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.

More information about iPad publishing with Mag+

  • Lynne Mitchell

    Fantastic article! I especially love this quote, ” This is a vessel for premium experiences”.

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  • Le Cape

    Thanks for the article, it’s good to know Mag+ is actively pursuing not only immediate needs of iPad retina displays, but also looking towards optimizing the experience.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s be clear here. You make a tool that uses one method to create digital versions of periodicals. It is your particular image-based method that’s being impugned, not the entire industry. So I think it’s you who might be a bit hyperbolic comparing your tool and the new iPad with HD and the entire TV industry. 

    Also, comparing a monthly or weekly download, of which you may have many subscriptions, to one-off specialty apps is a stretch. Does it annoy me to download a single 500MB+ app? A bit, but I can get over it. It is, however, significantly more annoying to have to deal with that download over and over again for the same base app. You also ignore the fact that many users aren’t mainly concerned about the file size issue, but more with the many downsides to image-based text – no direct selection, dictionary lookups, copy-paste, etc. There are obviously hacky workarounds for these functionalities, but they bypass using the underlying system to its fullest potential.

    I can understand that right now, you aren’t able to find a workable solution for both your clients (the content producers) and readers that incorporates real text instead of images, but I believe that is the direction you should absolutely be heading in as fast as possible. The truth is that real body copy text is better for readers than image based text in almost every situation, and you should admit that. You guys just haven’t found the best way to do it yet. 

    • Sebastien Monney

      Well said. 

    • Mike, CPO, Mag+

      Thanks for the feedback – I know this is an active debate. A couple of thoughts:
      My intention wasn’t to portray us or the industry as a victim. If anything, I was trying to take the industry to task a bit for not making more effective use of the systems that exist. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to compare the making or reading of a magazine to the making or watching of a TV show – both are content consumption experiences, both will require some kind of download (if you want an offline experience, which we’ve consistently heard people do for this type of content), and so I was trying to simply pose the question: why is there an “optimum” size for a monthly magazine that is supposed to be far smaller than the size of a 30- or 60-minute >weekly< TV show? I think this debate on both sides is too often framed in the context of the print magazine world, and I would offer that this space can be something new.
      As to the text as text, I in fact admitted early in the piece (and again later) that this is an issue and listed the exact reasons you mention there. On that point, I completely agree, and, as I also stated, we are actively pursuing that. The raw text is in fact saved in the code of the file, so one near-term solution we want to investigate is a Readability-like function in the app that would present the best of both worlds—pure text when you want it, totally designed experience when you want that. 
      However I would also just offer that in the two years we've been doing this, the criticism about text as text has not come from either our clients or the end users. I've done customer service on some of our biggest clients and read many of the comments in iTunes for our clients apps—there are plenty of complaints, but almost none about that. Now, it may be that those people just aren't being vocal or that those users don't know how valuable it would be to have that. Or maybe they just realize sometimes text is text and sometimes it isn't. Probably a mix of all of the above – generalizations are always dangerous. But I assure you this is a priority and our goal is to provide the best of both worlds.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the response, and it’s good to hear you’re moving in the right direction. I do think that users often times have a difficult time expressing why something is frustrating to them or exactly what their problem is. I also think that a lot of them just assume the large file size is the way it is because it has to be, which was exactly my point. It doesn’t have to be, and in fact, you should make every effort to minimize file size where you can.

        Image-based text is a waste of space, regardless of any other benefits, and again, the comparisons to video seem misguided to me from a technological standpoint. Videos have large file sizes because by its very nature, video takes up a lot of space. It’s not because they are filling it with a ton of other stuff. Instead of looking at the extreme end of video consumption, why don’t you look at something more comparable, like say, reading a book. Granted, there are large books in the iBook store, but the vast majority of ebooks are a couple megabytes max. The large ones are the exception and not the rule and I don’t think that’s going to change. In fact, I’d say if 80-90% of iBooks were as large as 80-90% of iPad magazines, there would be a pretty big problem and user experience along with sales would suffer. I’m a developer so I know new technology is exciting, but I also know that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you always should. Angry Birds could be filled with tons of HD videos to “enhance” the experience, but that increased file size would be a pain for users. I’ve seen 150-200MB movie trailers – ads – included in magazine packages. That’s absurd and has nothing to do with me wanting to read the content of the magazine.

        Basically, your argument seems to come down to: “Movies are huge, so why can’t we be huge too? I don’t think users care about file size anyway, so why should we care.” This just seems wrong to me. Your end products are periodicals that convey information in words and images. If you want to make movies or TV shows, go do that, but I would think you want to help written periodicals take advantage of all the positive things the move to digital can provide. Things like storing the past 10 issues of my favorite magazine in a small space for easy reference. 

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I’m totally excited to see where this technology leads to. Having this technology integrated into anything with a screen would be incredible.

  • m7

    I care about download time. There’s a balance to be struck. The Economist downloads in a reasonable time, and still has the identity and looks of the printed magazine. Wired is something I bought a few copies of, but gave up because I didn’t want to wait half an hour for a magazine to appear — I could have walked to the shop and got a copy in that time! You are right, it isn’t about size, but it is about how long you’re making me wait. It is like the queue to the Vatican Art Galleries. An amazing experience, but if that queue is too long, I am not bothering.

  • Steven Esteban

    What about two versions – one for people who want only print with minimal images (great for offline folks) and the other, the full works?

  • mturro

    While I do consider file size to be very much a component of “value” it’s not really the problem here. Massive file sizes, long downloads, apps that crowd other content off the device – these are all symptoms of a much more serious problem. 

    What troubles me is the way so many publishers are (not) adapting to the unprecedented disruption of our industry. Rather than meet the change head-on and re-tool operations to take advantage of the opportunities that technical change presents (stocking up on development talent, investing in infrastructure, differentiating themselves from other publishers by acting like a software company) so many publishers are trying to retro-fit their current tools and their current operations (get a vendor to write a plugin so my current design group can make something for this new iThing).  

    It troubles me when publishers cede the valuable competitive advantage that doing development and operations right presents. It troubles me when publishers don’t have the foresight to realize how they miss out on a brilliant opportunity to differentiate themselves from other magazines when they put themselves at the mercy of the Adobe’s (or any vendor’s) development cycle. 

    This Indesign based, big image approach may in fact serve as a stop-gap. Yet, when I think of the world without big, fat, print revenue streams – the world where publishers actually have to live off their digital units – the world where their true competitors are actual software companies who do development and operations right – those huge pictures of rad print layouts that clog my iPad start to feel very, very wrong.

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  • mkranitz

    Well, it’s the end of May now and we have published two retina versions of our fully interactive magazine (  I have to say that we have received zero negative feedback on file size.  HOWEVER, we have seen a ton of our preview issue downloads that were never completed.  That’s an issue.  We shrunk the preview issue to address this and I suppose that once someone pays, they will just deal with it, but I’m not quite sure.  

    Regardless of what is true for today, without question in several years an 800MB magazine will be nothing for people to download.  Besides, with better rendering engines and faster connections, we’ll all look back on this like we do on 512K floppy disks.