Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading on the iPad Part 3: My Favorites

My Favorite: The Economist

As far as I can tell, The Economist works the hardest to offer extremely usable content in a variety of non-traditional formats all at no extra charge to subscribers to the print edition.The web site offers a high quality mix of online discussions, immediate news stories, links to the print edition, and links to other formats. Following the Digital & mobile link near the top of the page brings you to the page where you can download apps for Kindle, iPhone, iPad and Android that offer the full content of the print edition, as well as apps that offer other classes of content. Additionally, word-for-word audio transcription is available either as a podcast, a zip file with mp3's of the entire issue, or individual sections in a zip file.

The Economist is my favorite magazine. If I had to pick from all my subscriptions a single one to retain, it would be The Economist. I like it because it covers world events from a high level and local events in several countries and world regions. It contains rigorous analysis and tutorials on events viewing them from the perspective of economics. When Leavitt and Dubliner published Freakonomics, I was already a receptive audience, having worked through such a perspective as a long-time reader of The Economist. Additionally The Economist presents current events in Science, Technology, Books and The Arts. The Science & Technology section has only a few articles, but they're the important ones that you eventually hear about everywhere else. Finally, there is the Obituary where one learns about people, sometimes famous, often obscure who made a big difference in the world.

With all this content, for a very long time, I was terribly backlogged with The Economist. I could never finish one before the next weekly issue would arrive. That is, until I put the word-for-word audio edition into my car and began listening while driving. I include all this detail to show how the iPad app so perfectly fits my needs when reading and listening to The Economist. Every Friday, I open the iPad app, see the new issue on offer and tap "Download" to bring it onto the iPad. Inside the issue, I tap on an icon of headphones to download the entire word-for-word audio edition.

I flip through the pages scanning the articles for the quick factual updates on news stories, the alternate perspective on world and somewhat local events. As I do that, I pick out which audio articles I'll play in the car. Even with this triage and filtering, I still find there's a whole week's worth of driving that's covered by the audio edition.

By the criteria I set in the previous section the iPad app for The Economist is a home run:
  • I want a "turn all the pages" interface, and the app offers it. Unlike the Wall Street Journal iPad app, (see below), the iPad app for The Economist does an excellent job of translating the print edition usefully into a subtly different format for consumption on the iPad.
  • I don't want a special summary in the table of contents, and I don't get one. I get a table of contents laid out similarly to the print edition, with the articles grouped by section, but the sections organized in the same order as they appear as one flips the pages. (This is something I wish all the other iPad and web editions would do.)
  • After downloading the issue, the content is all right there when I want it. Of particular note is how the app sensibly renders content so there there is no delay waiting for the page to be scaled and imaged. (This is a problem for most PDF-based renderings.) I found that I could flip the pages in the iPad app faster than I could flip pages in the paper edition, and that resulted in my being able to read more in less time. This experience was often the case with the iPad editions.
  • The interface is indeed familiar, sensible and obvious. I particularly like how there's a little bar at the top with controls and navigation aids. The only negative here is that the controls for the audio edition playback fade away on a timeout, not with a gesture. This becomes annoying when I need to pause the audio playback when the iPad has put the display to sleep.
From the standpoint of usability, quality of execution, and business model, the experience of reading/listening to The Economist is first rate. It is the best of the best.

A close second: Wired

Wired too offers an iPad app, rather than deferring to a more generic interface. Like the iPad app for The Economist, one starts the app, and taps to download the current issue.Early adopters of the iPad app for Wired complained that the file size of the magazine was unreasonably large. Apparently subsequent refinement has reduced the file size. At the present time a 500 megabyte book or magazine isn't a problem for me, but it is something others might care about.

There are many other similarities between the interfaces of the iPad apps for Wired and The Economist:
  • There is a "turn all the pages" interface.
  • The table of contents is a sensible refinement of that from the print edition.
  • Content is on screen when I ask for it without a wait. As with The Economist, there is a re-rendering for the iPad form factor that displays quickly, and is readable.
  • The interface is sensible and obvious with a small bar at the top with controls and navigation aids.
Wired adds:
  • An article overview grid, with the articles arranged horizontally, and the pages of the articles arranged vertically.
  • A scrollbar that allows you to zoom through the whole issue. This works by showing a couple of small-sized images of the pages as an inset on the screen as you slide the scrollbar. When you stop sliding, the main page changes to what was on display in the inset.
  • Multi-media enhancements to articles and ads. This takes the form of videos that jump out at you when you visit particular ads, and interactive figures. Some will consider these enhancements gratuitous. I'll call them "mostly harmless".
Wired doesn't offer an audio transcription like The Economist does. I believe not offering it was a reasonable tradeoff. The Economist consists of lot of text and a only few diagrams that often can be described verbally. Wired is more of an experience of article with pictures and diagrams designed to enhance. This narrative with media approach is why I'm willing to cut Wired slack over whether or not the media enhancements add value.

I also noticed that Wired doesn't allow you to resize the text with the pinch/spread gesture like the Economist interface does. This generally isn't a problem because the rendered fonts are reasonably large.

One criticism I will make of Wired: The business model is evolving and currently contains a dis-incentive to go paperless. Wired generously provides the iPad edition to all subscribers to the print edition. Because I'm a long-time Wired subscriber, I get my print edition at significantly lower cost than the $19.99 per year that is the current rate for the iPad edition.

In fairness, we have to wait for customers voting with their feet to either adopt or abandon different offerings in the marketplace. Some, perhaps those inside Wired, may see the media enhancements as worth demanding a premium over the print edition price. Personally, I see production as a cost common to both online and print editions, but fabrication (printing on paper) and distribution (postage) to be significant additional costs.

I believe I should pay less to receive bits and not kill trees, because Wired doesn't have to print and mail the thing to me. For the time being, I'm receiving the print edition and recycling it (or giving it to a friend) while I do my actual reading of Wired on my iPad. It is my hope that the dis-incentive will go away with a lowering of the cost of the iPad edition, not an uplift to the cost of the print edition.

This concludes part 3. Continue with Reading on the iPad Part 4: Extreme disappointment: The Wall Street Journal.

1 comment:

  1. Update: Today I received email alerting me to the new issue of Wired, so the email notification stuff IS there.

    Sadly, when I started the iPad app for Wired, it almost immediately crashed, so there's some kind of bug that may affect people who happened to have been reading an issue when the new issue became available.

    I found a work-around: Tap to get the navigation par, then tap the "Home" icon. Do it QUICK before the app crashes, and after that all seems well.