How Adobe defied Apple to produce superb iPad magazines

12 Nov 2010
adobe digital publishing on ipad
adobe digital publishing on ipad

There’s a lot of excitement in the world of publishing regarding the massive potential of the new tablet market. The biggest news at the recent Adobe MAX 2010 was the official announcement of Adobe’s upcoming Digital Publishing platform for delivering rich, interactive electronic magazines using the Creative Suite design tools and InDesign in particular.

The reason for the excitement is obvious. Up until now the internet has been a disaster for the big publishers, as they’ve effectively been forced to cut their margins, and occasionally throats, by giving away content for free online. Now with the arrival of the tablet, it’s possible for publishers to provide a far richer, handheld, book-like, reading experience. The end user is happy because it’s a fundamental advance on both traditional print and web browsing, and the publisher is delighted because here at last is the chance to charge for content while taking full advantage of the internet in terms of its global audience and  minimal production costs.

At AdobeMAX 2010, Kevin Lynch and Martha Stewart demonstrated the new electronic magazine format in action on an iPad - it’s essentially the same system that's behind several existing iPad publications including Dennis Publishing’s own iGIZMO (which is free). With rich wysiwyg layout and typography that fully reflects the print-based brand, dual-axis touch-based navigation (vertically to move within stories, horizontally to move between) complete with zoom overview and table of contents overlay, the ability to flip intelligently between landscape and portrait orientations and lots of interactive capabilities – embedded movies, audio, slideshows and so on - it looked suitably impressive.

The thought that came into my mind on seeing it in action was how is the page design actually being delivered? I’ve long assumed that the underlying media would be Adobe’s own Flash format as this is perfectly suited to the task with its PostScript-style, vector-based handling of typographic text, its rich media support and interactivity, its tie-in with AIR for offline usage and its near-ubiquity across all devices. Moreover, having built up InDesign’s Flash authoring capabilities, it would certainly be simple for Adobe to deliver such a solution.

Flash out, iPad in

The problem of course is Steve Jobs and his determination to keep Flash off Apple’s handheld devices. Ultimately a tablet magazine delivery system isn’t much use if your publications can’t be viewed on the market-leading and market-defining tablet. In short the iPad is the one demographic you cannot afford to ignore.

So Flash is out and indeed hardly mentioned on the Digital Publishing FAQ which states “The Production Service will support a range of file formats, including PDF and HTML5” and which provides a dedicated section entitled “Will Adobe make HTML5 an integral part of its Digital Publishing Solution?” to which the answer is a resounding “yes”. But if Flash is out and HTML5 is in, how has Adobe managed to turn it into a wysiwyg, truly typographic design medium?

Details are still relatively thin on the ground, as the Digital Publishing platform is only aimed at major publishers (at least to begin with) and doesn’t go live until Q2 2011, but digging around on Adobe Labs I came across a PDF of the Digital Publishing User Guide. This provides tutorials explaining how you go about converting your InDesign print layouts for the iPad and provides lots of useful information about which InDesign features are supported natively - eg hyperlinks, buttons and scrollable frames - and which are handled as overlays – eg audio and video.

It also talks about the Content Bundler which is used to upload your files to the centralized hosting service and the all-important Adobe Content Viewer, which delivers the magazine along with crucial publisher support services such as usage tracking and analysis, personalised advertising and e-commerce handling. It also reveals “Currently, when you bundle an issue, images files—either PNG or JPEG—are created for each page of every stack.”

Bitmaps In 2010!

Going back to bitmaps and targeting individual screen resolutions might sound regressive, prehistoric even

I have to say I was shocked at this. This is 2010 after all and each page is being delivered as a bitmap! It reminds me of my very first article for PC Pro,written back in 1996, when I took a look at QuarkImmedia, which at the time was the company's best hope for enabling  print-based publishers to deliver electronic interactive magazines via the internet. Even then I was shocked that Quark could think that fixed size, bandwidth-unfriendly, unsearchable, effectively unprintable bitmaps could possibly be the delivery vehicle for electronic magazines.

On reflection however, I have largely been won around. To begin with, today’s broadband/Wi-Fi/tablet environment is a completely different world and while bitmap-based delivery isn’t exactly efficient, we’re no longer dealing with dial-up 56k modems. Moreover for design-intensive layouts where you have text overlaid over an image, which is the norm for magazines such as the “Boundless Beauty” special edition of Martha Stewart Living which was demoed at AdobeMAX, you’re really going to have to send all that bitmap data anyway. In fact, if you’re going to be including full-screen videos, then a few bitmapped pages are the least of your worries.

Moreover, bitmaps do have advantages. In particular producing a bitmap targeted at a particular screen resolution (or rather two, one for each orientation) means that the text quality/aliasing can be absolutely optimised to the particular device. In other words, if you want absolute pixel perfect control then bitmaps do make a lot of sense.

More importantly, the design and overall experience as delivered by the Adobe Viewer application clearly works. In particular thanks to features such as the orientation-swapping and smooth scrolling of extended pages, it’s clear that users don’t feel that they are being short-changed with a glorified JPEG slideshow, but rather that they are reading a sophisticated page-based, screen-optimised magazine.

It might be slightly deceptive but, as the term “HTML5” is generally used to refer to all the open web standards, then the Digital Publishing platform’s combination of JPEG and PNG with some clever scripting can just about live up to the title, even if there's very little HTML code. Most importantly, by scrupulously avoiding Flash and providing a ground-up, Objective-C, iOS-compliant Viewer and AppStore-based delivery, Steve Jobs is kept happy – or at least can’t complain. Crucially this means that publishers can use InDesign to repurpose print work for the iPad even if they have to do a bit of tailoring, tweaking and overlaying to do so.

Scalability: Flash to the rescue?

The big problem is that everything starts to fall down in terms of scalability when you remember that Apple is only one provider. What happens to the bitmap-based approach when screens of all shapes, sizes and resolutions start appearing? Moreover, when you buy a magazine do you want it to be inherently tied to just one device? Come to that, what about the next, higher-resolution iPad? Clearly it’s not viable to produce a magazine optimised for every device so maybe bitmaps aren’t a long-term solution after all.

Hmm. What we need is some sort of typographically-rich, vector-based format that can scale to deliver resolution-independent quality. Fortunately every other tablet device manufacturer isn’t taking Apple’s anti-Flash strategy and has pledged to support AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) and through it Flash. It looks very likely that when Adobe says “currently” all pages are being delivered as bitmaps, that’s because in future all non-Apple tablets will also have the option of using scalable Flash SWF.

Even if Flash isn’t involved in Adobe’s future plans, Adobe deserves a lot of credit for its Digital Publishing platform. Going back to bitmaps and targeting individual screen resolutions might sound regressive, prehistoric even, but the results aren’t and that’s what matters. More importantly, by jumping through Steve Jobs’ hoops and focusing on the no-Flash iPad, Adobe is making sure that Apple has no excuse to take its ball off to play on its own.

Ultimately, alongside its reading experience, the most important capability of any electronic publishing medium is its universality. By going back to bitmap basics and making sure that the foundations of the Digital Publishing framework don’t require Flash, it looks like Adobe has created a ground-up solution to Jobs’ Divide-and-Rule strategy and a brilliant way to maintain the internet as a single, integrated and universal medium.

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