Trapping content on the iPad won't work, even if it's pretty

Wired's latest iPad demo looks great, but the app doesn't want you to leave

Wired is one of the few magazines I read cover to cover. It consistently exposes me to new ideas and topics. For that, I’m grateful (and a longtime subscriber).

But when it comes to the iPad, I really don’t understand what the Wired crew is doing.

Design-wise, Wired’s iPad demo looks beautiful. Take a look:

Yet, reading over this analysis piece by Reuters’ Felix Salmon, I’m dismayed to see a return to the days of silos and closed content. Here’s how Salmon puts it:

Wired doesn’t want to allow simple links in ads or stories which would open up in the iPad web browser, since opening the browser means closing the Wired app. Instead, web links will open in a pop-up window within the iPad app, which then gets closed, returning you to the position in the magazine that you came from. The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control — the exact opposite, really, of the internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience. [Emphasis added.]

This type of thing might work on the Kindle, where the “browser” is experimental (for now) and web hooks are limited. But the iPad is an Internet device and limiting web-based functionality from within an app — even a very pretty app — is counterintuitive. Web links should open in a web browser. Preferably a very good, very fast web browser, not those lumbering browser wannabes built into some iPhone apps. And whether I return to the app is up to me, not the publisher. I’ll be back if the content is valuable. You just have to take my word on that.

Moreover, remember the early days of the web when designers dumped text into GIFs so they could lock down the look and feel? They just had to have control. And remember how that turned out? Trapping text in graphics is a big usability no-no. In time, we’ll look at closed iPad apps the same way. It’s backwards.

Digital content, like water, will always find a path to freedom. You lock it down, someone else will open it up. That’s why the Wired iPad app — and other offerings from publishers accustomed to silos — should get ahead of the curve now. These apps need to offer more embedded links, more web hooks, and more opportunities to share. Designers can still create beautiful layouts. The user experience can still be unique. Advertisers can still be wooed. But the content itself needs to be connected to the web because it’s being accessed through a web device. So why not expedite the inevitable and turn connectivity into an asset from the onset?

Update 3/23/10 — Wired editor Chris Anderson has an essay in the latest edition of the magazine that outlines his vision for periodicals and tablets. The full essay is here, but I found this excerpt telling:

For magazines, with their long-form text and engaging, visually rich design, a tablet could be perfect. Of course, it will still have a Web browser, but it’ll also have a critical mass of content — games, books, magazines, and video — that isn’t Web-based. All the impact (and more) of print, with the convenience of digital delivery. If it worked for the single-purpose Kindle, it will work even better for the multipurpose tablet. Imagine highly produced, curated content that arrives as an event to look forward to, like a film opening or a book launch. This is where the new business models kick in: Tablets can show media in a context worth paying for. The first issue of a magazine might even be free, like the first few levels of a game are, but that’s just a sampler. Rather than tell people about great content, that tablet lets them experience it — and easily upgrade to get more. [Emphasis added.]

This sounds similar to what McSweeney’s has done with its subscription-based iPhone application. Each “edition” is a surprise.

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