Saturday, 20 February 2010

Comment: WIRED Magazine is leading the retreat of the publishing industry from the Web

Was I alone in being baffled by reports of the magazine industry getting hot under the collar about Apple's revenue model for the App Store, and renewed excitement about Adobe's Flash and Acrobat Reader? All this fuss seems so pointless when the future of digital publishing was already solved way back in 1990 with the invention of the World Wide Web.

I should declare an interest here. I run a Web design and build agency. I believe in the Web and I always have done. This might seem like a strange thing to say - like believing in the merits of breathing, eating and sleeping. The benefits of the Web are so self evident, and it has been adopted so widely that you would think that the technology hardly needs advocates.

But apparently this is not the case. This month, WIRED Magazine's UK edition declared that HTML is a "clunky" language. Their US Creative Director Scott Dadich is instead advocating a proprietary format for the iPad version of WIRED magazine, based on Adobe's Flash, Air and PDF technologies, which will apparently enable them "to retain control of the quality of the product in a way we weren't able to do with HTML". This is wrong in so many ways.

It is shocking and ironic for WIRED Magazine to reveal such an ignorance for the Web, and what it represents. HTML is not a "clunky" language*. It is a clean, simple, elegant document format that introduced two key concepts: hypertext and interoperability.
  • Hypertext revolutionised the written word with the concept of hyperlinks (otherwise known as "links"), enabling words within a passage of text to link to text on separate pages, within separate documents stored on separate servers in separate geographies.
  • Interoperability means that you could read any page on the Web with one piece of software - a Web browser. Gone were the days of not being able to read Mac files on a PC, Word files in Word Perfect, or whatever.
Without these two key developments, the web would never have taken off, and Google would never have been possible. For everything that is wonderful about the Web today, we must thank HTML.

Newspaper and magazine publishers recognised the Web as a disruptive technology that represented both an opportunity and a threat. They could see that writing on the Web was the writing on the wall for print-based publishing. It threatened their advertising sales, and circulation revenue. Plus, the democratising nature of the web meant that editors would be forced to come down from their ivory towers to occupy the same media as amateur bloggers. How ghastly.

So, reluctantly, magazines and newspapers set up their websites, usually in the form of a second rate version of their print publication. The mediocrity of these sites meant that they largely failed to attract an audience and advertisers. Few sites dared to charge subscription fees, and those that did tended to adopt a "freemium" model where much of their content was free, but some content resided behind a paywall. And that was it. They waited, watching their print circulation dwindle, and hoping for a salvation that would never come.

Then, one day, Steve Jobs uttered the word "iPad", and the slumbering publishing industry twitched back to life. Was Steve going to be their knight in shining armour, dashing to their rescue as he had done for the music industry, when he saved them from Napster? The simple answer is "no". While Apple is somewhat interested in selling digital books, they have shown no interest in creating a digital magazine store. But of course, publishers are welcome to create their own iPad Apps if they wish.

Adobe, on the other hand, is in the same boat as the publishing industry. Their business is predicated on propriety locked-in formats such as Flash and Acrobat, which have increasingly become redundant as HTML has gone from strength to strength. With the advent of HTML5, there will soon be no need for Flash, as users increasingly adopt modern HTML5 capable web browsers like Safari and Chrome.

Several publishing companies have demoed their vision for electronic magazines. In every case, they have essentially been the same thing: repurposed print layouts in PDF and Flash, with embedded video, which can only be browsed in a linear way, like an old fashioned magazine. Hardly visionary. Worse still, since Flash publications are locked into a binary, proprietary format, the core principles of the web - linking and interoperability - are broken. I can see why this model is appealing to editors and art directors, since it gives them a kind of control that simply doesn't existing on the Web: precision layouts, undivided reader attention, and user feedback restricted to a few stately "Sir!" epistles on the letters page. Heaven forbid that their pristine PDF pages should be tarnished with messy hyperlinks and user generated content.

But that boat sailed a long time ago. The Web is already a fact of life, and publishers can't afford to hide from it, cowering behind Adobe's back. They need to respond to it. They need to be bold. There is no rule that says how a Web page should look. Scott Dadich is a very talented designer - if he believes that WIRED's digital publication should look more funky, then he should focus on their website. With HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, there really is no limit to what is possible. And if publishing is not sustainable without revenue from subscriptions, then it is time to start looking for ways to charge users for content - on the Web, not on iPad apps or Adobe abominations.

True publishing visionaries will embrace the Web - not avoid it.

* albeit, it has been used in clumsy ways in the past, but the days of table-based layouts are now long-gone.


  1. Wow... this is a post for the record books. It may be awhile before another post comes around that is worse and more uneducated that this one. It was painful reading through the whole article, but I'm not going to tell you how wrong you are without reading everything. Besides, this just gives me more stuff to tell you is wrong. Isn't your lovely world wide web great?

    First off: Google can crawl through swf objects for search engine purposes. This happened years ago, Google it.

    Second: These digital magazines aren't meant to replace their websites, RSS is too important for that. They are meant to replace their magazines.

    Third: HTML5 is a long way out from replacing Flash and it won't do so until it has software supporting it. Funnily enough, Adobe's Dreamweaver CS5 allows for copying Illustrator of Flash vectors and animations and pasting them as canvases. Is Adobe crazy? No, they are smart. They also realize that Flash is different from HTML5. It offers more solutions. Everyone wants HTML5 to replace Flash for video, but what about games? What about dynamic bit rates? What about DRM content? What about a beautiful IDE that has been refined and improved for over a decade now? Pull your head out of your misguided ass and realize that HTML *IS* a clunky language.

    Making websites is not a fluid process. What Flash, or Silverlight, or any other rapid development tool for rich Internet applications, allows is a workflow that ends when you save the file. There is no, "well now I have a design made in Photoshop, it will be another 20 to 40 hours before I have the home page actually in HTML. After that I should probably consider how I'm going to handle data connections... hmm..." That is stupid slow, painful, expensive task that no company likes. Sure, it's possible to create an NES emulator with javascript and a canvas tag, but wtf? Why would you do that in javascript, coding by hand, rather than making it a plug in? It goes to just as many people and it takes a fraction of the time to make. Not to mention there is more than one person in the world capable of doing it.

    Bottomline is Flash allows a more native workflow for print designers. It allows for the creation of a digital magazine the same way a print magazine would be created. Or really close at least. The tablet device allows for a computer that is natural for print media digestions. Or really close at least.

    Final note: this isn't because Steve Jobs has a stupid named product. It is because tablets are going to be big. Sure, the iPad has a lot of hype. It has become a buzzword. Of course these digital magazine developers are going to mention it. It's called marketing. There are plenty of android tablets coming out. Touch screens are now ubiquitous, capacitive touch displays are decreasing in price, and smart phones are the new cell phone. Steve Jobs didn't ready the world. Steve Jobs just happens to have the biggest mouth.

    You have to realize that this isn't about the Internet or stupid standards or defiling the great name of HTML. This is about business, and Adobe has made a great set of software that businesses and designers all love. It would be dumb not to take advantage of this since it will reach a larger audience than HTML5 will anyway (remember that whole Internet Explorer thing.)