Why Tech Review is ditching its iPad edition

Jason Pontin, editor of MIT's Tech Review, explains why his magazine deprecated its iPad app and went to "a simple RSS feed in a river of news," and why it's moving to "HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we'll kill our apps, too." TR spent $124,000 on developing tablet editions and sold 353 iPad subscriptions. The complexity of delivering for both landscape and portrait modes had the magazine developing six versions of its content every month ("a print publication, a conventional digital replica for Web browsers and proprietary software, a digital replica for landscape viewing on tablets, something that was not quite a digital replica for portrait viewing on tablets, a kind of hack for smart phones, and ordinary HTML pages").

Software development of apps was much harder than publishers had anticipated, because they had hired Web developers who knew technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Publishers were astonished to learn that iPad apps were real, if small, applications, mostly written in a language called Objective C, which no one in their WebDev departments knew. Publishers reacted by outsourcing app development, which was expensive, time-consuming, and unbudgeted.

But the real problem with apps was more profound. When people read news and features on electronic media, they expect stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web, but stories in apps didn't really link. The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, "walled gardens," and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens. For readers, none of that beauty overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.

Without subscribers or many single-copy buyers, and with no audiences to sell to advertisers, there were no revenues to offset the incremental costs of app development. With a couple of exceptions, publishers therefore soured on apps. The most commonly cited exception is Condé Nast, which saw its digital sales increase by 268 percent last year after Apple introduced an iPad app called Newsstand that promoted the New York publisher's iPad editions. Still, even 268 percent growth may not be saying much in total numbers. Digital is a small business for Condé Nast. For instance, Wired, the most digital of Condé Nast's titles, has 33,237 digital replica subscriptions, representing just 4.1 percent of total circulation, and 7,004 digital single-copy sales, which is 0.8 percent of paid circulation, according to ABC.

Why Publishers Don't Like Apps (via Kottke)


  1. This is my problem with many “apps”. Why would I install an app to read 1 website? A bookmark in my browser should suffice. It adds clutter to the interface, and takes up memory.

  2. The web succeeded because a single “light client” — the browser — could be used for all content. That should still be more than sufficient for most content, if the website and its stylesheets are written properly.

      1. No.
        Compare their memory and cpu usage to several apps running in tandem (as they inevitably do on my Android, which has perforce already been tweaked so that app memory uses the vastly slower SD-card because onboard memory filled to overflowing otherwise).
        And compare what happens when I am using my twitter app, and click on a link that opens the tumblr app, and then thru to an image on the Tumblog that opens my Flickr app if I want to view it fullsize…. and that’s why I’ve basically switched back to using the browser for everything.

  3. From the article: “Profit margins in single-copy sales are thinner than 30 percent”

    If that’s the case, and subscriptions cost less than the single-copy equivalent, how did they ever think they were going to make money on this?

    Lose money on every subscription but make it up in volume?

    1. I assume the single copy sales have to take into account all the magazines sent to the store that aren’t sold.

  4. Ooh, 353. That has to hurt.

    Honestly, while I suspect that calling on technologies unfamiliar to web designers(at least to do a genuinely decent job of something ‘applike’, not just an encapsulation of the system-provided webkit and a snapshot of your site) didn’t exactly help, and certainly makes continued existence in the face of a number like that impossible, I’d be inclined to suspect that a much higher number would have made those concerns melt away…

    The initial stampede of publishers to iDevice specific delivery mechanisms was not driven so by some inadequacy of HTML; but by the comforting notion of a nice, clean, walled garden complete with built-in ‘buy’ buttons and cryptographic locks, away from the ghastly rabble of the internet with its low-value ads and wicked Google News devaluing your content.

    As always, some ended up discovering that there weren’t enough customers inside the walled garden, or learning the hard way that the gardener not only wanted his 30%; but wanted it for any outside services sold through services sold inside; but the ones who found the money that they wanted seem undeterred by the terrors of Objective C.

  5. Glad to see this. I’ve been dubious of the trend toward device specific content.

    How on earth did peeps think moving from successful universal formats to myriad little apps/device versions as anything but a step backwards? I totally see it for FB and other media that is intended to be interacted with many times everyday, I don’t use em, but I see why people would. But for a magazine? That’s like selling the same edition in newsprint fold and glossy bound mag at the same newsstand.

      1.  And people have been sufficiently seduced by the Apple device that they’re willing to bend over backward in order to run on it.

  6. +1 for all previous comments, BBers get it, apps for web sites make little sense.  We can “Add to Home Screen” for sites we visit frequently, but few things online are more annoying than obnoxious “You’re on an iPhone!  Download our app!” popups.

    Good web design, especially using RSS, does the trick better than a team of app programmers– let the browsers and readers (and browser-based readers ;) do the heavy lifting of showing your good work.

  7. I have been baffled by the rush of every company and publisher in the world to make an app.  Makes no sense to me.

  8. The ipad’s browser does not support flash video, and frequently has trouble with real time chat– a well designed iPad app would restore those two features.

