The Death & Rebirth of Mac Magazines: Part 2 – The Rebirth

This is part 2 of the essay. Part 1 dealt with the lack of great Mac magazines, the problems of economics and poor content choices.

Part II: The Rebirth

How can we “think different” about mac periodicals? Given that the raw costs of printing a magazine continue to climb and ad revenues continue to slide, some might say the answer is simply to build a website, but there are problems with this model.

I don’t care how relevant the content is, it’s always hard to convince people to pay for access to your site when so much of the internet is free. One of the interesting side effect of the internet boom is that information has been commoditized. If one site doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you go to another.  Many sites have tried with varying levels of success to get people to pay for online content and part of that obstacle is the medium itself.

Online reading may be convenient and even efficient, but it’s not particularly enjoyable. First of all, it takes a physical device of some kind, which means a fragile glass screen which cannot be dropped, gotten wet, or rolled up and thrown into a bookbag. Secondly there must be some kind of internet access. if it’s ethernet, then you’re tethered. If it’s wi-fi, then you either need a wi-fi hotspot subscription or be lucky enough to bum it for free. The dream of “internet  everywhere” has gotten a lot closer lately with the explosion of 3G devices, but most of these tend to be smartphones which again, is hardly ideal. yes, we’re starting to see more 3G enabled laptops but the aformentioned problems still apply.

What is required here is a different sort of device, one which is built for reading and not for generalized computing. One which is tough, small, and doesn’t need a full-time internet connection to be useful. Such a device could mark a new beginning for the publishing industry. Ironically, the progenitor of the device I’m describing is already here. It’s the Amazon kindle, and despite all its flaws and even the fact that it was actually designed for books, it’s a large signpost pointing to the future, which is a place traditional magazine publishing desperately needs to get to.

Unfortunately, some formidable technical hurdles which stand in the way. The first and greatest of these is the absolute necessity of color. Greyscale e-ink displays are fine for books but not for magazines. We need a new generation of color e-ink displays that are inexpensive, energy efficient and rugged.
Secondly, the device must be much simpler, like a book. Keyboards and keypads are no substitute for the simple act of turning a page. We must have a gestural interface that is consistent, intuitive and simple to use. Content must shape the device and not the other way around. To quote the writer Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Lest you think that this is some kind of ridiculous pipe dream

Fujitsu is now selling a color e-ink reader with a touch screen interface. The unit can produce 260,000 colors and has 40 hours of battery life. The only problem is one of unit cost. At $1000, the Flepia (i’m not making this up. ewwww) is about $801 too expensive. Still, it’s a beginning.

To move forward, publishers must finally embrace the sad truth that the days of ink and paper are quickly fading. They must put aside their distrust of technology and come together to create a single standard format for digital media, one which can do for print what the CD and DVD did for their respective industries. With a clear standard in place, publishing companies must then bite the collective bullet and offer their goods at significantly reduced prices to spur digital adoption. Freed of distribution costs (other than bandwidth) publishers can also expand the range of newspapers and magazines they offer, creating more choice for the consumer.

The killer app here is not the technology of the reader itself. That is almost coincidental. The true power of this technology is the marriage it creates between traditional content and instant gratification. For the first time, a newspaper or magazine subscription can truly become an impulse buy….because the content downloads immediately and there is zero delay between desire and fulfillment. It also paves the way for more free content, since publishers would now have an easy way to reach potential customers and offer them a sample of their product. Imagine being able to download a full edition of a magazine you were interested in absolutely free…and then, if you like it, be able to purchase a subscription instantly and take it with you wherever you go. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities for readers and publishers alike. All that is required is the collective will to get there.

All of this brings me back to the subject of Mac magazines and the irony that publishers who are interested in writing about the future often do so using a medium of the distant past. I think it’s clear that the days of traditional publishing are numbered. There is simply no way to turn back the clock and every moment spent struggling against the titanic force of the internet only depletes your limited resources that much faster.

The only solution is to drive forward, create new partnerships and rethink the business of publishing. Gutenberg created the first printing press in 1450. Today we’re still putting ink to metal and it’s killing us. Mac users are supposed to “think different”. Perhaps we should be the ones leading the charge.