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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  • even

    As far as I can see this only facilitates the central purpose of allow me to immerse myself in the magazine. On constrained devices, like the iPhone, an application context switch feels discontinuous and interrupts experiential flow completely. Many iPhone applications therefore handle external links in the same fashion. When Tweetie opens compressed links in an embedded Safari pane within the application it is not attempting to silo you, but rather retain context and navigation to facilitate your main task: browsing Twitter. This can only be construed as limiting your erm, “navigational freedom” if there is no function to take the external page you are viewing and open it in Safari proper. I can’t determine from the linked article whether this is possible or not.

  • Adrian Cockcroft

    The iPhone supports a “WebView” within an application, and the Safari app is no more than a series of WebViews with bookmarks and history exposed. So there is no difference in what will be rendered. It’s very common to use WebView’s to render parts of an app or to keep the flow under control of an app (see most news readers and twitter clients). This doesn’t stop you following links as far as they can take you, so I don’t think Wired is doing anything unusual or subverting your ability to browse at will.

  • Mac Slocum

    I think the *mindset* is the important part here. Technologically, I know there are many ways to use and/or subvert lock-in. That’s not the issue. What I don’t understand is why any digital publisher would try to silo their content (whether they’re successful at such a thing is another matter; and I doubt they can be). It just doesn’t make sense anymore.

    So much of this reminds me of the mid-’90s when online publishers would enact ridiculous rules about linking out to external sites. Did that ever work?

    And expanding on that — if I want an in-depth experience, I can have it. I don’t *have* to click the links. I don’t *have* to explore. But this notion that publishers should contain me within an experience rubs me the wrong way. Print affords that because it’s static. It makes sense there. But that “experience” was born by default, not because anyone is intentionally limiting the print feature set.

    I know apps are a slightly different animal, but this locked-down, you-only-get-what-I-give-you mentality is truly detrimental, both to content consumers and publishers. Digital carries a different set of features and expectations and I believe publishers should use those.

  • mochuara

    I think ipad users in general don’t give a shit if my app runs on a browser or native app.

    Fact is that the latter provides a more enriching experience.

  • Steve W

    The biggest problem is that magazines are to articles like albums are to singles.

    You say, “Wired is one of the few magazines I read cover to cover.” I don’t read ANY magazine from cover to cover. I’d like to be able to purchase articles rather than magazines. That’s what makes the iTunes store.

  • Paul M. Watson

    I don’t think Wired are doing this as lock-in/siloing. They’re doing it simply to retain the user experience in what is a link heavy magazine.

    In-app browsers (using WebView) are better for the user experience which is what the platform is all about. Even if you implement a full view persistence stack like Tweetie2 you still get disconnected from what you were reading/viewing when you hit the ad/link and have to navigate back to the originating app.

    Hopefully iPhone 4.0 with multi-tasking will make this all a moot point.

  • Joe Flaherty

    I think you are right about siloing content, but it seems this is actually a better user experience. When you click a link in most iPhone Twitter clients it opens in the app with an option to pop out to Safari. This is nice if you are just curious about a link, but don’t want to change focus from tweet scanning to article reading. As long as they provide some option (ideally an instapaper button for linked articles) it should be a decent experience.

  • keith woolcock

    This seems to bear out J. Zittrain’s argument, the internet will be dominated by embedded devices -such as mobile phones – that are tethered to the producer. as a result, the internet will balkanize into domains that are rather like leaky walled gardens. You can see the same trend coming from Facebook – a mutant walled garden. Users give up freedom for a more ergonomic, controlled experience. In five years time the internet will be dominated by these domains and embedded devices, such as iPads and iPhones. It will make content companies an interesting play

  • Zachary Tirrell

    How is what they are doing any different than what you did with the embeded video in this article? You didn’t link out to somewhere else to show the video, you embeded it, where it is part of the story and in context. That way the video can be watched without interrupting the flow of reading the article.

  • Adam Hodgkin

    You are absolutely right about the need to enable web activity (and more geo-location, phone numbers and more). There is a lot of implicit connectivity in magazines than many magazine publishers realise. Links printed there which are desperate to become live!

