Creative Cloud Edges Forward

When Adobe moved away from the traditional shrink-wrap software model with Creative Cloud, one of the promises was that updates—incremental and otherwise—would be more frequent. The frustrating wait for the next version release, and the speculation about whether desired features would be added or not, would be replaced by a more benign, less hype-filled process.

Today’s announcement has confirmed that trend. Creative Cloud subscribers—all 1.4 million of them by Adobe’s count—will receive some significant feature updates, along with relatively minor improvements that, taken as a whole, continue to improve the design and production experience. (Caveat: The announcement also marks Adobe’s entry into 3D printing, but this review will focus primarily on issues of interest to publishers.)

To be sure, Adobe has had to weather the revenue transition—away from selling disc-based Creative Suite packages and towards a subscription model.* However, as I predicted over a decade ago in The Seybold Report, the service-based model is infinitely more sustainable, and better for the graphic arts community as a whole.

According to Adobe, there have been around 50 “feature-bearing” updates since Creative Cloud’s inception, comprising about 500 new features. While some of these have been relatively minor, others certainly have not, including the single edition DPS license for creating iPad apps.

Feature Overview

For magazine and business publishers, today’s update contains some cost-saving new features. Muse, Adobe’s highly-intuitive Web design environment, now directly supports HTML animations created in Adobe Edge. These animations can now be stored and re-used—and even shared with other users via a free online exchange. (There is currently no way to sell these resources, or even obtain customer information as part of the download.) Muse has also automated social links, letting website creators simply drag-and-drop a widget to specify a Facebook page or a Twitter feed to be used on the site.

Improvements to Photoshop are mainly for designers, but production workers will appreciate the addition of linked smart objects—items copied from Illustrator or Photoshop that can be used multiple times and changed globally. (This has been standard fare for InDesign, using the links feature, for some time.)

Illustrator received some long-awaited new features aimed at designers, including “live corners” (the ability to easily specify the roundness of any object corner) and a much improved pencil tool. Also in the time-saving category is Illustrator’s new ability to customize the toolbox—a godsend for a complex, mega-multi-tool program. Customized toolboxes can be made part of a custom workspace and, presumably, shared with other users.

Both Illustrator and InDesign are now tightly integrated with Typekit, which offers over 900 fonts as part of a Creative Cloud license. Users can search for Typekit fonts from within the program, rather than switch to a browser. Selected fonts are downloaded as desktop and/or Web fonts, and can be used in non-Adobe applications.

InDesign itself has been improved in one very important aspect—at least for publishers of interactive content. Hyperlink creation, once a source of extreme frustration, is now remarkably easy. Users can create URLs automatically from selected text, and can easily re-use those hyperlinks elsewhere in the publication. Hyperlink tracking is not only more intuitive, it is also “live,” so long as the InDesign user is connected to the Internet. If a created hyperlink does not resolve to a valid URL, a red warning icon appears. This warning is regrettably not part of InDesign’s live preflight, but it is still a welcome respite for those creating interactive PDFs, tablet apps, or e-books.

On the subject of e-books, InDesign CC now supports EPUB3’s pop-up footnote convention which, alas, is not supported universally by all e-reading devices. It also supports right-to-left languages like Japanese and Hebrew.

The Bottom Line

Those who create and publish content in a multimedia environment will appreciate many of the changes announced today. The thrill of waiting for “the next big release” may be diminished, but so is the stress of worrying if a particular feature will make the cut. This is a solid, albeit not earth-shattering improvement.

Only time will tell whether Adobe’s new model will remain an agile one—adding publishing-essential features incrementally but with shorter wait times. However, since publishers today are less likely to be among Geoffrey Moore’s 16% group of early adopters and innovators, the steady, more predictable subscription model is the right one.

*  Technically, Creative Cloud is not a true cloud service, like Google Docs, but a members-only online download, installation, and periodic verification process for traditional computer software. Adobe applications are simply too large and complex to be used in a client-server fashion.


And Away We Go…

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged with this account, but I have not been idle. Until recently, I’ve had the privilege of blogging for Nimbleware Consulting and PrintUI, writing articles for several magazines, doing research work for BISG, Library Journal, plus many other writing and editing projects. A new client has ask me to start blogging here once more, so stay tuned.

What Is “Interactive” Anyway? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this blog, I lamented the lack of consensus on what constitutes effective interactivity for digital magazines. Since then, I had the opportunity to ask more questions during my Gilbane Boston panel session on Mobile App development “from the trenches.” The panelists represented both business and consumer titles.

The real question, it turns out, is less about embedded multimedia than it is about personalization, relevance and immediacy of content. For magazines, interactivity has always been about connection with the story; digital media has merely made that connection more complex, raising new technical and economic challenges for publishers.

