Magazine Apps for the iPad: “Bloated and Unfriendly”

The former design director for the New York Times (s nyt) has written a blog post giving his thoughts on magazine apps for the iPad (s aapl) (something he clearly gets asked about a lot). The bottom line? He hates them. With a passion. Why? Because, Khoi Vinh says, they’re “bloated [and] user-unfriendly” and because they are largely a result of a “tired pattern of mass-media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms, without really understanding the platforms at all.”

The new app from New Yorker magazine comes in for particular derision from the designer, who says it took too long to download, cost him money even though he already subscribes to the print edition, and was a walled garden without any connection to the web: a point I made in a recent post about the new Esquire magazine app. As Vinh describes it: “I couldn’t email, blog, tweet or quote from the app, to say nothing of linking away to other sources — for magazine apps like these, the world outside is just a rumor to be denied.”

It’s unfortunate that Vinh doesn’t say much about news apps like the one his former employer has for the iPad. The designer says that news-based apps “are really a beast of a different sort, and with their own unique challenges. There is a real use case for news apps (regardless of whether or not any players are executing well in this space).” Magazines, however, are in danger of losing the battle for readers in a digital age by making their apps so closed and monolithic, Vinh argues.

Even with an Apple-operated newsstand, I’m just not sure I believe these people will turn to publishers’ apps to occupy their tablet time. It’s certainly possible that a small number of these apps will succeed, but if publishers continue to pursue the print-centric strategies they’re focused on today, I’m willing to bet that most of them will fail.

Too many publishers, he says, are looking at media consumption in the old-fashioned way (something Om described in a recent post), rather than taking advantage of the more social forms of media available online. This makes virtually no sense at all on a digital tablet that is connected to the web, he says.

In a media world that looks increasingly like the busy downtown heart of a city — with innumerable activities, events and alternative sources of distraction around you — these apps demand that you confine yourself to a remote, suburban cul-de-sac.

Vinh doesn’t just blame publishers though — he blames Adobe (s adbe) as well (which recently took over production of all of Conde Nast’s magazine apps) for “doing a tremendous disservice to the publishing industry by encouraging these ineptly literal translations of print publications into iPad apps.” Who comes in for praise in Vinh’s review? It’s a short list, including one of the few apps to take a creative tack on the iPad magazine: Gourmet Live, which has turned the magazine into an interactive game of sorts. In the long run, says Vinh, traditional magazines will lose out to apps like Flipboard, which are “more of a window to the world at large than a cul-de-sac of denial.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Rego Korosi