Digital Magazines

You can’t say that technology isn’t moving at anything less than a frightening pace. I use to think it was cool, at this point I feel like I’m constantly struggling to keep up. Photography has morphed into a combination of photography and videography that’s slowly gaining an ever growing emphasis on video especially in journalism. Now the major magainze publishers are looking to take their magazines into the digital age as well.

Of course who can blame them. In our world of short attention spans and an ever increasing desire for what’s shiny, still images and paper magazines are becoming increasingly problematic to sell.

Even worse the rest of the world is seemingly waging a virtual two pronged attack against the traditional media with social media on one side and bloggers on the other. Couple that with the ease of duplicating digital content and the widespread perception that everything online should be free and it becomes hard to see ways to add enough value to traditional media to keep people paying.

Recently though, it seems that at least two major media companies have started investigating ways to present their content in a format that takes advantage of the digital medium. However, I fear the idea of a digital magazine will ultimately go nowhere partly for technical reasons and partly because they won’t have the foresight to really embrace the digital medium.

Digital magazine technology was recently demoed by Time Inc. for Tech Curnch and it appears there might be a bright idea buried in it, even if I think it’s doomed. It appears in the case of the Time’s prototype, to leverage a widely available framework (Adobe Air which is based on the ubiquitous Flash environment) to present the digital magazine on top of a commodity computing platform (in this case a HP tablet computer).

The choice of technology poses hope that it might succeed, but the real question lies in how they handle the content.

On the up side, their solution appears to run on top of a regular computer. That makes the device flexible, and that’s a good thing to me. It also means you wouldn’t be limited to their tablet or reading just their digital magazines either. In fact, Tech Crunch goes on to point out that it could theoretically be ported to the iPhone.

Of course there in lies the first technical hurdle. A paper magazine’s page size is fixed and content is laid out around that. If a digital magazine tries to use that same assumption, especially if it can be displayed on different resolution devices you have a problem. Moreover an interface that works on a multi-touch tablet won’t necessarily work on a mouse driven computer.

The choice of content to make available also poses problems. The need for color and video excludes the use of eInk displays, like those used on the Amazon’s Kindle, since they aren’t color and can’t refresh fast enough for video. Without eInk, the benefits of the printed page (resolution, contrast and no battery needed) and the eInk reader (great battery life) mostly go away as well. If one of the complaints of the web is that people don’t like reading on a computer screen not being able to use eInk isn’t helping.

For me, if I have to lug around a laptop or tablet and not a sleek reader like the Kindle or Nook, it’s not that great of a deal anyway. Worse, if I’m stuck at my desk I’m not getting much over either a traditional web page or a printed magazine. That leaves the only real advantage being the potential for video content. Which is why, as much as I like the idea, I doubt it’ll be successful.

Of course the real reason I brought this up, is that as a photographer I’d be very excited to see a more wide spread way to present higher quality images and video to the population at large. And for that, I think it’s only a mater of time before high-resolution low-power color touch-screen tablets are as ubiquitous as cell phones. While I think a digital magazine may be doomed now. Eventually the hardware will be cheap enough and someone will stumble on the right killer app and we’ll be off to the races. But unless companies take their first formative steps in that direction now, it may never happen at all.

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