November 14, 2013 Last Updated 6:07 am

Responding to reader requests, more publishers add iPhone support to their Newsstand apps

Is it really wise to add iPhone support for a digital magazine designed for tablets?

It’s nice to be wanted if you are a magazine publisher. So, responding to remarks made in reviews inside the App Store, many publishers are adding iPhone support to their Newsstand apps. Hearst, in particular, has made this a universal feature of their apps starting with Cosmopolitan’s update in late October, and continuing to today’s updates for Elle Decor and Food Network Magazine.

Readers who own iPhones – and have excellent eyesight – have long demanded iPhone versions of their favorite magazines. While I can barely read my email without reading glasses, my daughter often sits down to read books and other publications on her iPhone. That a digital publication, designed for the tablet, or else a replica edition of the print magazine, should also become available for the iPhone seems a wise and natural thing to do. But is this really wise?

FN-iPhone5-lgIt is hard to judge the success of these Newsstand app conversions. Reading the reader reviews of Hearst magazines one sees the same common complaint – that the publisher is requiring those with print subscriptions to buy the digital version if they want to access the issues on their iOS devices. This is a long standing policy at Hearst, one that is driving readers to digital, and therefore saving the company production costs (and justifying their investment in digital, something the company has been bragging about for quite some time).

Town & Country Magazine’s reader reviews, all 23 of them, are all negative, and mostly talk about the subscription policy. (There is one 5-star review, but that is negative, as well. Apparently they accidentally gave the app a 5-star rating.)

The reviews of the Road & Track Magazine app are a little more varied, but only because of the complaints about the fact that the digital edition is a replica. One reader points out that the resolution and clarity of the digital version of the magazine inside Hearst’s app is inferior to that in the Zinio version.

Hearst’s own screenshots for the app should have tipped off the designers that this really doesn’t make much sense. The iPad screenshots look natural, while the iPhone screenshots are the exact same pages, but with thick, black borders on the top and bottom – almost half the screen is not used.

Many digital publishing platforms have long offered iPhone support. Mag+, for instance, added iPhone layouts a while ago, and one of the first apps to be released was an iPhone-specific app for the British Journal of Photography.

The app got plenty of positive reviews, including one from Wired: “Photos and creative page layouts look great when they’re big, so photo mags have a difficult time porting their efforts to the iPhone’s relatively small screen. Viewing a large amount of content through a limited window can be frustrating and disorienting. That’s why we like the British Journal of Photography iPhone app that was released today.”

But building yet another native app is more work, even if the digital publishing platform one is using makes it easier than it otherwise could be. But many publishers are producing replica editions and are simply adding in iPhone support without alterations. Others are creating native tablet editions, or hybrid editions, then again simply porting those efforts over to the iPhone. From a reader’s perspective, let alone a designer’s, it is hard to see how this can work well.

But the urge to reach more readers, attract more downloads and subscriptions is huge. Each quarter many publishers must publicly report their earnings, and the line about the growth of digital is often the only good news contained in the earnings report.

For me, one of the negatives to these badly-sized mobile versions is that the app now owns the name of the magazine. That is, an iPhone version of Food Network Magazine precludes another app using that exact same name. But that is a minor inconvenience, and if a publisher later wants to launch a mobile app that is specifically designed for mobile, they can simply call it something a little different.

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