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Posted on November 12th, 2010 by Tom Arah

How Adobe defied Apple to produce superb iPad magazines

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.

digital publishing workflow

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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16 Responses to “ How Adobe defied Apple to produce superb iPad magazines ”

  1. Lomskij Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    So effectively the user won’t be able to zoom in or change the text size? Yeah, way to go.

  2. Tom Arah Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Well I suppose you could add a magnifier zoom as you do with any bitmap, but the design should work optimally at 100%. After all you can’t change the text size in your print magazine.
    Rich, resizable adaptive layouts are another thing entirely and something I’ve written about before Again this is something that Adobe has been working on as shown by the AIR-based New York Times Reader

  3. Mike Laye Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    And so what happened to Acrobat, then? Based on a high-quality printer language, Postscript; designed as a device-neutral way of describing complex page layout; and presented as the solution to exactly the problems Tom describes – even down to the security aspects. What’s not to like?

    Plus, it’s widely-used, owned by Adobe and even accepted by Apple in iOS!

    But we’re now going back to fixed bitmaps across the Internet? Did I miss something? Tom, you may be convinced, but I’m not …

  4. Mike Laye Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    And I just thought over lunch – if “today’s broadband/Wi-Fi/tablet environment is a completely different world”, then I can just forget all the HTML, CSS & Javascript I’ve learnt in the last 15 years, forget about cross-browser conflicts and start creating all my web sites as pages in Photoshop.


    Love it!

  5. Mike Laye Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Hmm, there was supposed to be the basic set of HTML tags around the image in that last post ..

    /BODY – /HTML

    Get my drift?

  6. Tom Arah Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Mike, the PostScript/PDF issue is an interesting one. Apple does support PDF but not the latest version with the Flash player built in which is what would let it do the multimedia, interactivity etc that are essential to the immersive experience. Plus you’d have to go through Reader, wouldn’t have access to the branding, tracking etc of the Viewer and would still need a way of targeting devices in terms of page size. And, crucially, the end user would expect it to be free so there’s nothing in it for the publisher.
    Regarding HTML, CSS & JavaScript don’t panic, the Digital Publishing solution is only intended for the very niche task of delivering design-rich magazines. It’s in no way a truly universal publishing solution like the web, it’s just a way of delivering immersive electronic magazines to the tablet-based web audience. I think it’s important, but not that important :)
    Ultimately I’m only reluctantly won around to the fixed bitmap idea because of the Apple situation I’m certainly not generally recommending it.

  7. Paul Ockenden Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Surely the rules have now changed (largely thanks to the EC Antitrust probe – see, and Flash is now allowed for iPhone/iPad apps. It’s only within the devices’ web browsers that Flash is still outlawed.

    So there’s no reason why a digital magazine app can’t use Flash.

    Unless I’m missing something obvious…

  8. Christian Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Personally, I am greatly opposed to bitmaps as a solution for iPad magazines. While it might be the easiest way to publish documents, there are serious issues with regard to accessibility (which is a core feature of iOS).

    Also, Adobe’s text rendering technology is different than the native one in iOS so text might a little odd on the iPad (the same way that Flash text rendering looks weird under OS X).

  9. Tom Arah Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Hi Paul. Apple was forced to back down on banning Flash to compile native apps which is what brought the war out into the open, but it is still the only major manufacturer to refuse to support the Flash and AIR runtimes.
    @Christian – and I hope a lot of other iPad users will object too which will force Apple to support Flash/AIR so that we eventually get a truly unified platform. The Digital Publishing platform is targeted at the big magazine publishers such as Conde Nast and Dennis, my real interest is in ensuring that all designers can produce the richest possible work and that all users can access it on all devices.

  10. Mike Laye Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    #Tom – I really can’t agree with most of that:
    1 – “the Flash player built in” is surely just a technical issue – Adobe could easily build an “HTML5″ type video support into Acrobat Reader
    2 – “You’d have to go through Reader”? But they’re proposing going through “Adobe Viewer” anyhow? And we’ve all got Reader …
    3 – “Branding, tracking”? A downloadable PDF could carry all of that. If more was needed, it’s not rocket science to add it – my bulk emailer can do it.
    4 – “Targeting devices in terms of page size”? Acrobat/PostScript was *designed* to do that. And fixed bitmaps aren’t, as you point out so are no solution at all to that point.
    5 – “Expect it to be free”? There are loads of paid for PDFs out there. I just bought one from SitePoint last week!

    What I’m really asking is why on earth Adobe didn’t go for an Acrobat/PostScript (or “iAcrobat”, if they needed to differentiate product lines) solution for this – it seems to be exactly what (as they’ve been telling us for years) Acrobat was designed for: A cross-platform, resolution-independent and device-neutral publishing platform.

    My comment about making sites from big bitmaps was just an attempt to underline how stupid this “solution” actually is!

  11. Tom Arah Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Well apparently the Digital Publishing platform does support PDF as one of its delivery options, but PDF doesn’t really deliver the smooth, turnkey, branded, handheld eMagazine experience.
    Regarding “iAcrobat” I think you’re right – and it’s called Flash and Apple won’t support it.

  12. david Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Ok, am I missing somthing? whats wrong with good old PDF? I design my magazine in Indesign with the page dimensions set to iPad resolution, output to PDF (smallest file size preset), set image quality to maximum, res to 100dpi. Job done. Text comes out as vector, images as pixels, layout exactly as I created it. Whats the problem with that? PDF’s look damn fine on iPad.

  13. markzware Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    how can you search the content once it’s a bitmap?

  14. Tom Arah Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Yes static PDFs are great for non-branded, non-standalone, non-immersive, non-interactive, non-targeted and generally non-commercial publishing, but that’s not what the big magazine publishers are looking for.

  15. JB Says:
    November 12th, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    I view PDF as an interim solution only, but it might be an interim solution for the Adobe viewer to introduce some social integration features, for which text needs to be highlightable & sharable and anotateable (am I making up these words?)

  16. Chris Ridley Says:
    November 18th, 2010 at 12:20 am

    It does seem that having a look around at ‘we’ll make you an ipad magazine’ companies is that they always seem to ask for pdfs, which to me almost defeats the point, I am in the school of thought that magazines need to offer much more that the in print versions, and using embedded media, links and extra features they can then justfiy the price, and offer the consumer more!
    I’m a convert to iPad magazines tho, and have been buying and downloading them from here:
    in case anyone is interested!



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