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It’s Not About File Size: Why you should learn to stop worrying and love the new iPad

There’s been a lot of chatter on the web this past week about the impact the new iPad, with its retina display and four times the pixels, might have on iPad publications like those created on Mag+ or Adobe DPS, which render most of the content as images to present a pixel-perfect design experience, since this approach creates “large” files.

Of course these pieces are all speculative because no one has yet downloaded an iPad retina magazine. David Sleight—author of the first link above—ran some tests on images and came up with 6x or 7x size increases. It’s a valid experiment, but, as I’m sure David would admit, by no means conclusive. In tests with our own beta tools for outputting retina iPad content, we’re seeing more like 4x with absolutely no optimization (of which there’s plenty we can do). And I’ve no doubt the army of engineers at Adobe—which already produces larger file sizes than us because it requires unique layouts for each orientation—have solutions ready or in the works to help mitigate file bloat.

I want to be clear that I don’t have a problem with the raising of this question and I think it’s smart to run tests and ask iPad publishers their take on the issue. But I think the discussion of this has been largely missing a bigger context, so I’d like to offer another viewpoint. File size matters to some, sure, but not nearly as much as what that big file offers. And this is where there is far more opportunity for content creators and curators (and the pundits who write about them) to spend their energy than in the relative benefits of the underlying platform language. That’s a fine debate to have among geeks like David and me, but I would suggest that it isn’t the one that’s ultimately going to make a real impact on a creator’s bottom line.

First, let me give some background on why we do things the way we do. When we built Mag+, we looked at every available technology, from PDF to HTML, but none supported the workflow and experience we felt creatives and users would want. As David points out, “HTML supports fancy design.” While there are some great examples of HTML design—5 Magazine or the stunning Katachi—there are limitations as well, in typographic and layout control, and we’re not convinced that the file size savings offered by something that’s purely HTML yet equals the tradeoffs in visual experience and workflow. The point is that what matters most is not the language but the end product, and we must be cautious not to sacrifice the value proposition for users to save a few megabytes. Of course this is an equation every iPad publication has to calculate for itself, and we would never argue our solution is the right one for every use case. Eight of the top 10 grossing titles on Newsstand are image-based publications. The top two—The Daily and the New York Times—are not, and they shouldn’t be. They are daily (or more often) updated, CMS-driven and carry no expectation of a premium design experience—they’re about fast information dissemination. But suggesting that that solution applies to every publication is like taking Vogue to task for printing on glossy paper and not on newsprint. Hey, it’d be cheaper, and lighter for consumers!

A real-world example: Popular Photography+ is indisputably a niche publication for camera and photo geeks. Most of the information that’s in it you could find on the web—there are no shortage of photography and camera-review sites. And yet, PopPhoto has 30,000+ paid digital subscribers on the iPad—that’s 10 percent of its total rate base—and is adding hundreds more every month, and its iPad publishing business is profitable and has been for a long time. People are finding value in a curated, designed experience, even at that file size (about 150mb per issue), and the magazine is making a real business from it.

David makes a point in his post that I completely agree with: being able to treat text as text (and not pictures of text) in digital publications would be great. Less for the file size, but for all the other benefits it brings: search, selection, dictionary, etc. Mag+’s first several issues were in fact built that way, using the text renderer on the device. And we abandoned it because frankly the text looked terrible and designers kept asking: “What’s the point of creating layouts in a program that allows pixel-perfect typography if the app is going to destroy it?” and “Why would people pay for something that looks like a web site?” We also then had to embed fonts in the app, which was unsustainable with advertisers each wanting their own. There are solutions to this and it’s one of our biggest development priorities, but I would argue that this is still not the biggest problem content creators have.

No, the challenge content creators should be addressing is: “What can we deliver in this environment that people find value in?” The Walking Dead is the top selling TV show on iTunes. The HD version is not only more expensive than the SD version, it’s 2.5x the file size: 1.8GB for a 62-minute show. Try keeping a whole season of that on your 16GB iPad. We’ve seen in surveys that more than 40 percent of iPad subscribers spend 60 minutes or more with an issue (80 percent spend 30 minutes or more). One of the most successful apps of 2010 was the book “The Elements” from Theo Gray (a PopSci columnist), which cost $13.99 and takes 1.7GB of space, and still has a 4-star rating.

What’s an hour of a great experience worth in megabytes? Who decided that there is an optimum size for a digital magazine? And what is it? 50MB? 200mb? Sitting and waiting for a magazine to download at any size is a hassle, but with Newsstand auto-downloads and progressive downloading (coming soon to Mag+), I think this has largely been mitigated.

My point is that I don’t believe people actually give a flying frog about file size—they care about value. And most content creation companies have not yet even begun to tap what can be done in this space. For instance, why not instead of just delivering Walking Dead as a video file, make it an “issue.” In it, you could have interviews with the actors, slideshows of behind the scenes photos, an interactive game, a live feed of news from the show AND the actual episode itself, playable in full-screen and over AirPlay. And because it’s a “publication,” you could subscribe to it! The total file size would be 1.82GB. Why isn’t a publisher doing this in partnership with AMC right now?

My favorite comment I’ve heard in this discussion yet is from Howard Mittman, publisher of Wired. Howard told Steve Smith of MIN ” … that’s why I’m a lot more focused on how this new retina display will enhance our future offerings. Change is good, more change is better.”

The retina iPad, with its print-link resolution and rich backlit color is going to give an industry whose value proposition is built on beautiful imagery, careful design and readable text the most amazing platform it’s ever had for all of those things. The right question to ask is: What are we going to do with it?

I’m not saying rendering all content as images is the only, or even the best, solution for digital publishing, and we’re by no means committed to this as a stratgy forever and all time. There are absolutely drawbacks—text not being text, memory management. What I’m suggesting is that it may be hyperbolic to use it as a reason to declare end of an experiment that’s really only just begun. Can you imagine if the TV industry would have looked at HD as its death knell? And let’s recognize the underlying benefits we get from these types of “large” file size systems and ensure we don’t sacrifice those on the alter of smaller sizes. HTML may well be the solution ultimately, but it a) is a broad prescription that can mean many things and b) not necessarily the panacea for all that ails us. Most of all, let’s all work toward giving people content that makes this new device shine and blows peoples’ minds. If we can do that, we’ll look back on this time not as the death of an old industry, but the birth of a new, much more exciting one.