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Wednesday, June 02, 2010, 01:30 am PT (04:30 am ET)

Adobe, Condé Nast scrambled to get Wired app on Apple's iPad

Magazine publisher Condé Nast was so sold on Adobe's Flash platform that the company didn't even anticipate Apple's iPad wouldn't support Flash. As a result, it had to resort to a clumsy workaround from Adobe to make it into the iTunes App Store.

Condé Nast designs its paper magazines using Adobe's InDesign, so it seemed like a natural progression to output its InDesign page layout into Adobe's companion Flash Professional app to generate Flash content that could be viewed on mobile devices.

That was the company's digital strategy before Apple launched iPad, and was reiterated at the going plan right up to and even after Apple outlined that the iPhone App Store wouldn't support code-generated apps exported by Flash Professional.

A failed Flash strategy

The other problem: there really aren't any popular mobile devices that display Flash. Adobe is just now getting around to releasing its beta version of a Flash Player for smartphones, but it currently only works on Android, a platform that doesn't sell lots of paid content, and only on a small subset of the newest Android devices that are fast enough to run it.

Most tablets, like HP's Slate PC that was discontinued in the wake of iPad, are designed to use Windows 7, but while that operating system supports Flash as a web browser plugin just like desktop PCs, it hasn't found any interest among users when installed on tablet devices.

The only successful tablet is currently the iPad, which like the iPhone and iPod touch has never supported Flash because Adobe has never released a suitable Flash Player for the iPhone OS in its last three years of its existence.

Too late

At this point, Apple has hitched its wagons to HTML5 for dynamic content, and won't be supporting Flash until Adobe's platform develops into something that works really well on mobiles and customers start demanding Flash playback as a feature.

Unfortunately for Adobe, that's unlikely to ever happen because the iPhone OS now makes up such a large and conspicuous chunk of the smartphone, media player, and tablet markets that content developers are now rethinking how to publish their content in a format that can be viewed by Apple's influential users.

Web developers sensitive to Apple's affluent demographic have already begun removing Flash from their websites, from Carnival cruise lines to the Virgin America airline. But rather than anticipating this trend, Condé Nast forged ahead with Adobe on a Flash-centric publishing partnership, only to find out, too late, that Adobe's backup plan for automatically generating native iPhone apps from Flash Professional wouldn't meet with Apple's App Store approval.

In order for Condé Nast to ship an iPhone OS app for iPad, it would need to build the app using Apple's development tools, not Adobe's middleware solution.

Adobe's Plan C: Objective-C

Rather than design original content for iPad or simply create a custom, standards-based website in HTML, Adobe sold Condé Nast on distributing its existing InDesign pages as large graphic files presented using a standard iPhone OS viewer app built according to Apple's rules.

The result was that Adobe could claim relevance as an essential link in the publisher chain, and Condé Nast could sell its magazine published as an iPad app without too much extra work. The downside is that there's nothing really interesting or novel about the iPad version of Wired, apart from the fact that Adobe's workaround results in a huge "app" that weighs in at around 500MB.

Adobe's solution to publishing digital content on iPad is a lot like its strategy for delivering Creative Suite content on the web: cut up Photoshop and InDesign designer's print pages into large image files fit into an HTML table. That creates a website that looks exactly like the existing print work, but which doesn't really look (or act) like a website.

"Something wrong and something very lazy and/or desperate"

A designer who examined the Wired app reports "each Wired issue is actually a bunch of XML files that lay out a bunch of images. And by 'a bunch of images' I mean 4,109 images weighing in at 397MB."

His investigation, published on the InterfaceLab blog, notes that "each full page is a giant image – there are actually two images for each page: one for landscape and one for portrait mode. Yes, I’m laughing on the inside too. There is no text or HTML, just one gigantic image. The 'interactive' pieces where you can slide your finger to animate it are just a series of JPG files. When you press play on the audio file and see the progress meter animate? A series of PNG files.

"Something is wrong with this picture. Something wrong and something very lazy and/or desperate," he added.

The Adobe viewer app, hailed in the company's press release as "a new digital viewer technology that enables print publishers to bring stunning digital versions of their magazines to life," is actually not too far removed from a CD-ROM from the 90's says the author of the report.

Adobe still pleased with its work

David Burkett, Adobe's vice president and general manager for Creative Solutions, wrote in the company's press release that "Adobe’s work with Wired has resulted in a digital magazine format that creates an immersive experience, allowing a publication’s unique content, look and feel and advertising to stand out in the digital realm.

"We aim to make our digital viewer software available to all publishers soon and plan to deliver versions that work across multiple hardware platforms. It’s safe to say that if you are already working in InDesign CS5, you’ll be well on your way to producing a beautiful digital version of your publication."

Adobe touts its app as "new digital viewer technology" which enables "readers to experience video content, slide-shows, 360 degree images and rotate content in vertical and horizontal modes," and notes that the Wired Reader "goes several steps further, taking advantage of the tablet form factor and enabling readers to explore magazine content using touch gestures, including a zoomed-out browse mode, to see the content of the issue at a glance. Readers are able to experience the design fidelity of a print magazine, with the dynamic interactivity of digital media."

What the Wired Reader does not do is present content that isn't already available on the Wired website. Or allow users to change font sizes or typefaces, the way Apple's iBooks app does for digital books (or as standard web browsers do). There's also no really interesting interactivity features, nor even the ability to download newer or archived issues of the magazine as they become available via Apple's in-app purchasing feature.

It's solely a digital version of the print artwork, which is precisely what Flash was intended to deliver for print publishers on the web: a way to generate content to sell digitally without doing much work or taking on any risk in creating something new.

Condé Nast's other publications, GQ and Vanity Fair, are similarly expected to use the same model for bringing their magazines to iPad. One former employee of Condé Nast noted that this may be the case, not just out of laziness, but also because the publisher wants to be able to count digital editions as part of its distribution numbers mixed in with physical magazine sales for advertising purposes. Making them essentially the same thing helps in that regard.

Magazines in HTML5

Not all publishers are sold on cranking out the most elementary electronic versions of their paper magazines. At Google's I/O conference, Sports Illustrated demonstrated an HTML5 version of its work that marks up sections and articles using new structure elements and adds drag and drop navigation features (for creating bookmarks of embedded media such as video clips), while also taking advantage of Web Workers and other features of HTML5 that makes the content significant faster than rendering objects in plain JavaScript or Flash.

The digital publication, "in beta," also presented embedded animated visualizations based on a live survey, integration with Google Maps, and even rich, immersive advertising similar to the iAd program Apple demonstrated for iPhone OS 4 (as shown in the video below).

Despite a variety of interesting features in the demo, it did not appear to include any special ability to increase font sizes or change font face outside of the browser itself. That makes it somewhat questionable why magazine publishers don't simply sell their periodicals as iBooks on Apple's platform, which already supports rich content in an open format that publishers can also sell in competing digital venues.