    A reader who buys (99c) the digital app which we produce for the Spectator (a centre right magazine with a strong arts component), a much less innovative audience than for Wired, will on the iPhone get a great deal of interactivity. The following links in this weeks issue being live:
    124 web
    102 phone (calling the phone number off the page, handy on the iphone)
    47 email
    20 postcode `(linking to the Google maps app on the iPhone)
    10 isbn (links that go to Amazon by default)

    Then there are also 53 page links (hot links) and the very pleasing sensation of browsing through it at thumbnail with page flow — very similar to coverflow for album artwork. Magazine publishers seriously underestimate the intrinsic linkability of their traditional offering… its been waiting for something like the iPad.

  • David

    It’s done for usability and it makes sense. The silo you speak of would be if they didn’t put outside links or interpreted all the links for you.

    The examples you keep giving to prove your point are misleading. Having links open in a WebView has nothing to do with Text in a GIF, but you equate it and as proof link to an article about graphics vs. text, not text in graphics. The O’Reilly Radar text at the top of this page is text in a graphic put there to make the site pleasing to the users.

    “…this reminds me of the mid-’90s when online publishers would enact ridiculous rules about linking out to external sites.”

    They still do it now. Go to Engadget and click any link in a story. It’s a link back to Engadget. You have to go to the bottom of the story and find the small “Source” links. Engadget isn’t the only one; the practice is used everywhere.

    “…but this locked-down, you-only-get-what-I-give-you mentality…”

    They are giving you the outside links! The fact that it opens in a WebView in their app vs. a WebView in Safari doesn’t mean anything. You can open the link in their WebView, and guess what, you can use it the same as Safari. You can keep following links for hours in that same WebView. You aren’t locked down. But what you do get is a nice experience where you can see what the link provides, then close the view when you are done and still be where you were.

  • fring

    It was ever thus. A basic rule of web design is that you want to keep the viewer – not make it easy for them to leave and possibly not return. Of course some subtlety is needed. If you overdo it you achieve the opposite. The best way to keep your visitor is to provide the best experience in the first place so that they don’t think to leave. Even better, convince them that everything outside of your site is poor by comparison so they stay with you longer.
    The ‘better’ approach is to achieved the desired result with content, ease of use and design – with just a tad of silo-ing.
    i can’t see that Wired are doing much more than this imo

  • Mac Slocum

    @David: First off, I totally agree re: the Engadget example. Totally agree! That practice is just as bad.

    But now I think we diverge a bit ;)

    Text in a logo is a heck of a lot different than reams of text in an image. And perhaps I was unclear, but *that’s* what I was referring to. Thankfully, no one really does that anymore.

    I also find it interesting that everyone is focusing on the in-app browser point as opposed to the bolded part of the excerpt. So I’ll make two points here:

    1. If Wired, or any other app developer, creates a speedy, useful in-app browser that allows me to fully access and experience web-based material, that’s fantastic. I don’t care if launches in Safari. I care that it’s accessible and usable. On the iPod Touch/iPhone side, I’ve found the Facebook and Twitterific in-app browsers to be a painful experience. (And I’m pretty sure that’s not the “experience” designers talk about.)

    2. Let me loop back to the bolded excerpt:

    “The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control …”

    This hints at what I believe is the single biggest mistake publishers make with their digital efforts. That is, trying to port a print experience into the digital domain.

    That’s wrong. Digital is not print. Digital can share aspects with print (pretty display being one of them), but publishers looking to duplicate a print experience on a digital device are headed in the wrong direction. That’s why I want publishers to seriously consider how they can take the best of digital — the sharing, the linking, the referencing, the searching — and apply it to their content.

  • David

    @Marc: I hear what you are saying, but I think we differ on what a magazine experience should be. My preference leans a little more towards what wired is doing where the experience is a contained unit. Not a locked-in unit, but something you experience from start to finish. My RSS feeds, twitter feeds, friend feeds, etc. aren’t contained units. I never get to the end of them and that’s how I like them, but a magazine experience should be. I want to finish the Sept. issue of Wired. It’s a monthly periodical. Otherwise it would be like Engadget where articles are posted when they are ready and at any time.

    Does that mean magazines-style is better than blog style? Not at all, they are both good formats.

  • Mac Slocum

    @David: I think you’re absolutely right that we’re both approaching this from different viewpoints. And I’m not saying my perspective is right or wrong — that’s just how I see it.

