It’s the web: people half-listen to a quarter of what you’re saying and then start arguing. It’s like a town square filled with angry, near-sighted lip readers.

    See also this by Mr. Marcotte.

  40. […] and the advantage of creating websites instead of iPad apps is that websites work for everyone, on browsers and devices at all price points.

    If only that were true… on modern browsers, yes. But on “for everyone”, and on browsers and devices at “all price points”? I don’t think so. And I neither own an iPad nor develop for it… but I’m just saying: a well defined platform will always provide the experience you want it to provide for all users… of that platform. Yes, we won’t all be able to use iPad apps unless we bought an iPad, but I think time’s better spent developing and innovating on platforms we like–at the moment that may be the iPad or HTML5–than creating limited web applications in a sort of common ground where all browsers can play, including IE6/7. And even 8.

    I’m the type of developer that hates having to use hacks, conditional stylesheets and/or javascript, etc. just so an application can display correctly across browsers. And let’s not confuse correctly with the desired design or user experience we were wishing for.

    I would agree that HTML5 together with a good browser (rendering engine, etc) is getting there, but does that display for “every user”? No, it doesn’t. One could argue that every user could install a free modern browser, say Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera… or wait for IE9 to be released and hope that it supports what we want it to support. But the reality is neither users end up updating, nor developers end up targeting updated browsers only. They play a middle-ground that’s holding back innovation.

    This is where iPad, in my opinion, has an advantage: you can innovate, and take advantage of many features that would take some time to be implemented in major websites. Say you want to use some CSS transitions / animations? I doubt you’ll do that in a web app at the moment, unless you expect to neglect a good portion of web users. When you’re developing for a closed platform (be that iPad or whateverPad) you know exactly what your users will get.

    I’m not saying it’s a good thing. I’m just saying calling it the new “flash” is a bit over the top.

  41. Cf. my posting “Publishers as Flashturbators.”

    Interesting coincidence, slightly different topic. I’m challenging the rush by magazines and newspapers to package their content in proprietary iPad apps that defy much of what the web has trained us to expect and desire from digital texts. You’re attacking the process by which many ePubs are produced on the grounds that it is often shoddily done, and that the people in charge often know little to nothing (and care even less) about how far we’ve come producing texts via web standards.

    On a slight tangent to that tangent, what do we make of an iPad App like Designing Obama, the digital version of the book by SimpleScott, a lead designer on the Obama web presence leading up to the election of 2008? Should that content have been expressed in XHTML, JPEGs, and CSS, and packed up as an ePub? Clearly, the standard ePub wouldn’t have worked nearly as well—not because of the limits of XHTML and CSS, but because of the deliberate layout limitations in the ePub format. So there’s a case, surely, where a self-contained “book app” (not an ePub) is best for those who wish to digitally (re)experience a visually rich, carefully designed art book.

    The whole thing could also be done as a website, of course, but the economics argue against that for the present. Hopefully in a few years, when he’s sold nearly all the copies he’s going to sell, Scott will put the entire experience online, for history’s sake.

  42. These are good points but I would add to the list the problem of findability.

    As you said, Mobile apps, like desktop widgets before them, have a place in the ecosystem, but they can’t and shouldn’t replace the web. The problem is that right now the mobile web still, mostly, sucks. So if user laziness rules the day (of course it does!) then I’d rather have something that works well right now (an app) then something that doesn’t. However, once the mobile web experience catches up to the desktop experience then its all about findability.

    Why would you want to create a user experience and then put it on a store shelf, if the alternative would be for you to be easily found either by the strength of what you provide (in a SERP) or by referrals (links)?

    At the end of the day I want my apps to provide customized functionality, not replace my internet.

    If you’d like to read more: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=441959761530

  43. @seho, RIGHT. ON.

    There is also a subtext to this article’s critique that I think is a worrying mindset among Web developers: perfection through universal standards. ‘There is an ideal design, and all must adopt it or we won’t leverage our communal intelligence.’ Common standards help us share, easily re-publish and re-purpose content, but so does eviscerating all human languages and cultures in the world except one.

    The exploration of interfaces on the iPad reveals two things to me:

    1. The web has become a largely soulless landscape of “best practices” and formulaic experiences; and

    2. Specialized “web designers” will miss the transition to surface-based interaction design because they’re still hung up on an institutionalized set of practices for the browser/screen, practices that they created for their own job security. This is exactly what happened when “web design” pushed out the venerable “advertising/creative” workflow between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.

    A lot of “web design” is not driven by real design practice at all, and I think the web has suffered for it. A false dichotomy has emerged between standards-compliant XHTML/CSS and Flash, as if there is not a vast landscape of problems, contexts, and solutions between. If you’re more focused on the mechanism than the context, then I suggest you’re not a designer, but an engineer.

    Design asks “why not?” Engineering explains why not. iPad is an early moment of a nascent new medium altogether. So what if there are “bad” apps out there? If you call yourself a designer, you should be exploring that new medium, not trying to constrain it.

  44. The reason that magazine content flows from the print publication downward is because in general the magazine is the only entity within a publishing company that can afford to create content.

    All the “new” media—web video, online, podcasting—don’t generate enough revenue to be able to pay to create content of a reasonable quality.

    And before everyone jumps on me and says that companies have to be “nimble” and “leverage resources” you have to understand that quality costs money. You need talented stylists, writers, art directors, image capturerers, and support people to generate content that people are willing to pay for.

  45. Magazine and book apps have one distinct advantage over websites: they are available offline. I use iTunes on my iPhone when I can’t connect to Pandora. Similarly, if the only option a magazine provides me is a website, I won’t be able to use it if I’m not connected to a network (e.g., during my interminable 1-hour subway commute each morning and evening, in an airplane, etc.).

