Fire and Air

AMAZON’s announcement of the new Kindle Fire started a flurry of tremors in the publication business, already partly shaking from repeated tectonic movements. Adobe's announcements today (the purchase of Typekit and Phonegap) quickened the pace. And Tuesday we hear from Apple (iOS5, iPhone5?).

The new Fire tablet is likely to be the biggest news. Some magazine folks raced to embrace it. Condé Nast happily announced a new edition for Vanity Fair. Jeff Bezo’s stage show featured it in this video. (The part about the Fire starts at the 30-minute mark.) A hefty $69 annual subscription price was given for The New Yorker. The magazine has the same price, but it includes “digital access” if you order on their web site. (One wonders if the Amazon newsstand will include the print subscription.)

Here’s what Amazon says on their web site.

Vivid Reading: Enjoy your favorite magazines in rich, glossy, full-color layouts with the convenience of the Kindle reading experience. Interactive editions with built-in video and audio are also available for select magazines such as Wired.

Eyebrows may rise not at the marketing term “select,” meaning, “few.” (Last week I saw the word used on American Airlines to say that wifi services was available on “select” flights.) One might have hoped for a discount on Kindle magazines, like Amazon once gave for Kindle books. But this doesn’t work for Condé Nast. They are looking to pay for their online products. A buck and a half wouldn’t seem that much for a weekly like The New Yorker, except that we have had 50 years of two-bit magazines.

After introducing the Kindle with prices under $10 a book, Amazon buckled to a publisher strike and raised their prices. Now magazine publishers want to claw in a little revenue, after their CPM model (price subs cheap, then make it up in advertising) hasn’t been working out.

Nevertheless, there will be push-back from readers, who may believe that (1) all content should be free, and/or (2) there should be some discount for digital, since the publisher is saving on printing, paper and shipping. “Sticker shock” is what killed the HP Touchpad, and caused RIM to take their Playbook price down to $299,which is where Amazon put the Fire. The market sets a price in an unpredictable human way, not by logic, fairness or any understanding of the cost of production.

The price of other stuff out there helps consumers judge what they are willing to pay. If they think the Fire—without a zillion Apple apps—is worth about half the cost of a full-featured iPad, then they’ll pay that. If they think the cheaper black-and-white Kindle with its E-ink screen that works on the beach and has amazing battery life is all they need, then they won’t. Amazon has to add value, and one way is to do for magazines what Kindle did for books.

Certainly digital magazines look a lot better, if not actually “glossy,” on a color Fire than on a grainy, 16-gray-level Kindle. And maybe that’s the market split. If you just want a book reader get a gray-scale Kindle. If you want magazines, go for the Fire.

Rather than push publishers into hand-built Java-coded Android (or forked-Android) apps to match their iOS apps, they seem to be letting them go the Adobe route, the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite, which many big magazines already use for the iPad. Adobe needed a big Air/Flash tablet to counter Apples jihad against them, and after the Playbook (which supported Flash) bombed, they no doubt were ready to do anything possible to help Amazon.

Condé Nast and other big magazine publishers have been happily producing iPad editions using Adobe workflow. InDesign (perhaps with their CMS, InCopy, or Woodwing’s which is now merging tablet output into the Adobe DPS) is the authoring tool used to produce the print edition. Publishers can tweak the print pages, bolt on some video and other “interactive” elements, and shoot them down the Adobe Digital Publishing chute. Voilá: an app.

One freaking heavy app at that. Wired weighs in at as much as 700 megs on the iPad, if you have the patience and bandwidth to download it. The reason is that it’s a giant slide show, with two full-screen pictures for every page—one portrait, one landscape. For comparison, a 100-page edition of The Sporting News on the iPad, comes in at 10 megs.

