The magazine industry’s current interest and investment in tablets beyond the iPad can be described as tentative at best.
It’s not terribly surprising. Even by the most conservative of estimates, the iPad will make up the lion’s share of worldwide tablet sales for the next three to four years. Nearly seven of every ten tablets in consumers’ hands at year’s end will be iPads, Gartner forecasts.
By comparison, Gartner estimates that Android will own 19.9% of the tablet market by the end of 2011, followed by QNX (5.6%, used by the BlackBerry PlayBook), webOS (4.0%, used by the HP TouchPad) and MeeGo (1.1%).
(Asus’s Android tablet appears to be selling well enough to compensate for the rest of the Android tablet category, however.)
Despite evidence that sales of non-iOS tablets will not take off for the next few years, a number of news organizations have launched one-size-fits-all apps for Android tablets to complement their multi-platform, “all access” subscription offerings, and a few have even developed apps for RIM’s QNX platform and Palm’s webOS software.
But very few magazine publishers have released full-fledged apps (by which we mean more than PDF-like copies sold through apps like Zinio) for the newer crop of tablets. Magazine apps typically require a substantial investment in terms of resources, as each edition must be formatted uniquely from its print counterpart rather than automatically refreshed from a feed.
It’s for that reason that so many publishers previously waited to see if the iPad would make a sizable impression on the market before developing apps for the device, and why an even larger portion have not yet allocated resources for developing other tablet editions. (If you recall, more than a few publishers made similar mistakes waiting to see if the web was here to stay.)
Many have opted instead to focus on and build out their iPad editions — that is, if they’re not still struggling to launch on the iPad in the first place.
Despite slow development, we have been both impressed and, frankly, a little puzzled by the way Sports Illustrated has tackled each new device, churning out unique, richly interactive editions of its magazine not every month, but every single week.
Why, we wondered, is Sports Illustrated bothering to produce editions for these other tablets, when all evidence suggests it will be some time before the devices reach consumers’ hands in significant numbers? Why not allocate more resources to print, which still brings in the majority of their ad revenue, or enrich its iPad version instead?
A Substantial Investment
In terms of time and staff, the requirement is substantial. Sports Illustrated‘s design team, headed up by creative director Chris Hercik, must format the issue at a 16:9 ratio in both vertical and horizontal formats for the iPad, at a vertical 16:9 ratio for the HP TouchPad, and at a 4:3 ratio (horizontal only) for the Samsung Galaxy and Motorola Xoom.
Side by side: the same elements rendered for print (left), iPad (center), and Galaxy Tab (right).
Furthermore, unique functions must be built for each platform. In a recent music-themed double issue, Sports Illustrated was able to embed iTunes songs in the iPad edition, but other tablets had to link out to Amazon’s music player so that readers could listen to songs.
The publication has been able to do all of this without staffing up, but by working harder, faster and, ultimately, more efficiently.
Beginning Thursdays, editorial determines what long-term stories will make the print issue while brainstorming creative extensions for the tablet editions. As major events occur throughout the week, additional stories are assigned by vertical editors (i.e. the baseball editor, or the football editor) for print as well as the web.
The design team formats each issue for print and tablets simultaneously, closing print Monday night, the iPad and HP TouchPad editions on Tuesday, and Android versions on Wednesday.
It’s an impressive feat. While many magazines are still struggling to put out one tablet issue per month, often bringing in a “tablet editor” and other staff to oversee its production, Sports Illustrated is releasing four each week, having seamlessly integrated each of them into the existing workflow without making significant new hires.
What Sports Illustrated Stands To Gain
Editor Terry McDonell at the Sports Illustrated offices in New York.
The work will pay off, Sports Illustrated Group editor Terry McDonell expressed in a recent interview with Mashable, and indeed it already has. Sports Illustrated‘s digital revenue was up 22% between 2009 and 2010, and is on track for double-digit growth again this year.
Other magazines that were quick to adopt the iPad, such as Wired, have reported similar gains in digital revenue since launching iPad editions.
“We’re placing bets across the table, because we don’t know where we’re going to be in 18 months. But [other tablet platforms] are going to grow,” McDonell said.
What’s essential, he explained, is giving readers access to Sports Illustrated wherever they are. It’s part of the all-access subscription strategy the publication rolled out in March, which enables readers, in theory, to access Sports Illustrated in the form most convenient to them — print, web, mobile or tablets — at any time.
Among magazines, all-access is an unusual strategy — until last week, no other magazine of which we are aware has rolled out a similar offering. Glamour, Esquire and The Atlantic, to name three examples, released nearly identical, paid and notably static magazine products for both print and the iPad (which, until recently, had to be purchased separately), and have a web operation, run under a separate online editor, that produces live, freely available content independent from the magazine.
The problem with the latter strategy is that the web arms of these magazines are more like franchises than true embodiments of their respective brands. Most of the content is produced by a different staff with a different voice and, inevitably, a different standard of content quality. Furthermore, readers are unable to seamlessly access all of the content a publication produces. They must seek it out through a combination of print, apps and browser navigation.
Ultimately, the latter three are doing their readers — and their brands — a disservice by a) failing to enable readers to access all of their content on the devices and platforms most convenient to them, and b) keeping that content inconsistent in form, quality and voice across platforms.
This is ultimately why there is a good chance that Sports Illustrated stands to succeed — not only through digital revenue increases, but by carving out the model that other successful magazine publications will inevitably imitate.