Tablet-based magazines, digital TV and the uniqueness of the Web

A couple of weeks ago Martin Bryant asked himself “Are iPad magazines being killed by greed? and concluded “right now, it appears that there’s virtually no way to make magazines appealing on tablets… I’m sticking with paper."

The problem with tablet-based magazines, Martin wrote, is that they are “more interactive, more portable and better for the environment than paper ones, but if they’re way too expensive who’s going to buy them?"

In general, I disagree with the “better for the environment” part, or at least with always giving it for granted. Always be very careful with statements like that. I already explained why when I wondered how green iPad apps really are, not to mention all my articles about the so-called “green” .WWF file format.

Buying an iPad or any other tablet or laptop computer for that matter, only to download and read on screen one magazine, once per week or per month, is everything but green. If you read so little, stick to paper if you care about pollution. Manufacturing, shipping and using a computer pollutes a lot (read some examples here). If, instead, you regularly use a lot of “content” of many types (magazines, books, music, video…) then using only one computer, whatever form it has, to store and use all that content makes much more sense. As long as you don’t lose all your content when that computer breaks or the companies that supported it go out of business.

Even ignoring both the environment AND costs, however, it’s hard to deny that there still are serious problems with the current generation of “tablet-based magazines”. The first commenter to Martin’s article pointed straight to one of them, that is quite relevant beyond tablet-based magazines:

// It's not just the cost. It's the rubbish UI design. All the mags seem to... simply string together images of pages with some embedded "interactive" content. In other words, apart from cheesy video, the iPad "experience" adds nothing to the printed version except multi-hundred-megabyte downloads.//

When I first read it, this paragraph sounded hauntingly familiar but weird, as if it were in the wrong place or contained some serious, but hard to detect errror. Then I realized that it makes perfect sense if you replace “mags” with “shows” and iPad with “Digital Terrestrial Television” (DTT). Service-wise, what do you really get if you give up and buy a new TV set or decoder? Here’s what: the same trash TV and other crap as before, but with an “interactive” remote that is way less interactive than watching TV on a computer; plenty of “new” channels that only rerun stuff often produced before you were born, that is stuff that should have really gone in the public domain decades ago and be fully available on the Web anyway; access to lot of new, high definition material, but only if you pay extra (which is OK, if the content is worth it, but doesn’t really need DTT to happen).

What’s great with the World Wide Web is that is one Web. The sooner magazine editors AND TV producers get this, the better it is for them. If information can be published online once in a format maybe a bit less glittering and cool-looking than what the best tablet “apps” can manage, but universal, faster, directly useable on whatever terminal you happen to have in front of you… it’s better. Sure, it may be a bit less “interactive” and “2.0” and trendy, but is it worth the effort?

For publishers, it means to go back to the browser wars of the mid-90’s, when you had to provide one version of each of your Web pages for each major browser around, and do everything again at every major release of those browsers. RIM Ceo Jim Balsillie expressed the same concept in November 2010: “There’s still a role for apps, but can you use your existing content and web assets? Do you need a set of proprietary tools to bring existing assets on to a device, or can you use known tools that you use for creating websites?"

For users, it would be like having to own one different pair of glasses for each magazine or TV show they like, or to subscribe to a “tablet” magazine only to find themselves unable to use it whenever their tablet isn’t available, even if they have another computer at hand.

The Web is one. The more it remains one (and neutral), the better it is. This is what the current tablet magazines and digital TV channels seem to tell us. And of course it’s the same with e-books.