    Moreover, some web pages are designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard– the controls are too small to be used with fingers– the pinch zoom wastes precious fractions of  a second. Again, a well designed ipad app guarantees usability.

    A good rule of thumb might be:
    Is there a firefox plugin for your site? Do people use it? For instance, I’ve always used an fierfox plugin with ebay– it helps me organize my bidding. A well designed ebay app could be more convenient than the equivalent set of web pages.

    But as for magazines? Just get rid of the pagination. Try to make the ads less intrusive. Don’t use Windows specific typography.

    1.  It’s more sensible to develop a mobile version of the site for tiny devices, as many sites such as Wikipedia have done. At least the web developers don’t need to learn much more to achieve that. Apps are for things that websites can’t deliver.

      1. yes. Sometimes, my ipad is detected as mobile device, and I feel even more constrained.

        What I want is to be able to read a webpage, as if I was reading it on my iPad’s Kindle app. I’d like to be able to read a site in offline mode.

        If it’s a comic, each set of panels should fit in single screen without scrolling.

        Above all, it should not look like Salon.com.

  9. They went about this all wrong.  This is what happens when you let pure geeks take the controls without some educated, well researched consultants (with a knack for keeping things simple to save money) to direct the most practical approach first.

    Someone should have taken a hard look at jquery mobile and phonegap.  That’ll be $250.00 for my basic consulting, thx.

    1. I was just thinking the exact same. If jQuery Mobile doesn’t float their boat there are plenty of other mobile JavaScript frameworks. However, definitely use PhoneGap and have their web developers create the app rather than outsource it. Share code with their main site, give links to their site so that they can share the content.

      Because there is something to be said for downloading a magazine and then being able to view the content later on when you no longer have a wifi connection.

  10. This was my experience doing an app for Android and iOS. It’s a completely different thing from doing websites – I have a lot of experience doing web work, but writing an app is completely alien to webdorks. It was unpleasant, buggy, opaque, and ended up providing nothing that the website already had.

    But the customer demanded an ‘app’. Never mind that a mobile website would have worked just as well, if not better.


  11. gee, I am an amateur in software development, but I know better than this. This is a serious case of over-planning without understanding. Pages can be built in html5. You can still take advantage of high resolution. Minimal amount of obj-c to create a broad template for your magazine. CSS to maintain fine style, your web pros should be able to adjust to a resolution independent model. Should have been preparing for that from the day they entered college. Let readers read in landscape if you don’t want to make many versions. iPhone is too small for this sort of thing, skip it.

    My guess as to the real motivation; look at what harvard is doing. Charging for academic content is changing if not going away.

    1. another possible explanation; professors are embarrassed that this new technology flummoxes them so reject it as inadequate. Even more keenly embarrassed because they are tech professors.

    2. “Technology Review”(somewhat unfortunately, the version that died in 1998 was much better, with more articles about technology and less frothing about interchangeable web startups) is not really ‘academic content’.

      It is published by an organ owned by MIT; but is much closer to being a general-circulation tech magazine hovering somewhere between Scientific American and Wired. More VC/startup hagiography than the former; but less specific-gadget focus than the latter.

      Very much unlike an academic journal in structure, tone, or content. Also not terribly closely linked to MIT faculty, though it will sometimes do writeups of things going on in the labs there.

      Still a bit troublesome for a magazine with ‘technology’ in its name to misstep on the wild intertubes; but it isn’t as though MIT’s CS department was scratching its head in befuddlement at the problem…

    1. correct.  Their comments reek of they don’t know the most basic things about iOS.  No wonder they are going web only.  Watch their numbers drop.

      1. Sorry, but in most of the reader apps I’ve used, links don’t work. I don’t think the people saying that were saying it was inherent to the platform or just possibly tricky to implement properly, but I’m pretty sure they don’t care.

  12. If you discount the 2 times tablets were counted from the 6 versions they have to produce that’s still 4 versions. I’d of looked at spending some of that $124,000 on improving the workflow allowing the content to be served up easily across all platforms and future ready for anymore before looking at getting the app out.Tim Quinn gives a great example of that above and like he said can’t link because its a walled garden. Lame. You’d think a company owned by MIT would know what they’re doing.

  13. It’s “Technology Review“, not ” Tech Review“. If you’re going to go to the trouble of italicizing magazine names, at least get the actual name right.

  14. I’m not surprised that The New Yorker saw a boost. They started a campaign with subscriptions of the deadtree magazine at 25% of the standard subscription price (not, omg, of the the cover price) and threw in an iPad subscription along with it.
    I paid $60 for a two-year subscription for both versions.
    The iPad version has never worked with Newsstand’s autoupdate feature, crashes a lot, and takes forever to download each new issue, with the user sitting there waiting, because the downlad won’t background properly.
    So I think saying the iPad version gave them a huge subscription boost when Newsstand also concided with the biggest price drop I’ve ever seen might be stretching things a little.

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