Now on the Kindle Fire, Adobe can use the Air platform that Apple rejected for iPad and iPhone, and reduce that load considerably. Pictures will still be big, as on any site or app, but the type can be rendered (no doubt “smoothed” with Adobe’s gray-scale anti-aliasing scheme) on the fly from embedded fonts. Transitions can be done more economically, as well, instead of having to run full-frame flipbooks. It will be fun to see how small a file they can make of Wired on the Fire.

You can understand why Amazon, Condé Nast and Adobe are all happy with this path. Traditional magazines can use the same software and workflow on the Fire that they use for print and the iPad (and the Playbook and 7” Galaxy Tab as well, if they want). Publishers can push the print ads along, too, and add some web links to them. If the advertiser goes along, they can make the ads “interactive,” too.

Of course the publishers have to lay out everything at least five times: once for print, twice for iPad and twice for Playbook if they want people to be able to rotate the screen.It’s repurposing, to be sure, but if all you want to do is put a magazine on a tablet, it works fine. Hell, Zinio is good, too, if that’s what you want. (Haven’t heard yet what Zinio is planning for Amazon.)

But does this make sense if you are starting a new magazine—digital only—as Graydon Carter surprisingly said in a video played at the Adobe Max keynote Monday? Maybe for one target device. But what if you you want to send your content to every phone, tablet and computer that your readers might want to see it? An iPad magazine, a Fire magazine, an iPhone magazine, an Android phone magazine, a Windows Phone magazine? And a web site? And maybe a print edition later?

Remember that iPhones are outselling iPads two-to-one. Android is outselling iPhone. And still the vast majority of the regular connections to the web take place on desktop computers.

Well, you could still do it one page at a time if you had enough people. But could you afford the people? Or would it better to get the same staff to concentrate on art direction, photo editing, stories, rich information graphics and covers?

And, what if you wanted to do a weekly, not a monthly? Or a daily? . . . Or if you wanted to enable constant updates. Is the old workflow what you’d use?

The answer is of course, no. No way. Rather than do an Adobe Air insert, what you need is an HTML insert. (Perhaps with the acquisition of Phonegap, Adobe will have a solution for that as well.)

You need a more flexible system than the current one-way print-to-digital CMSs. You need a methodology that uses templates (like Ready-Media’s) that work with the same styles on all devices. R-M already has matching templates that you can use for a magazine and an iPad app via our own wrapper, or in Adobe’s DPS. And/or you can do it in Treesaver, which also works with Ready-Media templates. In any case, you would want to build a hub-and-spoke workflow, so you can keep your costs down. You need a media-neutral CMS (like Peter Van Blokland’s Xierpa, which is used by Nomad Editions, a Treesaver client). Xierpa is neither print-specific nor web-specific.

The idea is not only to get your costs down, but to do much more live content. It seems obvious, but the web has conditioned readers to expect fresh material online as opposed to a canned monthly. They like a bit of video when it helps the narrative. They want to be able to comment and share. They can appreciate some online content layers above the text like “more like this” links to related stories on the web, or stories in the same topic area that your friends are “liking.”

If you can add these social and aggregation features, push some rich media, and keep your costs down, maybe you can make a tablet magazine that has real value. At a price enough people will pay as much as print. And that’s where the Kindle Fire Newsstand will come in handy. Apple has yet to create a magazine and newspaper newsstand, although they’ve talked about it for a year. [Update: Apple announced their newsstand at the iPhone4S “keynote” on the 4th of October.]

With Apple’s success at selling iPads (there’ll be nearly one in 10 U.S. households soon) and Amazon’s at selling Kindles (an estimated four million to date), publishers will use both of their stores for distribution. But publishers have their own back offices and their own customer service departments, and there is no reason why they couldn’t sell digital editions directly on the web, and save the 30 percent commission.

With Ready-Media methodology and a Treesaver publication, you could build an app for the Fire, another for iOS, another for unforked-Android—and still distribute on all devices that have a browser. And push it all from one HTML feed, with one CSS.

But first we have to stop thinking about moving print magazines onto tablets, and start from the beginning to design and build digital magazines.