Lean With It: To Succeed, iPad Must Revolutionize Reading. It Hasn’t…Yet

Five things that magazines and newspapers can now do, which they’ve never been able to do before.



More than a few people–myself included–panned the iPad yesterday. Or at least yawned. A computer that you can hold in your lap, and read like a book? So what? Sure, as Steve Jobs noted, it’s a far more “intimate” way to read the Web–finally, a way to lounge with a computer, rather than just sit at one. But without the right content, the allure of that vision can feel a bit thin.

Here’s the thing: iPad was never going to be revolutionary by itself. As many people have pointed out, it’s a content consuming device rather than a content creator. And that’s where yesterday’s reveal fell short. The two big examples–iBooks and The New York Times–were slick and polished but also familiar. I’m willing to bet that, in the future, the reading experience on the iPad will change vastly, as developers get into gear.

To be sure, the Web has toyed with these ideas. But what’s held them back is that no one wants to get elbow deep in a rich-media experience while sitting at a desk or balancing a hot laptop on their crotch. And a mouse and keyboard aren’t the most intuitive ways to navigate something you’re reading. A tablet should be able to ignite those developments, as it finally offers a “lean-back” way to consume Internet content. That’s a revolution, but it’s so subtle that it hides in plain sight.


Here’s a few ideas:

1. Interactive graphics


Infographics have obviously become huge for every print medium. Witness The New York Times‘s heavy focus on them as a way to lure advertisers; and remember the explosion of “charticles” in print. Writers and editors usually hate charticles because they’re so much work and so quickly consumed. But there’s now an opportunity to create illustrative graphics that are indispensible to a story. Imagine reading a news report about economics–and clicking on several layers of graphs, illustrating the content at hand. Or imagine fashion charticles that are almost like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels, offering myriad paths based on your tastes and whims.

2. Continual publishing

As Luke Hayman points out, there’s no reason for magazines and newspapers to publish monthly or daily issues. Rather, they should be curating content all of the time. A big problem with magazines lately is that by the time they’re out, they’re responding to old news. No more. Now, there’s every possibility of being both beautifully curated (which is the hallmark of magazines) and highly news-oriented (the hallmark of blogs and newspapers). Magazines should become more newspaper-like, and vice versa.

3. Woven Narratives

The Web has been toying with this for some time, with video content embedded into stories. But the integration there is still pretty primitive. Videos and text seem fairly tacked on to each other. But if you’re sitting back with an iPad or a tablet, the content you read can quite easily vacillate between words and images. Imagine a book where at crucial points the author narrates a video, of the place he’s evoking in the text. Or an article where hyperlinks take you to the real live interviews with the subjects.

4. Communal Reading


Reading is a largely solitary activity. Sure, you can share links on or through social bookmarking sites like Digg or Stumble Upon. But you can’t really read as a group. Now imagine if you could annotate a book–and have those annotations shared with a virtual book club. Or imagine if you could buy a textbook annotated by a commenter you trust, who could function basically as a tutor. And even wackier: Imagine if Oprah actually sold book editions where she’s offered her personal commentary or responses. Of it you could buy obscure books that Neil Gaiman loves but that you’ve never heard of–complete with Gaiman’s own critical responses.

5. Custom Content

Places like Yahoo and Google have long toyed with home pages that you can tune to your own needs. The tablet should be able blow those out of the water. The main problem with all those customizable content options is that they’re still hideous to navigate and a pain to set-up. Now imagine if you can create your own, continually updated issue of The New York Times or Fast Company, simply by dragging and dropping items from a table of contents. Each format would automatically create live layouts, tailored to your reading patterns. They might even push stories to your front page, based on the things you’ve spent time with in the past.

All of which puts Apple in an unaccustomed position. Usually, they’ve always relied on themselves to sell a gadget–the iPod and the iPhone were lust objects because of Apple, not because of the content providers. This is different. iPad will live or die on how well the content providers step up.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.