Khoi Vinh: Publishers Should Be Developing for the Mobile Web Instead of Making Replica Apps

For this week’s cover story about Condé Nast’s struggle developing for the iPad, Betabeat had the opportunity to talk to

Mr. Subtraction himself.

For this week’s cover story about Condé Nast’s struggle developing for the iPad, Betabeat had the opportunity to talk to Khoi Vinh, former Design Director for On his widely-read design blog, Subtraction, Mr. Vinh has repeatedly expressed his skepticism toward publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst and software companies like Adobe for thinking that what iPad readers want is a magazine replica app that takes a print-centric approach to tablet design. But we didn’t get the chance to include some really interesting predictions Mr. Vinh made about the direction he thinks consuming content on the iPad is heading (in short: back to the browser) and what readers really want.

Mr. Vinh, who recently released a book on web design, seem to have contracted that start-up fever making its way around the city and is currently working in stealth mode on an app of his own. He compared the bells-and-whistles of the current magazine app rush to the CD-ROM bubble and advised publishers to think more like Netflix.

Do you still believe Condé and Adobe are leading the industry in the wrong direction?

I do believe that in general, though I found that I’ve been using The New Yorker app a lot. I’m a lifetime subscriber to the print edition, so I get access to the app for free. I still find it frustrating, but I think its okay in that sometimes I’m traveling and can’t get my hands on the print edition, so it’s nice to have that. It’s what I’d call a nice reader. I don’t think it taps into the potential of what you can do with that brand online. I have constant problems with it crashing.

Because of problems with the size?

I wouldn’t speculate as to a specific cause. My general guess would be they just tried to get too fancy. What I like about it is that it’s just the text from the magazines presented very simply. I ignore all the other extras. I don’t think the stuff I care about is what’s causing it to crash, which is just the text.

Do you think the replica approach is going to make it hard for publishers to get iPad subscribers?

To me the question is not what’s going to get them to subscribe but rather what’s going to get them to engage. I think trying to get readers to subscribe is a very difficult proposition that I think very few brands are going to be able to succeed at. Engagement is something else. I think there’s all kinds of great stuff on [Ed note: Agreed!] blogs and extras and stuff. It’s bizarre to me that the app hasn’t tapped into that stuff. I guess it’s frustrating to me that so many of these Condé Nast apps address a problem that’s already been solved.

The website is a perfectly good delivery mechanism for the content and takes better advantage of the medium. These apps tend to set aside those benefits that users have already said that they want for this illusory benefit of being able to control the typography and the layout and being able to make things look more print-like.

So if you were in charge, you’d focus on optimizing the mobile web experience?

If it were up to me, I would focus on new technologies like HTML 5 that let a website cache inside of a browser more readily, so people can have better offline access to it. But there’s a finite amount of resources that any organization can spend on these projects and I would rather double down on the website because in my view in a couple of years most content delivery is going to go back to the browser anyway. I mean I love apps and I feel like there’s a real use for apps. But I feel like it’s mostly for things that require the horsepower of the device and take advantage of the specific capabilities that Apple built into the operating system. You don’t need that to deliver content, you just don’t.

Do you think it’s possible to monetize a mobile website on the iPad?

I’m not privy to the numbers, but I would imagine there’s better long-term potential in a huge audience through a browser than a limited audience through an app. They could be making good money off the app, but my guess is they’re not. My guess is it’s mostly people like me who are subscribing through print, right?

When does an tablet app make sense?

If I were to build an app, it would be because I found some piece of the functionality that made sense with the brand. Whether it’s some video or multimedia or some utilitarian reason like a calculator or a productivity app or something–some feature set that really made a compelling case for building a new audience and was a complement to the brand. And if I found that feature set then I would build it with native tools, meaning on the iPad using Apple’s development environment, Xcode and so forth.

Are you skeptical about the future of the iPad adoption?

I’m bullish on the device in general. Apple sold 15 million last year, the projections are 55 million this year. I think that might be a conservative estimate. It’s conceivable that we’ll have a 100 million of these devices by the middle of next year, which is a huge number, a tremendous adoption rate. I think within five years they are going to be an accepted norm for most computing tasks. So I think it’s a fantastic device to the point where I’ve started a new venture that is focused on an iPad app. I’m building an app that takes advantage of properties that are unique to the iPad. It’s not that I’m a skeptic about the device, I’m a skeptical about the use of the device to deliver content that’s just as well delivered in a browser.

Do you think publishers need to use interactive designers to really get at the potential of the iPad?

Absolutely. Even in so far as all the extras that they put it, it’s not just that they’re centered around delivery of text from the print edition. It’s like things that they think are going to be interesting to people are very much in the mold of what somebody thinks is going to be interesting if they come from a print world. “Oh, we’ll have some video extras and be able to rotate the photo, you’ll be able to get extra audio clips.” That stuff is fine. But it takes such tremendous amount of incremental labor and expense that there’s no upside to it. People want the core content. They’re not going to say no to the extras, but most of the time they’re not going to use them and most of the time they’re not going to care about them. Netflix is a company that totally gives you just the core content. They decided to do this after a decade of all this value-add in DVDs thinking that’s what sells stuff. Then Netflix demonstrates, people just don’t care about the extras. That to me is part of the print-centric approach.

There’s a clear precedent in the CD-ROM bubble from 20 years ago where they tried to deliver content in this very fancy value-add way and people just didn’t buy it. If you just at look at what it takes to put these magazines together, you come to grips with the fact that you’re not shipping content, you’re shipping software and it costs you $10,000/month to produce an iPad edition. Let’s just say it only takes one incremental staffer to build an iPad app, they cost $120,000 to $150,000. Why would you spend that amount of money just getting the content out there? Why wouldn’t you invest that money in building better software around what users want? If you spend that much money to deliver the content, you’re not improving the content. To me it just doesn’t make sense.

When does it make sense to build an app?

I would build an app that has utility. I would build social features and sharing that really resonate with people and have longer shelf-life than just a month’s worth of content. Khoi Vinh: Publishers Should Be Developing for the Mobile Web Instead of Making Replica Apps