    And I absolutely think there’s value in defined units of content. While I hate the term “ebook,” I certainly wouldn’t argue that all digital books should be open ended. Same thing with periodicals. I like the cohesiveness of a monthly edition.

    But I guess my question in return is this: if a publisher offers full digital functionality, do you feel you have to use it? Do you have to click the links? Or share? Or search? Are those features a distraction?

    (And those are real questions; I’m not being facetious.)

    I’ve seen that argument before and I’ve never really understood it. But perhaps I’m missing something (which is completely possible!)

  • David

    @Mac (apologies for the typo above!):

    “…if a publisher offers full digital functionality, do you feel you have to use it? Do you have to click the links? Or share? Or search? Are those features a distraction?”

    I’m not sure I totally understand what or perhaps why you are asking these questions. Being in a magazine-style unit does not preclude someone from clicking on a link or sharing an except or article. Ditto with search. Perhaps those features won’t be as prominently displayed, like they are on webpages with search boxes at the top and a plethora of sharing buttons at the bottom of articles, but the functionality can and probably will still be there.

    It appears that Wired was either highly influenced or working with the developers of the Mag+ concept (Bonnier I think). Here is the video (if you haven’t seen it). The creators explains the design decisions to the digital magazine concept.

  • Hadley Stern

    Have you used an iPhone before? If you had you would understand this is a technical decision. Here is the deal, on the iPhone applications can embed webkit (the engine that runs Safari) in their application. So what wired is doing isn’t not making links work (to do that they would just not link at all) but rather making them work within the context of their magazine. This isn’t closed at all, it makes perfect sense.

    Once someone clicks on a link they can browse the web wherever they want. But when they close the webview they are taken back to Wired (the place where they originally linked from).

    To take a web view of this this is similar to the decision to use _blank vs. _parent on web links.

    Either way it really is much a do about nothing and certainly doesn’t fall into an “open-web” vs. “closed-web” debate.

    What will be interesting is that once the iPhone inevitably has multi-tasking whether application developers will link to Safari vs. an in-app instance of Safari.

  • David C

    The in app web viewing appears to be as much determined by the restricted multi-tasking on the iPad as by a desire to keep the reader walled in. Personally, I prefer this in place browser approach on the iPhone OS, but also adding a hyperlink within the text that would open Safari would easily address your concerns.

    A deeper issue here is whether content now existing freely on the web will be withdrawn into paid iPad/tablet apps. To some extent that will likely happen (as web readers historically have resisted pay walls.) Magazines have a legitimate stake in both subscription and increased ad revenue possible on an application platform. Likewise, readers who desire professional writing and quality layout will gain from a platform that makes it technically and financially viable.

    Not mentioned here is that the Wired demonstration features a beautiful blending of the virtues of the print design along with the scrolling and navigation functionality of web pages. Rather than stupidly cloning the print mag, with the addition of senseless animations, they’ve created a fluid layout that changes based on horizontal or portrait orientation, and devised a brilliant navigation scheme for articles. The design plays to the strength of the tablet medium while maintaining continuity with the print version.

  • Tom

    This is all very stupid stupid commenting [thr article I mean]. You’re arguing against an app that you haven’t actually used, that isn’t even on the market yet. I suggest you re-write this postarticle onve you’ve got an iPad and used te Wired app.

    That said, you night have a very very Good point and the article might just be exactly the same as it is now. But at least you’ve tried it and it’s fair.


  • Bob Roberts

    I think that the iPad video chip probably limits the windowing to save power, but it’s fascinating to consider the implications for browsing.

    As for walled gardens and silos, I’ve become resigned to them. The free web can’t support the kind of content I want. Ads just won’t pay the bill. And so I’ve got to pay. I wish I didn’t but stupidity is more expensive than good content.

  • Adrian Cockcroft

    The real question is whether there is any need to use more than a web browser with JavaScript to browse magazine style content?

    Detecting that the browser is running on iPad, then adapting your interface code to support touch rather than mouse (no mouse-over events) should be able to give a perfectly good experience.

    Perhaps they want to work around the lack of flash issues, but they could do that on the web site just the same.

  • Brian

    I would like to reiterate the point made by Zachary Tirrell that you didn’t respond to.

    “How is what they are doing any different than what you did with the embeded video in this article? You didn’t link out to somewhere else to show the video, you embeded it, where it is part of the story and in context. That way the video can be watched without interrupting the flow of reading the article.”