  46. I’m not against custom-made apps. I’m against pictures of text passed off as a magazine app and tag soup stuffed into a zip archive and passed off as an ePub.

  47. I’m not against custom-made apps. I’m against pictures of text passed off as a magazine app

    I’m with you all the way.

    and tag soup stuffed into a zip archive and passed off as an ePub.

    Lawd knows I’m no fan of tag soup, but in the closed world of an ePub, I’m not sure I understand why it’s a problem.

    People with disabilities don’t use screen readers to access an ePub’s content. Likewise, Google isn’t indexing the content of the ePub, because the ePub exists in a world that’s entirely closed off from the internet, so the lack of proper semantics doesn’t hurt users who are searching or content providers who want their content to be found. And page weight probably isn’t much of an issue, either.

    Those are some of the primary reasons we prefer good semantic markup to tag soup on the web. I’m struggling slightly to understand why the existence of poorly authored ePubs is a problem worth worrying about. Is it a workflow thing, Joe? Do you envision content starting in well-authored XHTML and then going to the web as well as to the closed world of ePub? Is it about indexing the content in a database, and knowing that the content is well authored, so that it will last?

    I respect your passion on this subject, I just need help to understand precisely what real-world issues concern you. Thanks.

  48. Apps like these are made for controlled distribution of content. Its a monetizing love story that ends like most others. Apple is eating their lunch and if they want to give away their lunch, well, its their lunch.

    Still, I wouldn’t call the iPad “the new Flash” because the iPad is hardware. But, thats not what you are really saying and I get were you are going.

    Well constructed distribution is the power the internet gives us. iPad apps will take advantage of it just like my browser has for years. And the story of the iPad will be, “long live the web”.

    The power of control lives in software. The power of distribution lives in the web.

  49. I guess I haven’t quite read the rest of the comments, since there’s a ton, but what most of the first 10 or so comments fails to address is whats clearly in the title, open standards vs. proprietary platforms.

    Apps for the iOS are not open (as in open source, freely available); they filter through Apple, which is a very proprietary company, with very proprietary products.

    The comparison of Apple to Adobe (Flash) is a very accurate one in terms of openness.

    I agree very strongly with Jeffrey’s opinion of the web as flexible and adaptive, which is where the iPAD and Apple are not.

  50. Jeffery,
    I completely agree. In many ways, this is an attractive step backwards. I started going down the route of building an iPhone app for my WordPress site. Then I realized I could just install the WPTouch plugin and have it look like an iPhone app. This cost nothing, took 10 minutes to set up, and works great.
    Now, I have a website that looks like an app custom made for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, etc. If you’re on an iPad or desktop, it still works. Best of all, it’s all plain old HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

  51. Among them is what I cheerfully refer to as the Blood Libel on Responsive Web Design, first posited by Jeff Croft, successfully rebutted at the time, and continually repeated by new authors ever since. It’s like weeds. Cut them down and they pop up again. It’s like politics. But I digress.

    The Blood Libel is the notion that responsive design is naively posited as a full-time replacement for mobile sites, i.e. that it removes the need for a mobile site, for all sites, for all time.

    For the record, I never said any such thing, and you saying I did will heretofore be cheerfully known as The Blood Libel of Jeff Croft.

    Here’s what I actually said about responsive design, which you’ll note is similar enough to your stance that one might actually think you’re paraphrasing me:


    Let’s be careful about getting our facts straights before we start “cheerfully” accusing people of libel.

  52. Forgive me in advance for my cynicism…I probably shouldn’t say this at all as an employee, however…

    My experience as a grunt employee of a division in a transitioning-from-print-to-web voltron-esque mega-corporation is that business is always looking for ways to monetize on the cheap. Translation: they freaking love crappy apps. It takes mere weeks to make them, they release them for a single or few devices, call it a “revenue stream”, and forget about it as they move onto the next app. (The absolute best thing is if they can re-brand the same crappy product and sell it to dissatisfied former customers as if it’s a new product.)

    My essential suspicion toward apps stems from these observations. It seems to me that the decision to build an app has more to do with:

    1. The shoddy web design + web development team hasn’t the vaguest clue how to go about making the corporate website “mobile friendly.”

    2. The shiny factor (ie: marketing), “Oooh-Ahhh we have an app…that proves we’re a technology company — and look at all the nifty effects! GLEE! CHORTLE!”

    3. Copycatting. So-and-so in the same industry as us has one, and so we should make sure we have one, too. With all the same features. Actually, no need to write a spec: “Look at so-and-so’s app. Do it like that.”

    Very rarely does it have a thing to do with user experience or context. The big-wigs may throw around phrases like “mobile experience,” which they saw in a Mashable article they skimmed one time.

    But they have no idea what they mean by that and no one is seriously asking themselves if it’s the best way to disseminate the content.

    It’s like the app is a desirable end unto itself. Like half the so-called IT or web companies in the world are run by the same people who make children’s cereal. Gimmick, gimmick, gimmick. Now in PURPLE! It’s exactly like when everyone just had to have a Flash splash page. It was a stupid idea then, and a useless app is a stupid idea now.

    I’ve never owned a business, though. Perhaps if I had I’d be more sympathetic toward the possibility of pragmatic necessity behind these sorts of decisions.

  53. Guys, I think you are missing the point, people want good content and a way of viewing, reading, watching and experiencing it in a way that makes them happy.
    On average time reading a monthly magazine is 3 hours, average time reading same magazine on the iPad platform (Zinio, bespoke, Woodwing, Adobe) is also 3 hours, time at .com is 3 minutes.
    Making money out of content online, (i.e. paying people for work they produce) even after 20 years is still difficult, web’s free right (?)

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