The Gilbane panelists each discussed the pros and cons of developing interactive content. They praised the new, tablet-friendly design tools from Adobe (Digital Publishing Suite), Zinio, WoodWing and others — recently augmented by the QuarkXPress 9 announcement. They also expressed concern over rising costs (designing for multiple screen layouts, video production, etc.) vs. the unknown circulation and advertising benefits on a new, untried platform. Beyond that, however, they each expressed the notion that embedded media alone was not the answer.

Geoff Shaw of The Sporting News discussed their recent tablet app, The Sporting News Daily. Video and photo gallery embedding are standard fare, although user-generated content is limited by NFL and other content policies. Social media tie-ins are also prevalent. (Commenting has had to be curtailed to avoid endless “Yankees suck! No, Red Sox suck!” exchanges.) Beyond that, however, what has proven more successful is the delivery of time-sensitive, magazine-quality content to readers. Readers want the depth of storytelling that magazines offer, but they also want immediate gratification. While RSS and Web feeds can provide the latest scores, Shaw feels that a digital magazine edition can provide such data in a more satisfying, engaging manner — quality as well as quantity.

The next stage, according to Shaw, is to customize content still further — according to individual user preferences for particular sports, teams or players. Interactivity at that level would mirror the Daily Me concept theorized years ago by the MIT Media Lab. Difficulties still abound, not the least of which are privacy concerns and the reluctance of readers to even create such profiles. Nevertheless, Shaw feels that the model holds promise for truly interactive magazines.

Automation and XML were cited as cornerstones of cost-effective interactivity. Shaw envisioned a data-to-template workflow that would be essential as more tablets with differing screen sizes are introduced. Another panelist described the use of a centralized XML repository of content, from which users could customize their own content, whether viewed on a device or even printed on demand. Needless to say, publishers will need to get creative with content licensing before this model can extend beyond a single title.

Paul Michelman of the Harvard Business Review summarized the interactivity dilemma nicely. While rich media and customization can certainly boost reader engagement, through “nonlinear storytelling,” the idea of an enhanced magazine is too often constrained by arcane circulation rules and publishing norms — not to mention unproven revenue models. While social media tie-ins are intriguing, there are no guarantees that their use will create the same lasting engagement that good writing and design has done in the past. To make things worse, technology is outpacing consumers’ ability to use it well — or predictably.

In short, true interactivity in a digital magazine is hard. However, as Michelman noted, we need to do it anyway.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)

What Is “Interactive” Anyway? (Part 1)

As publishers go through the five stages of grief over dying media, I’m struck by the bargaining phase. For many, it consists of attempts to insert interactive components into their digital editions, hoping to strike a deal with advertisers headed for the door. “Just wait. Your ad will be next to a video that everyone will be watching.” As new systems and e-readers proliferate, we seem to think that magazines will magically revive once we figure out how to make static content interactive.

This belief begs the question: What does it mean for a magazine to be interactive? Technically, embedding a Web link in a digital edition qualifies, but the result is rarely satisfying — especially on a small-screen device, or over limited bandwidth. Email or phone links fare better, but are intrinsically boring, and subject to platform limitations. (A phone link that works on a smartphone may fail on a tablet or Flash-based applet.) That leaves most publishers with the standard alternatives: galleries, audio and video.

Photo galleries are making the transition from Web to digital editions without much fanfare — but also without substantially raising the fortunes of magazines. Conventional rights and usage limitations have restricted the potential for legal image sharing, via an iTunes-like sales mechanism. There is lots of unmet potential here, on both the editorial and advertising side of things.

Audio and video seem to be what most publishers mean when they use the word interactive. Entertainment titles would seem to have the edge here, since they already have tracks and footage to insert. Few other magazines have such resources, however. As a result, we’re seeing some truly terrible media inserted into editorial and advertising e-pages, mainly because it’s possible.

Keep in mind: there are already strong media venues for audio and video; let’s call one “TV,” just for fun. Most of them are preferable to listening and watching inside a digital edition. As bandwidth improves, the video experience in a digital edition—and on mobile devices in genera l— will also improve. But the video medium itself is not intrinsic to the magazine oeuvre, and so will not automatically draw new subscribers or advertisers.

There are exceptions, like the live Webcast of a satellite launch carried exclusively in the digital edition of Via Satellite magazine. (The advertiser bought a special supplement designed around the Kazakhstan event, which was replayed when you viewed the publication post-launch.) However, in many cases audio and video only work as shorter clips, promoting the real thing on another medium.

A lot of CG animation and even gaming interactivity has emerged recently, creating big splashes for some publications. Beyond the initial wow factor, however, these raise serious concerns for magazines. As with audio and video, there are better venues and bigger budgets for CG. Making a really cool 3D animated magazine feature might be possible once or twice, but what do you do every month after that, and at what cost?