    He makes a great point, and so does Hadley Stern when he said, “Have you used an iPhone before? If you had you would understand this is a technical decision. Here is the deal, on the iPhone applications can embed webkit (the engine that runs Safari) in their application. So what wired is doing isn’t not making links work (to do that they would just not link at all) but rather making them work within the context of their magazine. This isn’t closed at all, it makes perfect sense.”

    You seem to only be responding to the people who agree with you, or responding in broad, sweeping notions and changing the subject–kind of like a politician. I mean no offense, but if you can write and publish an article like above, open for anyone to read, you should be prepared to answer these sort of questions and respond to these sort of arguments, but you don’t seem to be doing a great job about it, which in turn makes the article itself feel weak.

    You should respond to the above two authors and prove me wrong. :)

  • Mac Slocum

    @Brian (and by extension Zachary and Hadley): Okay, I’ll take the bait ;)

    Again, I have to reiterate the point that I do not care if Wired or the New York Times or Sports Illustrated or any other magazine publisher or content publisher embeds content in their iPad apps. Nor do I care if they link to additional content via an in-app browser. As long as the experience is useful *and* offers a conduit to the broader web, I’m cool with it.

    I’m not making any claim that *all* linked-to content should be a link, either. If there’s an embed code, use that. You don’t *have* to link to a video on an outside site.

    I love mashups. I love embeds. I think those are wonderful things and I hope publishers of all kinds will get past their “it has to be ours!” thinking and hook that kind of material into their own content — iPad apps and otherwise. That’s a very webby thing to do.

    As for the “have you used an iPhone before” comment. Yeah. You bet. Love those things. And I *do* understand that it’s a technical decision. I am in no way making a technical argument here. In fact, the whole comment about in-app browsers was secondary to the central point, which applies more broadly to the decisions publishers make. I get what Wired is trying to do. I don’t have a problem with their central mission, either. But “working within the context of the magazine” is the issue here. It’s not a magazine. It’s *digital content* on an *Internet-connected device*. You may deem that semantics. That’s fair. But that’s now how I see it. If it’s digital and it’s in the web space I believe it should fully embrace all the functionality the web has to offer — and that includes linking, sharing, embeds, etc. The whole enchilada, not just the stuff that works within a desired “experience.” To me, that experience should go the extra mile.

    Note: the video included with this post came from the Reuters piece. If it was posted through YouTube or some other outlet, I’d have used that embed code.

  • Mac Slocum

    I was thinking about this a little more and I think the fundamental disconnect is this: I’m approaching this from the standpoint of the consumer. Why should they care about this app? What does it offer that they can’t already get through the magazine or the website?

    Sure, Wired could stop the print publication and make the iPad the exclusive provider of the magazine. But we all know that’s not going to happen. Not anytime soon at least.

    And they can hold content back from the website, too. Sure. Okay. Maybe that’ll increase print subscriptions. Maybe that’ll increase iPad subscriptions (or one-off buys). That might work.

    But my gut tells me — and my gut has been wrong before, mind you — that artificial scarcity combined with a very pretty app isn’t going to be enough. Remember when magazines first published on the web? It was called shovelware. And after a few years, the novelty of reading print content on the web wore off.

    I think the same thing is happening here, and that’s a shame because you’d think publishers would have learned a thing or two over the last decade. Interactivity works beautifully on the web. Connectivity works beautifully. Sharing works beautifully. Using content to form community works beautifully.

    But yet again, we’re seeing publishers lead with their top-down print perspective. They’re not thinking digital. They’re not thinking about what *works* on the web. And that, I believe, is a mistake.

    So when I see something like the Reuters piece, which talks all this “experience” stuff, and yet it appears the app will only offer mere window dressing in terms of web-based functionality, I have a problem with that. Again: what’s in this for the consumer? There may be technical solutions to in-app web browsing. And those solutions may be very good. But if those solutions don’t facilitate an “experience” that offers something more than what I can already get in print, then what’s the value here?

  • Chris

    Publishers, I would like to suggest you create great content first and foremost … and I’ll return to the source.

    Give me the freedom to exit your great content with links so that I can interact with the very people who value your content as much as I do … and I’ll return to the source.

    Create a barrier and treat me like a commodity … and I’ll never return.

    But that’s just me.

