The Future of Reading Online Is Customization & Sharing, Not Tablets (Yet)

Someone might want to tell the SXSW-attending web designers still queuing up for iPad 2s outside a pop-up Apple store a few blocks away from the Austin Convention Center: The iPad itself is not going to transform the way we read online. Or so said Khoi Vinh, former design director for NYTimes.com, during a one-on-one with me on the PepsiCo Plugged-In Stage at SXSW yesterday. Apps don't yet deliver when it comes to two critical reader needs: the desire to customize, and the desire to share content. And in fact, he said, those apps likely aren't going to have the chance to reach their full potential for engaging audiences—instead, we're already seeing a resurgence in the power of our browsers, thanks to the publishing power of HTML5.

The renowned web designer, who started his career as a painter and illustrator and spent five years in his role at the NYTimes.com before leaving last year, also bemoaned an age when online writers are forced to publish at a "machine rate," losing the valuable (and human) interplay between editors, art directors, and illustrators who can work together to create a vibrant, visual reading experience.

Earlier that morning, Vinh had delivered an overview of his new book Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design to a packed ballroom, drawing connections between traditional print publication design and the dynamic, fast-changing world of the web. Examining the strict, regimented graphic design of mid-century modernists is a great model for organizing mass amounts of information on the web, argues Vinh in his book, and its module-like construction also allows for easy collaboration between writers and audiences.

But while beautiful, readable web design is seeing a renaissance of sorts, the app avalanche is serving as a distraction to designers and publishers who should be focusing on the reader experience, not wasting their time trying to deliver the same content in three ways (print, web, app). Vinh has been very critical about the influx of apps on his blog, Subtraction.com, where he pointed to an exceptionally clunky New Yorker app which slowed his iPad and essentially showed him the same content in almost the same way as the magazine itself. Plus, it was something he had to pay extra for, even though he's a subscriber to the print edition. Vinh is not alone, he claims, pointing to the fact that for some publications, iPad readers had fallen to one percent of overall subscribers.

The problem with apps is even more apparent at a place like The Daily, Rupert Murdoch's buzzy new iPad-only publication. Vinh noted he hadn't written about it yet because he kept forgetting to launch it, which he thought said a lot about his thoughts on the matter. Vinh thought that starting a new publication that tried to replicate a traditional magazine format, only for a brand-new medium, was actually completely counterintuitive, almost old-fashioned, and wondered aloud why Murdoch hadn't divvied up his millions between several teams to come up with something truly innovative in the publication space.

While apps aren't making much headway when it comes to engaging audiences, Vinh did note some other tools that, while not perfect, are far more appropriate for the way people want to read. One was Flipboard, which organizes not only the magazine and newspaper content you want to read into a well-designed online magazine format, it also can pull in your Twitter and Facebook content from friends, essentially making it a custom publication. But Vinh also sees the importance of being able to deliver a print publication onto the web in essentially its exact form, and noted that he'd used Issuu to build a PDF-like version of the New York Times' T Magazine.

One of Vinh's last projects at the Times was The Opinion Pages, which celebrates the interplay of illustration and essays online

Here's another testament to Vinh's commitment to the reader experience: Even though he didn't professionally approve of apps like Instapaper and Readability, which strip out all his design work into a plain-text format ("Disappointing," he said), he admits that he does use them because they work, especially to sift through his RSS feed, where he still gets most of his news.

On a sidenote about subscriptions, Vinh was also critical of The New York Times' decision to install a paywall, noting that the team had now spent over two years developing something that would largely serve the paper's oldest readers. They could have spent all that time working on another product that would engage younger, newer audiences, said Vinh.

While ensuring that content can be delivered to readers how and when they want it is one constant battle for web designers, there's another aspect of online publication design that worries Vinh. After a discussion on the Gawker redesign, which Vinh likes due to its ability to give hierarchy to important stories, we discussed an essay of his entitled "The Sad Story of Illustration on the Web," where he showed the real impact of the agonizing "unhuman" publishing schedule for blogs: resorting to crappy, clip-art images to illustrate stories. In an ideal world, he said, there would still be that newsroom conversation about commissioning the right piece of original art to accompany the story. While Vinh didn't have a handy solution for that issue, an audience member suggested some kind of automated, crowdsourced, tag-driven application that would pluck a better, more interesting image from the web.

While tablets haven't yet transformed the way we read, there is one bright spot in the future of reading online. Vinh believes the answer to engaging audiences is actually right there our browsers, thanks to the proliferation of HTML5, a more robust publishing platform for web designers. Since we're constantly looking for a variety of stories from many sources, a browser makes more sense when we want to jump between publications and find the right content for us. It's only going to get easier to comfortably and seamlessly read, promote and share content—and that's words, images and video—right there in Firefox. Luckily for all the app-happy designers and publications who are so bullish on the iPad, it's also really nice place to browse the web.

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