A Race Between Digital and Print Magazines

February 4, 2011, 5:55 am
A Race Between Digital and Print Magazines
By NICK BILTON



The long road to download Wired’s digital iPad magazine.

This morning I decide to try a little experiment: I opened up my iPad, clicked on the little Wired icon and purchased the magazine’s latest digital issue. After I agreed to fork over $4, it began downloading. For the next phase of the experiment, I grabbed my car keys, left my apartment and drove about 12 blocks to a local magazine store in Brooklyn, where I also purchased the latest issue of Wired magazine, this time in print.

I didn’t run any red lights, or speed, or park illegally during my shopping expedition. Yet when I returned home with the glossy paper product in hand, the digital iPad version still hadn’t finished downloading to my iPad. Anybody who reads Wired would call this an Epic Fail.

You don’t need a computer science degree to conclude the results of this research. Digital magazines are currently too big and bulky and almost defeat one of their main intended purposes, the promise of instant access to content and information.

“Publishers are not putting enough thought into delivery and the constraints around that,” said Ned May, an analyst for Outsell, a research firm focused on publishing and technology. “In many ways it harkens back to the early days of the Net where people had to wait 15 minutes for a single image to download.”

When Condé Nast, publisher of Wired, first launched the digital replica last year, thousands of ebullient readers across the land enthusiastically set out to read it in the new format, but many quickly grumbled online about the file size. Since then, the magazine file size has been cut in half, but it is still too cumbersome for today’s networks.

Sarah Rotman Epps, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, said that the egregious size of files reflects the hope of many magazine to provide an exact replica of the print product.

“They want to replicate every page of the magazine — ads included — so they can justify advertising pricing,” she said in an interview. “Partly, they are trying to make this new product work on an older business model.”

As a result, magazines can be as large as a 30-minute television show. Wired, for example, is a 250 megabyte file; downloading this through a basic home DSL connection can take about 40 minutes. The digital version of The New Yorker, which is also published by Condé Nast, ranges between 100 and 150 megabytes and can take from 15 to 20 minutes to download. (Of course, some home connections are faster.)

But it seems that many are aware of the issue.

“Our goal is an even smaller file size; readers should see a big improvement within the next couple of months,” said Pamela McCarthy, deputy editor for The New Yorker. “Reducing file size is something that we’ve been working on since the start.”

A spokeswoman from Condé Nast said executives with knowledge of other future magazine file sizes could be not reached for comment.

A recent report released by Forrester noted that 49 percent of tablet owners are actively reading newspapers and magazines on their devices, but are less likely to be reading a downloaded magazine. Forrester also noted that 72 percent of tablet owners actively go to view news and other information through a Web browser.

“Our data shows that tablet owners already spend more time using the browser than they do using apps,” said Ms. Rotman Epps. ”Some publishers will start experimenting with using the apps in a browsers, which don’t require downloading, in the coming year.”

Another reason these digital magazines are so weighty is because they come with fancy videos and images wallpapered throughout, which of course offer a much richer experience for the reader.

Mr. May, the Outsell analyst, believes magazines need to find a better balance of rich content for current technical download speeds. “Until downloads become faster, plans need to be scaled back by publishers, it’s not rich, if it’s not there,” he said.

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