Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reading on the iPad Part 10: It's a changing world. Keep up!

Recently the Association for Computing Machinery made an app available to read their glossy magazine, Communications of the ACM (CACM for short.) I will be providing a review of it in part 11, but first I wanted to check in on how the other apps I've tried out have stood the test of time.

Summary of past reviews:

Back in August 2011, I said the app for The Economist was my favorite, followed closely by the app for Wired. I also expressed my disappointment with the app for The Wall Street Journal. I liked the 3rd party app from for reading IEEE Spectrum and advocated its broader use.

I gave a negative review of the Forbes experience in 2011, then revised it in March 2013 to say that the third party app from MAZ was a dramatic improvement but it still wasn't ideal. From those past reviews I ranked the experiences as:

  1. The Economist app -- My Favorite; Gets the glossy magazine experience right: easy to read, quick to turn pages. Offers audio word for word.
  2. Wired app -- Sets the standard. Also easy to read with fast page turning. Excellent organizational aids and bookmarking. Clever use of extra media, but it's sometimes gratuitous.
  3. IEEE Spectrum on qmags app -- Reproduces the magazine. Resizing the page is necessary for folks with imperfect eyesight. Page turning reasonably quick. Reasonable links for article continuations. Occasional crashes that one works around by using bookmarks.
  4. Boston Business Journal and other generic pdf files in iBooks -- Rudimentary, but responsive. A working generic solution is better than  a clever solution with bugs.
  5. Forbes on 3rd app, MAZ -- Almost as good as qmags, but lacked bookmarking, was slower, and crashed more often.
  6. Fast Company app -- Similar to Wired, but was portrait mode (tall instead of wide) only.
  7. Wall Street Journal on website -- Adequate summaries and easy access to articles. Occasional production problems that seem to show it's the under-funded, un-loved delivery mechanism.
  8. Books and pdf files in the Kindle app -- iBooks seemed like a more graceful interface.
  9. The Wall Street Journal app -- It's no good viewing a broadsheet newspaper scrunched down to iPad screen size. A different approach is needed. Also the interface was gratuitously different from iPad standards.

Where we are today:

At that time of my Forbes update, I felt no need to revise the other reviews. Today I do, primarily driven by the improved robustness of the MAZ app, and by how the other apps don't seem to have improved much.

"Improved" can be a subjective term, because many aspects of user interface come down to matters of familiarity and comfort. Even so, it might be bad after this much time has elapsed for the app for The Wall Street Journal to abandon its unique interpretation of the pinch gesture -- even though I personally hate how it's different from the standard action on the iPad.

To me, improvements would consist of:

  • Fewer crashes.
  • Faster start-up times.
  • Greater speed in turning pages.
  • Additional key functionality, such as navigation aids and book marks.

By this criteria, the apps for Wired, qmags, and Fast Company seem to have made no progress. By way of full disclosure, I will mention that I have not extensively used the app for The Economist because I use their word-for-word audio in the car. I also almost never use the app for The Wall Street Journal, because I can't stand it.

Although I would prefer that the MAZ app got book marking and additional navigational aids, I must say that the performance and robustness of the app have improved and surpassed that of qmags.

Indeed, I am regularly disappointed that when I leave and then later return to Wired or IEEE Spectrum. The app has restarted and forgotten what page I was on. Indeed the Wired app takes a surprisingly and unpleasantly long time to start. Additionally, the qmags app often simply crashes while I'm reading.

The MAZ app seems to have had some good work done. It used to crash, and often forgot what page I left off upon. Now it turns pages much more quickly and manages always to remember where I left off. Kudos to MAZ!

New Conclusions:

It does seem that there are two approaches to the iPad app:

  1. Producing a special layout for the iPad with a readable font size.
  2. Utilizing the paper layout, and letting the person doing the reading resize.
The former is used by Conde Nast for the Wired app, as well as the apps for The Economist, and Fast Company. In fact I could not find a font resizing control on the app for Fast Company. I see that the app for Wired has one, but I never needed it and only just now went to look for it. I can appreciate that producing a tablet friendly layout is probably expensive, and probably drove the decision to be portrait orientation only, and to not support resizing.

Lately I find myself resizing every single page to read IEEE Spectrum on qmags, and I don't like doing that. I have to do that with the MAZ app to read Forbes, but not quite as often. Recognizing these two approaches have different costs, I can respect MAZ and qmags for adopting mode #2, but I find mode #1 much more pleasant.

The investments made in the more expensive production and apps needs to be followed by continued maintenance and improvement. Sadly the leaders seem content to rest on their laurels and this is probably a mistake.

Advice to the various publishers:

Conde Nast: You guys need to fix two things about the app for Wired:

  1. It needs to start up faster. 
  2. It needs to remember which page was current and return to it on restart. 

These are things that the much less ambitious app from MAZ gets right, and now it makes you look bad.  Additionally, even the second version of your bookmarking interface is clunky.  Please consider something simpler like how iBooks and the Kindle app do it. You guys should consider pooling your resources with MAZ. Failing that, you need to get your developers to spend some time making the app crash less often, and teaching it how to remember the active page for restarts.

Fast Company: I'm still disappointed that you guys are "portrait mode only" and that text cannot be resized.  That said, you seem to have learned many good lessons from the example set by the app for Wired.

Dow Jones & Co.: Pretty please put additional resources behind making your web site more robust. The missing columns on the front page are an embarrassment. Additionally, you guys really should consider a rethink of the layout for the app. A broadsheet page will never look right on a tablet.

MAZ: You guys did a great job of addressing performance, robustness, and restart issues with your app. Well done! Pretty please consider adding bookmarking. Also, recognizing it's an additional production cost that your customers might not want, do please consider offering the article navigator view like Wired and Fast Company offer.

ACM and IEEE: You guys should consider switching to MAZ. It may do a better job than what you've currently got going.

Apple: Too many subscriptions through the iPad are over-priced compared to the "free" online access I get from my print subscription.  The recycling bin is full of Wired and other magazines because of your myopia here.  Make it easier for publishers to make the online only version cheaper, not more expensive than the print edition that includes the online edition.