The real answers to the question of interactivity — and whether it can really save magazines — are inherent in the medium itself. “It’s a magazine, stupid,” should be our watchword when someone says “interactive.” So, what does that mean? What are magazine-appropriate interactive features? Some already exist, sort of, while others are still glints in developers’ eyes. All will take time and money to implement – without guarantees.

Many of them, dear reader, will be discussed in my next blog.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)

ISBN There, Done That

E-books have created both opportunity and havoc for publishers. Readers have begun to love (or at least claim to love) the benefits of e-reading on a screen. However, the processes for traditional book creation, distribution and use (based on a physical artifact) are fundamentally different from those of a fluid information medium. A few agile technology companies have realized short-term financial gain, but for publishers there are few clear, sustainable best practices for e-book publishing.

One particular business practice, the use of unique ISBNs as identifiers, has had success in the process of tracking and selling physical books. However, publishers have inconsistently applied ISBNs to e-books, often relegating this task to intermediaries or abandoning it altogether in favor of proprietary identifiers.

There are valid reasons for this. Different stakeholders (authors, publishers, distributors, retailers, aggregators, libraries) have different economic reasons for wanting a unique ISBN on a particular work. A standardized ISBN approach is fine in theory, but no one really knows the impact of change on existing practices and IT systems. E-books themselves are more easily modified and aggregated with other content—begging the question of when there is a unique product to which a new ISBN must be assigned.

The biggest problem is the sheer number of unknowns in the process. While some companies are moving forward with their own solutions, most of us haven’t really asked the bigger questions. Is a 13-digit ISBN model adequate for this mutable medium? How can an identifier developed for a physical delivery supply chain be successfully applied to an information-based supply chain? What are the business obstacles to a uniform, high-level ISBN solution? How does one identify a digital work that may (or may not) be comparable to an original print version?

For that matter, is the phrase “original print version” a meaningful concept any longer? For many publishers, this is scary stuff.

Thankfully, help is on the way. Both the Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN Agency are undertaking projects to gather current industry practices and map out a high-level solution. Ultimately, this could lead to a revision of the recognized standard or, at the very least, an effort to better define what constitutes a “unique product.” As it did for physical books, there is reason to hope that a uniform ISBN approach will do much to contain the costs and promote the effective use of e-books. Until then, however, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

John Parsons (originally published in
Book Business
; re-posted with permission)

The App’s The Thing

As the iPad frenzy continues, magazine publishers are once again headed for the gold fields of digital editions (or DEs). Last week, Time launched a splashy — and expensive — iPad edition, and Zinio’s reader has become the #1 free app for the iPad, to name only two examples. Apple has left itself vulnerable to an Android/Flash counterattack, but the DE 2.0 bubble has clearly begun. Not everyone will survive.

Tablet-based digital editions — on the iPad or elsewhere — are beginning to explore truly useful interactivity. First generation DEs were often little more than digital facsimile flipbooks, the better ones adding search, article sharing and the insertion of URLs. All that has changed. Time’s new iPad wonder was created with newly announced WoodWing technology — allowing InDesign users to easily add photo galleries, videos, live data feeds and other non-print elements while creating the print version. The final product includes flexible article reading views and other nice touches for multimedia viewing. Early audience feedback has been positive, although the $4.99-per-issue price has not gone over well.

The early bumps will be worked out, including the chaos of multiple vendors creating multiple user interfaces, and visibility limitations for display ads. Even Apple has generously offered to help on the in-app mobile advertising front. These are evolutionary changes, however. The real DE revolution — the issue that will make or break a magazine’s efforts — is the use of interactive, truly personalized apps within the greater app that is the magazine’s digital edition.

WoodWing has anticipated this, allowing designers to insert interactive “widgets” in each issue. Other DE developers are moving in this direction. More than slideshows and video clips, these embedded apps represent publishers’ and advertisers’ best hope for creating real engagement — and a reason to bet on the success of digital editions on any platform.

Personalization is the key to a successful embedded app, and to the digital edition that features it. Giving the subscriber reasons to keep using the app — whether or not they buy anything today — will make it a thing of value, a compelling motivation to prefer the DE over the printed version. The possibilities are endless, from collections of one’s favorite recipes to business surveys to vacation itineraries, and so forth. Creating and saving actionable information, based on individual needs and requests, will be at the heart of successful apps within magazine DEs.

Embedding video or games in a digital edition might seem like a good idea, but there are plenty of media and entertainment companies that do such things better than most magazine publishers. Engaging, personalized apps, on the other hand, are new to almost everyone. They can also leverage the inherent storytelling and data gathering strengths of any good magazine and its advertisers. Let the creativity begin!

John Parsons (originally published in Publishing Executive,
at; re-posted with permission)