Magazine tablet apps and the battle of design vs. content
I found this recent article from the editor of the MIT Tech review on why apps for publishers are a bad idea touched on a number of key issues I have been observing since I first got into internet publishing in the 80s. I recommend the article, but if you insist, the short summary is that publishers of newspapers and magazines flocked to the idea of doing iPad apps because they could finally make something they that they sort of recognized as similar to a traditional publication; something they controlled and laid out, that was a combined unit. So they spent lots of money and ran into nightmares (having to design for both landscape and portrait on the tablet, as well as possibly on the phones or even Android.) and didn't end up selling many subscriptions.
Since the dawn of publishing there has been a battle between design and content. This is not a battle that has or should have a single winner. Design is important to enjoyment of content, and products with better design are more loved by consumers and represent some of the biggest success stories. Creators of the content -- the text in this case -- point out that it is the text where you find the true value, the thing people are actually coming for. And on the technology side, the value of having a wide variety of platforms for content -- from 30" desktop displays to laptops to tablets to phones, from colour video displays to static e-ink -- is essential to a thriving marketplace and to innovation. Yet design remains so important that people will favour the iPhone just because they are all the same size, and most Android apps still can't be used on Google TV.
This is also the war between things like PDF, which attempts to bring all the elements of paper-based design onto the computer, and the purest form of SGMLs, including both original and modern HTML. Between WYSIWYG and formatting languages, between semantic markup and design markup. This battle is quite old, and still going on. In the case of many designers, that is all they do, and the idea that a program should lay out text and other elements to fit a wide variety of display sizes and properties is anathema. To technologists, that layout should be fixed is almost as anathema.
Also included in this battle are the forces of centralization (everything on the web or in the cloud) and the distributed world (custom code on your personal device) and their cousins online and offline reading. A full treatise on all elements of this battle would take a book for it is far from simple.
I sit mostly with the technologists, eager to divide design from content. I still write all my documents in text formatting languages with visible markup and use WYSIWYG text editors only rarely. An ideal system that does both is still hard to find. Yet I can't deny the value and success of good design and believe the best path is to compromises in this battle. We need compromises in design and layout, we need compromises between the cloud and the dedicated application. End-user control leads to some amount of chaos. It's chaos that is feared by designers and publishers and software creators, but it is also the chaos that gives us most of our good innovations, which come from the edge.
Let's consider all the battles I perceive for the soul of how computing, networks and media work:
- The design vs. semantics battle (outlined above)
- The cloud vs. personal device
- Mobile, small and limited in input vs. tethered, large screen and rich in input
- Central control vs. the distributed bazaar (with so many aspects, such as)
- The destination (facebook) vs. the portal (search engine)
- The designed, uniform, curated experience (Apple) vs. the semi-curated (Android) vs. the entirely open (free software)
- The social vs. the individual (and social comment threads vs. private blogs and sites)
- The serial (email/blogs/RSS/USENET) vs. the browsed (web/wikis) vs. the sampled (facebook/twitter)
- The reader-friendly (fancy sites, well filtered feeds) vs. writer friendly (social/wiki)
In most of these battles both sides have virtues, and I don't know what the outcomes will be, but the original MITTR article contained some lessons for understanding them.