The big do-over

Print as a communications medium is not dying, but the transformation is not going to be easy. Kathleen Maher examines how Adobe intends to be front and center in the transition.

By Kathleen Maher

Print is not dying, it’s mutating. Unfortunately, it’s been sort the sort of Jekyll and Hyde transformation that involves a lot of pain and screaming and a certain amount of bloodshed. In the end, though, what we knew as the print industry is likely to come out stronger than ever with complementary paper and digital presences. Adobe is looking at the coming generation of new platforms as an opportunity for the print industry to get a “do-over”. In the end many magazines’ might be primarily digital publications with print playing a supportive role as content publishers learn to take advantage of the digital world with animation, interactivity, tracking, and more.

Adobe has obviously been thinking along these lines and in fact, the company is taking active steps to make the transition happen. Adobe introduced the Digital Publishing Suite at its recent Adobe Max user conference. Adobe believes the tools it has put together in the Digital Suite can help publishers transform their business. The Digital Publishing Suite is also notable because it represents a new approach towards product packaging and distribution from Adobe. The Digital Publishing Suite is sold with a monthly fee and there are additional costs that are determined by a publication’s circulation.

Cover of Martha Stewart's Living at Max
Martha Stewart showed off the digital version of Living

How Adobe sees it done

At Adobe Max, CTO Kevin Lynch observed that once magazines get to the Internet, they lose their brand identity. Lynch compared print copies of Wired and National Geographic, magazines with distinctive styles and then compared their online versions—they were almost indistinguishable. Then he showed tablet versions and of course they were glorious with animated illustrations, videos, and lush full page spreads.

Martha Stewart, the person not the brand, came onstage at Adobe Max 2010 to demonstrate her new digital version of Martha Stewart Living. It was a lush, mouth-watering thing of beauty that had even the most hardened geek thinking about what he might like to stuff into a nice phyllo pastry crust or where she’d put the new Peony border.

Adobe has added new features to InDesign and PDF to create books, magazines, and newspapers and to enable output to the new tablets to create rich content. Content can be created using CS5, Flash, HTML5 and PDF among other formats. Adobe is pledging to support a mix of open and its own standards. The Digital Publishing Suite includes support for the Adobe Content Viewer for iOS and Adobe AIR. Adobe says it has helped publishers create content for the Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy, RIM Playbook, and other devices many of which are on the way and many of which take advantage of multi-touch and other next generation features.

Adobe’s collaboration tools have been growing in the background where the enterprise gets its job done and Adobe’s digital publishing tools have been evolving with a series of hits and misses that have culminated—at least at this point in time—to the combination of packaged products and services that make up the Digital Publishing Suite. For example, articles can be uploaded directly from InDesign CS5 into a hosted service allowing collaboration on design, assembly of final content, the addition of metadata, and preview the complete issue to see how it will look and behave on the desktop, various tablet devices, and even TV-based applications. One of the key messages at Max was that it’s all the same given the cross-platform capabilities of AIR and Flash and maybe someday HTML 5.

Adobe’s approach to the issue of different devices is to create adaptive applications. Applications can be created with several guiding parameters so that when they’re on a device with a 7-inch display they have a format that takes advantage of that screen format and when they’re conjured up on a phone with a 3.5-inch screen they’ll take the appropriate form for that screen size. Although, there are lots of different device options these days, Kevin Lynch noted that basic sizes and formats are settling out to several basic sizes and formats.

Some of the most important aspects of Adobe’s new Digital Suite are powerful features for distribution and the back end. Adobe can help publishers distribute their publications with a mechanism that includes hosting and distribution through the leading app stores including the Apple App Store, Android Market, or Google Apps Marketplace.

With the acquisition of Omiture last year, Adobe has signed on for big-time SaaS for web services and publishing. It has built online analytical tools including SiteCatalyst, which gives publishers an online dashboard that lets them view advertising and subscriber data. They can see how readers are interacting with ads, issue download and purchase metrics, and engagement with interactive content such as video.

The Publishing Suite is sold as a combination of products and services. The Professional Suite is $699 a month including a per-issue fee and the Enterprise Edition is a customized set of services for companies that includes whatever combination of publishing, content management, distribution, analytics, and optimization tools the customer wants to put together.

What do we think?

So far, Adobe’s focus for digital publishing seems to be for large companies with large-ish circulations. Whoever owns distribution, owns the market and this is the front Adobe as chosen (along with Apple and Google to name the obvious others). It’s a Reaganesque trickle-down sort of approach that suggests that saving the giants will help save the publishing industry in general. Certainly $699 a month isn’t much compared to printing costs, but it’s out of reach for many small publications on the edge, they’ll have to continue to rely on Google Analytics and feel their way into this new world of device publishing.

The giants are also struggling with pricing—it’s really a battle between optimism, fear, and greed. The New York Times is optimistic, they’re giving content away for free with the certitude that advertisers will flock to the format next year. Conde Nast says they are letting their publishers figure it out for themselves, but so far most seem to be figuring it out the same way. Vanity Fair is asking $4.99 for each issue, Wired is asking $3.99.

What if one already has a subscription? So far that’s too bad, you’ll just have to buy it again if you want a digital issue with all the same ads and added animation and other potentially irritating add-ins. The New Yorker, which ironically has been first off the block with digital CD editions that provide the whole wonderful historical back catalog for a reasonable price, has also given in the the greedy side of Conde Nast; it too is asking $4.99 per issue. We’re assuming the magazines will get something figured out about offering attractive benefits for subscribers. We’re pretty sure that consumers aren’t going to be excited about paying more for the pleasure of interacting with animated automobile ads.