  • Ricky Onsman

    “I’m approaching this from the standpoint of the consumer. Why should they care about this app?”

    They don’t. And they don’t care about browsers. If the content they get makes a car in an ad spin at a touch, and a link they click takes them to new content without losing the old content, that extends the magazine experience beyond what print can offer.

    I’d say the iPad is a computer for content consumers who don’t know computers, and Wired’s approach will work for it and them.

    But the iPad isn’t the end of the story, and Wired isn’t the only magazine.

  • Per Helge Seglsten

    This is an ipad problem not an app problem. If it was possible to both browse and have an app running at the same time it wouldn’t be so risky to let go of the reader. Now he has to reastart the app.
    And I suppose most readers would find it annoying that the magazine disappears every time they want to check out something in the magazine on the internet. I think this is a great example of how the ipad isn’t such a fantastic device after all. The pad is the new pc format, and the ipad is a terrible pc, lacking some of the most basic functions.

  • Louie Bianchi

    It is strange how what you are calling a problem to me is a benefit as a user.

    I have been using e-readers for at least three years now, and the web since just before it’s popular explosion, since 1994. I guess you could call me old school, but I like to think of myself as progressive… to an extent. One of the problems with new (now old and commonplace) media is the sidetracking of thought patterns to the point that you have lost your original anchor point while you were chasing around the thoughts that moved you off your starting point. Now I don’t know how many people may experience this, but I am not alone in this. It just may be my age group (post 45 years) that may experience it.
    I enjoy e-readers apart from the digital media of my computing devices because of this limited focus, that keeps me within this realm of thought.

    I find the idea of a dedicated magazine browser keeping you locked in to the magazine as an anchor is a good concept from the readers point of view. I would use the web browser open on the side much as I keep a print dictionary (and as time marched on also a laptop and then a netbook) close at hand where I do the bulk of my print reading.

    I don’t see this as a problem with the design of the Wired reader. Then again, everyone has their style on how they do things, and I may just be different with my expectations.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Louie — You bring up something I find very intriguing: the need to have someone else lock you in to a system.

    I think it’s pretty clear where I come down on that, but I also understand I’m dangling my feet from the envelope’s edge. It’s entirely possible that most people — or at least a significant minority — want manufacturers to limit their exposure to external sources. Do you think that’s the case?

    That’s not my sense, but again, I’m only coming at this from what *I* want to see in an app. That’s not necessarily what others want.

    And here’s something else I’ve been mulling: isn’t it possible to create an app (even a theoretical one) that includes all the external/sharing functionality I’m looking for, but that also includes a toggle that can shut that stuff down? And wouldn’t that serve both groups: folks like me who want content to be entwined with the Web and folks like Louie who want to keep distractions outside. Or am I missing something?

  • Ben

    The ‘new window/leaving the old article open underneath’ issue may not be the meat of the matter, but I’ll toss my two cents in.

    I’m not toeing the company line when I say that I agree w/ the wisdom behind this practice. When I’m doing my typical news/article surfing & clicking I will often click out of one thread into another, and so on and so on.

    Having the original topic still open in there somewhere is actually quite useful; in part because it reminds me where the train began, and lots of times I often only return later to finish the article.

    And yeah, ok, there are some personal attention span and laziness issues at play here. But to me you can easily argue that there is a tangible service being provided by leaving the original article open so the user can easily return.


  • Regan

    @Mac You said earlier that the ipad version of WIRED needs to be more than just a digital, linkable copy of the magazine. That “Interactivity works beautifully on the web….Using content to form community works beautifully [on the web].”

    That’s all true, but then how is the ipad version of WIRED any different than reading the articles individually from I personally find the web experience to be ADD-riddled, and focused on the social-web aspects to its detriment. Even short posts of web versions of magazines have onhover Share This! functions, and the comments sections on some sites lack relevancy to the article because of side convos and the race to “First!”.

    I see the ipad as offering well executed digital art direction (which is often lacking in the web/cms article model), the enveloping movie theater-version of the print-reading experience. And personally, I want to turn my cell-phones and pagers off.

  • Mac,
    you said that “Wired doesn’t want to allow simple links in ads or stories which would open up in the iPad web browser”, even with the latest version of apple OS?

  • Hi, i am also interested in the answer for the above comment – not even the latest OS can let the apps run now?

    anyway, happy 2011~