Branson’s iPad Magazine App — Flashy and Confusing

The iPad (s aapl) magazine apps keep piling up, and this week’s big new digital magazine is Virgin (s vmed) billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s new project, which happens to be called Project. It launched in the iTunes store last night for British users and this morning for everyone else, and makes flashy use of all the various bells and whistles the iPad brings to magazine reading. Is there substance beyond the eye candy? Not so much. At times, the app has the feel of something rushed out the door to meet a deadline, just as many real-world magazines are — but then, most of them don’t need a manual to tell you how to read them.

One of the first things you notice about the app, not surprisingly, is the video clip that plays when you open it. It’s a short, Tron-inspired clip of actor and cover model Jeff Bridges, with some jerky, sci-fi type video effects. To be fair to the competition, the idea of a video isn’t all that new; Esquire had one of actor and cover model Javier Bardem introducing the magazine’s most recent issue on its iPad app. In some ways, the video clip embodies many of the things that are wrong with the app (and with other magazine apps, for that matter): It’s just eye candy for the sake of eye candy.

In other words, the video doesn’t really add anything. In a similar way, on an article about deep space exploration, the header image at the top of the story is an animated sky filled with stars. It’s a very cool effect, and obviously something you can’t do in a regular print magazine, which makes it fun, but it adds nothing to the story. That’s not to say magazines can’t have cool images or features that are just fun, but it’s better when they are integral in some way to the story. The Project app has at least one that does this in spades: Turning the device sideways enlarges a photo of a waterfall and triggers a video clip of a kayaker paddling off the edge of the 186-foot falls.

As with some other magazine apps, including the one from Esquire, the Project app (which is free to download, but costs $2.99 per issue) is also confusing to navigate, and as a result, has a complicated diagram with instructions how to move from story to story and how to trigger the various “easter egg” features in each piece, such as audio clips of actors talking about their movies. Even with the navigation instructions, I kept losing my way, then tapping and swiping furiously. Maybe Sir Richard wants us to print out the instructions and keep them handy while we are reading.

The larger issue with the app, of course, is why Branson bothered to publish one in the first place, since it’s not attached to any print magazine. The obvious answer is that the Virgin entrepreneur has never met a market that he didn’t want to fool around with, even for a little while, and it’s interesting to see what he has brought to it from outside the magazine world. The content will be familiar to anyone who has read Wired or Esquire or Vanity Fair — but at least Branson has done what few other apps have, and has included the ability to post comments and external links from each article.

In the end, Project is not going to set anyone’s house on fire with its ground-breaking approach to iPad journalism by any means, and to some extent it is just as “bloated and unfriendly” as most of its fellow magazine apps. That said, however, it’s an interesting addition to the field, if only because it isn’t directly tied to a legacy print magazine and therefore has nothing to lose (except some of Branson’s billions). Whether the Virgin entrepreneur is just fooling around with digital magazines or is actually committed to this effort for the long term remains to be seen.

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