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Strategic insights
App vs. Web - Why not both?

Written by on May 2, 2011

You probably heard the news that Conde Nast has put the brakes on converting more magazines to the iPad. Not surprisingly, Conde Nast's iPad titles aren't selling that well.

It's a shift. The official stance was we're going to get all our magazines on the iPad because this is going to be such an important stream. The new change is maybe we can slow it down. In my opinion, it makes Conde look smart because we have the ambition, but we're not rushing.

In other words, they are now firmly in a "let's wait and see" mode.

Note: Also read "Print vs. iPad vs. Web".

Their strategy is wrong. They are selling individually created magazines for specific devices and formats, instead of selling content to people in any format.

Because of the high cost of recreating the magazine in an iPad format, we hear things like, "Why rush for more tablet editions before publishers can find big audiences?" Their strategy limits them to mass markets.

They are not able to tap into the long tail of publishing, the real power of social communication. A world in which people may read your articles from any channel (Twitter, Facebook, web, app, RSS, Flipboard etc), on any device, in any format - including form factors of future devices.

Rupert Murdoch's The Daily is suffering from the same problem (and it too is reportedly doing badly). They are still thinking print, in which your publishing strategy is centered around a specific format and a specific output.

Mind you, the web isn't much better. Most websites (including this one) are designed to support a specific format. Sure websites are more flexible. You can read them on pretty much any device. But, that doesn't exactly make them mobile.

The real problem is that iPad magazines put people into consumption silos. In a connected world, publishing is about two things. Consumption and sharing. And the two are completely depended upon each other.

You can enhance the experience with an app Give dedicated readers a reading experience that is more optimized than what casual readers need.

One of the concepts I do like is Bonnier's News+.

It is not perfect. It still relies way to heavily on print metaphors (like flipping between pages), and it still puts an extra burden on the publisher in order to support multiple formats.

But the other part, the sharing part, is completely outside your control. As a reader, you can control how you want to read the content, but when you share something, you have no influence over how people see the link.

People check their feeds on any device imaginable. From their work computer, tablets, iPad, iPhone, Androids, blackberry, XBOX, etc. And when they see a link to an article, they expect to be able to read it.

Creating an iPad app isn't going to work, if people read the tweeted link on a Windows mobile.

We tried that on the web 10 years ago, when many sites would tell people to "Please install Netscape to see this site." Or when we today see a notice that you need to install Flash on your iPad to read an article.

It doesn't work, and it never will.

No matter how you look at it, your publishing strategy must include a flexible web element. You can extend with apps, but you cannot do it without the web.

But even websites need to rethink the format. In the past 10 years, most web designers have put their websites into format silos as well. They created a website for the desktop browser, and another for mobile browsers.

That too is wrong, because, now, we have so many different types of devices and screen sizes. You have to create one site that can handle all of it.

How do you do that?

Last week, I launched my new design site 42Concepts, to replace Baekdal Design.

I started Baekdal Design back in 2008, as a sub section of baekdal.com. It was a way to get people to think differently. At the time, I was writing mostly about how to create a great experience, so bringing in amazing examples of design, made a lot of sense.

Since then, the focus of Baekdal.com has shifted a lot more towards new media, and the strategy behind it. Design ended up like the odd section that didn't really belong. Something had to be done.

But, design has always been something I have been passioned about. And, the design section has always been really popular (and profitable). The only real solution was to promote it, and give it a brand of its own.

The tricky thing about the design section, though, has always been that the entire concept is build around "snackable content." It is not designed to give you long articles that you can immerse yourself into. It is designed to give you quick sparks of inspiration, whenever you need it.

Creating an app wouldn't work. An app invites casual reading. Something you do in your couch in the evening. It is not useful when you just want to see something interesting during a short break.

I also needed to make it work across multiple devices, at any screen size, via any app.

The solution was HTML5+CSS3 and something called responsive design. With it, you can create a layout that adjust itself to whatever screen size that is available at the moment.

It is very simple. The entire site (concept+coding+layout) took only 3 days to make. And the responsive layout is very simple CSS, and only 41 lines of code.

The result is a website that works on any screen. From a big Cinema display, to a laptop screen, on Netbooks, iPads (both horizontal and vertical), and to smaller screens like those on iPhones or Androids.

Try it yourself. Go to http://42concepts.com and resize your browser window.

Note: You can also go to this test page to see how it works in a more simplified way.

Granted, the layout for 42Concepts is very simple. I would need a more complex layout for Baekdal.com. But if you can style it with CSS, you can make it.

Is this then the solution? Well, yes and no.

You have to completely rethink how you design a page. There are no fixed widths or heights. You could technically create per-page styling at all the different sizes, and get exactly what you want (like the layout of a page in Wired's iPad magazine). But that is a lot of work. Instead, you have to think of how different spaces relate to each other.

Advertising is a particularly tricky business. In my original concept, I wanted to show bigger ads on bigger screens. But that turned out to be impossible with Google Adsense (it is against their TOS). So I had to rethink the layout and restrict the ads to only two fixed sizes. Not the best solution when you are working with flexible spaces.

There is a huge difference between how much content you want to load at different screen sizes. It doesn't make much sense to load 100 article snippets when reading an article on the iPhone. But it makes a lot of sense in a desktop experience.

Also, there are a lot of little things that don't really work right. E.g. a resize doesn't tricker any CSS transition commands. When rotating your iPad from horizontal to vertical, the elements won't move with a fluid swoosh. They snap to their new position in a blink. You can get around that by moving each element manually, but that is again a lot of work.

Creating smarter scrolling (and thus create a more app like experience) is painfully slow - especially when you have an article like this one with 24 huge pictures. You can see an example of this if you read this page on your iPad. It is not a smooth experience like what you see in an app. And for a highly visual site like 42Concepts, I decided on the good old page view instead.

Speed is more important than fanciness.

Also, it is a pain in the a** that Apple doesn't support social channels directly in the mobile browser. They only support email and print. It is annoying that you have to implement common sharing functionality like "Post to Facebook/Twitter" or "Read later" yourself. Why isn't that simply an option in the sharing menu? Get in the game Apple!!!

Overall, I'm pretty satisfied with it. The responsive layout is a really low maintenance way to create a fluid site that works on any device. It doesn't require a huge investment, nor a ton of time designing the content.

More importantly, it doesn't put the content into format silos. When people share a link, other people can read it regardless of where they are or what they use. There are no restrictions, no requirements, nothing to download, and nothing to install.

If the content was focused more on longer casual reading, I would probably also look at creating an app that would make that experience better. But not as a replacement for the responsive website - only as a supplement for loyal readers!

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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