Tablet computers are prevalent nowadays. As are smartphones. Many people have tablets instead of laptops or desktop computers, though many also have them in addition to. I see people on the train each morning reading tablets. And if they're not reading tablets then they're mostly reading smartphones, though e-readers are also quite common.
These people are doing what is nowadays termed media consumption and they're using devices built for just that purpose. Some might be playing Solitaire, some might be checking email, some are watching videos, but the majority of tablet use is reading: reading e-books, reading newspapers, or mostly reading websites.
So why is reading an e-magazine on said device such a poor experience?
Where's the responsiveness?
Let's compare e-magazines to their reading-time competition: websites. The website domain has moved on leaps and bounds during the advent of the worldwide web. In the past 10 years the biggest discussion and area of web design has revolved around responsiveness - how a web page is displayed on different sizes of screen; a good website will be just as usable and legible on a 3.5" smartphone as on a 27" desktop monitor. In fact, this has become such a hot topic because of tablet and smartphone viewership.
An example of how web technology allows websites to adapt to the size of the viewer. Image obtained from techwelkin.com.
So why is it that when I read an e-magazine on any device, what I'm actually looking at is a life-size version of the magazine.
This is a screenshot from my 10" tablet showing what Zinio expects me to read while I'm browsing through the digital version of F1 Racing magazine.
Or to put it into real terms, why am I expected to read an approximately A4-sized document on an approximately A5-sized device? And that best case scenario doesn't even consider those who may wish to try reading an e-magazine on their smartphone. Consequently, reading an e-magazine on any media consumption device requires more panning and zooming than a TV cameraman at a football match. A pleasant experience it is not.
As this Guardian article from 2013 shows, magazine sales are dropping - e-magazine sales are rising, but overall sales are dropping. In light of this, one would think that magazine publishers would be doing all they could to draw in more readers.
And making reading as easy as possible isn't all that the publishers could be doing. How about tracking what content users are reading and what they're skipping? Or adverts - most readers probably give them barely a glance; why not make them interactive, or video-based, or able to offer more detail upon tapping, or allow readers to pass in an email address, or to make adverts localised or user-specific?
So not only are magazine publishers not encouraging easy reading, they're missing out on modern revenue strategies. While I'm not a fan of the algorithm economy, the if-you-liked-that-then-you'll-love-this marketing, look at how well Amazon up-sells. And yet looking at the e-magazine apps such as Zinio, Magzter or Apple's Newsstand, their downloading of the published magazine as a PDF or similar document seems like an anachronism.
Needing to win
This recent article on wired.com suggests that magazines can still compete with web-based content by focussing on great design, and points to the cover as the best way of targeting readers. While this may be true of magazines on a shelf in a physical store, people are clearly increasingly less interested in buying paper content. I'm not even sure how many people still browse physical shelves. And I'm unconvinced that designing great, landmark magazine covers will sell more web-based content.
The web is a domain where design counts but content wins, so long as that content is an easy to digest format. If it's not easy to digest, people click or swipe and they move on within seconds.
The web has consistently proven to offer a winner-takes-all marketplace. Indeed, in their 1995 book The Winner-Take-All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook explain that despite the wider choice presented by the new information economy (i.e., the web), such a marketplace tends towards very few peaks. As examples, witness the search dominance of Google, or the bookselling dominance of the everything store Amazon. The worldwide web offers a plethora of content on literally any subject, so how can magazine publishers hope to keep charging money for content unless they modernise consumption of their content?
The future - if there is one
I suppose what I'm suggesting is... why bother with the magazine format at all? Why not simply put the content behind a paywall on a website? Ok, an e-magazine may be downloaded and taken where the internet doesn't reach, but allowing readers to save website content, although not common, is fairly trivial. Why not just tell subscribers how to do this? This would allow user tracking in exactly the same way as is prevalent across the web. It would also allow the content to be responsive.
If the web has given us any aphorisms it's that any line of business which fights against this networked revolution tends to an anachronism. By selling magazine subscriptions which involve our downloading of a digital image of the magazine - particularly on media consumption devices which are so very good at rendering responsive web content in browsers which allow us and our actions (for better or for worse) to be tracked and advertising to be more interactive and localised - I believe their publishers are driving them into history .