The Magazine and The Mobile Web

According to Digg founder Kevin Rose (and bunches of others too numerous to name here) the mobile web is the next great frontier… the next great landscape of media transformation… the evolution of the revolution. Mobility is the future. Mobility is ubiquitous. And coincidentally, mobility is the single most important characteristic of the magazine.

While the idea of reading a magazine on your current cell phone might strike you as something closer to torture than an edifying media experience, the fact of the matter is that as devices evolve and get larger screens, broadband speeds at dial-up pricing, and something close to a standardized navigational interface, the mobile web could prove to be the saving grace of the traditional magazine model.

The mobile web offers up the chance to step away from the small pieces loosely joined and return to something that resembles a unit… an information product. On the world wide web… in a browser… magazines diffuse. Edited information sprawls and becomes part of the information soup… perspective, point of view and editorial voice splinter into bytes. In that world magazines stop making sense. Issues, themes, linear development are washed away by granular expedience and ambient findability. The reader becomes a user, an active participant sitting upright at a desk, studying, searching, learning, reveling in the mode of inquiry the desk space creates.

In the mobile world, pod world… where devices rule… content thrives in packages. Losing yourself in an iPod is like getting lost in a great issue of your favorite magazine. On the iPod we trend away from continuous partial attention and toward something approaching focus. We revert back to listener, we become the reader, relaxed in the mode of contemplation that the mobile world invokes.

It is this focus, this contemplative mode of repose inherent in mobility that affords the magazine its best chance at survival. When we are mobile we are in a mode that print has primed us for… we are relapsing to patterns of behavior that have been cultivated by centuries of ingesting printed media. In the world away from the desk we find a return to form. In that world entrenched media patterns still hold sway. In that world the self-contained media unit, the podcast, the song, the magazine is still vital.

Questions remain of course.

What will “the device” be? This is perhaps the million dollar question from which all other questions derive. The handheld is up for grabs, and while the iPhone and iPod Touch seem to be the early leaders, where the market finally lands… what becomes “the standard” (or if there will even be just one) is, at this point, anybody’s guess.

What will the file format be? Certainly today’s digital magazines are a good jumping off point. Some kind of Flash or PDF based format seems most likely, yet if the past twenty years in publishing technology have taught us anything it’s that publishers shouldn’t get too deeply invested in any one technology.

What will the content be? No matter what happens one thing will hold true… certain types of information will just be better suited to the world wide web and the mode of inquiry it elicits from the user. Frequently changing information, news, and encyclopedic knowledge will always thrive at the desk. More artful forms… literature, poetry, essay, fine photography, music, and film will always have a home where contemplation is encouraged.

Will current design staff be able to shift modes from paper based thought and create compelling digital content? Regardless of what the answers to the first three questions may be publishers will face some rather extensive operational disruption. Designing for digital output… for screens rather than paper… is a totally different way of thinking. What are you going to do with that art director with twenty-five years of good solid print experience that simply does not “get” the digital world? What skills will that person need in the next five years? Can those skills be easily taught?

All of these questions and more still linger, yet the future of the magazine as information product hasn’t looked this bright in years. Having weathered the soul rattling disruption of the the world wide web, publishers finally have something to feel good about: a model they can understand. Mobility is king.

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