Magazines, like newspapers, have had a tough time adapting their business models to the brave new digital world. But with revenues declining at a furious clip, publishers are increasingly throwing off caution and investing money in sexy new digital products. The Wire has previously covered a plan by a consortium of media companies to construct an "iTunes for Magazines"--an online outlet that would sell articles in a manner similar to Apple's music store. In the past few weeks, three of America's biggest magazine publishers leaked product designs in this vein: Time Inc., Hearst and Condé Nast each unveiled concepts for adapting their dead-tree favorites to digital readers, including the (gasp!) long-awaited Apple Tablet. Bloggers thrilled at the initial demos, but warned that the concepts were far from flawless.

Condé Nast was first out of the gate at the end of November, leaking a video of a multi-touch version of its popular tech-mag Wired, which has been designed to be compatible with the still-unconfirmed Apple Tablet

  • Pro: Uses Adobe Alexander Grudner at eHome Upgrade loved the fact that Condé Nast is relying on Adobe Systems to provide the framework for the digital version of Wired: "Personally, I think the multi-orientation (landscape, portrait mode), interactive publication looks great. I especially like the fact that they’ve decided to build it with cross-platform technology from Adobe. My guess… future digital magazines will be made with Adobe Acrobat 9+ (others think Adobe AIR) which is able to integrate Adobe InDesign / Illustrator / Photoshop / Flash files, video, audio, maps, hyperlinks, and more"
  • Con: It's Too Much Like the iPhone  Pete Mortensen said that while the product in the video looks fun, nice and readable, he has several reservations: "1.) The design concept is…a big iPhone, more or less… 3.) There is no way that anyone at Condé has handled an Apple Tablet. They couldn’t possibly be this publicity-seeking or bold about their pronouncements if they had been brought behind the Steve curtain. 4.) Also, the fact that Wired worked with Adobe to create the new format is a clear sign that they’ve had no contact with Apple. Anything based on AIR or Flash is unlikely to be compatible with the Tablet, for all the reasons there is no Flash or AIR on the iPhone."
Time Inc. was second on Monday, demoing it's new concept for a digital edition of Sports Illustrated designed to run on multiple e-readers, which was also purportedly built using Adobe Air:
  • Pro: Sociable Tech Crunch's Erick Schonfeld enjoyed his test-run of the product, taking particular delight that the concept included social-networking functions: "The tablet format is much easier on the eyes than reading the same story on the Web, and you get the added bonus of full-screen slide shows or videos. You can also flip through photos within the text, while continuing to read. Sports scores and other data can be dynamically updated from the Web, or you can share stories and photos via email, Facebook, or Twitter."
  • Con: Editorial Judgement Remains Hazy  At Mediaite, Blogger Philip Bump conceded that the demo video for the digital SI "is pretty snazzy." However, he took major issue with the fact that it included a glaring typo, which he said was sign that the publisher still wasn't paying close-enough attention to its future:
Um, shouldn’t Sports Illustrated know how to spell one of the most famous sports teams in baseball – it’s “Dodgers” not “Dogers.” Is this a secret message about future editorial laxness from Time Warner Center? A prediction about changes to Los Angeles’ team branding? A statement of derision from a Giants fan? Or were they just counting on no one’s eyes being drawn away from the swimsuit models long enough to notice?...

Time Inc. isn’t really in a position to alienate any market, much less Los Angeles. Let’s hope they get that spell check installed before this hits the streets.
Hearst Corp., publisher of popular womens' magazine Cosmopolitan along with many other print properties, revealed on Friday that it was preparing an entire new digital reader of its own and accompanying store designed to compete directly with Amazon's Kindle. The company has yet to release a video like its competitors:
  • Pro: Regains Creative Control The tech blog Electornista noted that Hearst was smart to create its own broader platform of products and services, as publishers' are presently at the mercy of device manufacturers and digital content distributors: "The service is intended to bring back control of publications to those that create them. At present, publishers are often forced to separately develop for existing formats and give up much of their control to device makers or stores that can dictate the terms for pricing. While stores like iTunes are comparatively mild and collect a fixed 30 percent of revenue from each item sold on the store, Amazon can ask for as much as 70 percent of the revenue from a Kindle subscription without giving the option of ads to help subsidize the price."
  • Con: E-Reader Market is Filling Up Fast A blogger at Fan to Pro named Bonnie explained her reservations about Hearst's designs for a digital reading device:  "Hearst is also launching its own E-reader that will be dedicated to Skiff. They've struck a deal with Sprint to market the devices - which is shaky on its own, considering Sprint's recent performance. (The beleagured cell phone company is probably looking to the Skiff to be its savior now like it had formerly looked to the Palm Pre). Considering how overcrowded and complex the E-reader field is going, the Skiff device really isn't necessary - especially since the system will be available for the Nook and the Kindle.
The Big Question: Why Would Anyone Pay for A Digital Edition? Although talking primarily about Conde Nast's plans, Peter Kafka of All Things Digital asked a question that can be applied to each of the new digital magazine concepts: "All of this assumes that consumers, who’ve shown no inclination to pay for this stuff on the Web, will be willing to pay for it once it appears on devices no one owns yet. We’ll find out soon enough.