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It’s 2013. Why Do Some Magazine News Apps Still Suck So Bad?

083013announce[1]Tell me, have you caught the latest issue of Engadget Distro?

There’s a new feature article in this week’s issue, and it takes a look at color epaper and how the tech never really happened. It’s a pretty decent article, but as I was reading it I couldn’t help but notice all the many things wrong with the Distro app.

The following post is a rant. While it is based on my experience with a single app I think a number of the examples can be generalized to many magazine apps.

This was my first experience with Distro, and I found it incredibly disappointing.

Engadget has been producing this app as a weekly news magazine for a couple years now, but I have never had a reason to try it before. There are so many apps out there that I can’t try them all, but I always make an exception if the content is interesting. Today I regretted that rule.

So what’s wrong with this app?

I don’t know that I can name them all, but the tl;dr version is that this app combines the worst aspects of a PDF and of a paper magazine. It is actually less functional than a PDF.

Edit: And I know that for a fact because it is also available as a PDF, so i got to do a side-by-side comparison.

First, there’s the content.

Distro fails to take advantage of one of the strengths of digital content, and that is the ability to link to related content. In the case of the feature article, there are no citation links in the article and there is no bibliography. You might as well be reading a paper copy of this digital magazine.

In terms of journalism this is a major fail, and that goes double when you consider that this article would not have shown up on the Engadget website without a couple dozen links to back up the text. And when you look at it in terms of informing the reader, the lack of links decreases the value of the article.

And then there is the design of the app.

Distro is a fixed layout app for Android, iPad, and Windows Phone. While I don’t have a general objection to fixed layout, this is one of the times when it is being applied stupidly.

First, Distro cannot be read on a smartphone. Given that there are more smartphones in use than tablets this is simply stupid. But that’s not all. Distro is designed for a large screen size but a small font size. And thanks to the fact that it is fixed layout, I can’t increase the font size. You know, like I would on a website.

Now, if this were a PDF I would be able to zoom in on a page and see larger text. If this were a PDF I would also be able to scroll around the screen after zooming in on the text, and I would be able to have parts of 2 pages shown on the screen at once.

If this were a PDF then I would be able to read it on my smartphone. But because this is an app I can’t do that.

But wait, that’s not the only stuff that can’t be done with the Distro app. I also cannot copy/paste from the app, which I can do in a PDF.

Folks, this is 2013. Magazine style news apps should not be the poorer cousins to a PDF, and that is exactly what the Engadget Distro app is.

In fact, Distro represents a regression in the capabilities of news apps. I can recall in 2010 finding an app developer  which (literally, so far as I could tell) wrapped a PDF in an app so it could be sold on the iPad. I hated the idea at the time because it was nothing but an irumatiating PDF. But now that I have found something that is actually worse I must change my mind.

I can honestly say that anyone who wants to read Distro is better off downloading a PDF and then reading it in Goodreader (or Adobe Reader for Android). At least that way you will have a rich reading experience.

With that in mind, I have to wonder why this app was released at all. It costs money to develop content across multiple platforms, and if the result is less capable than a PDF then was that money really well spent?

I don’t think so.

I say send out the PDF and call it good. It might not be as cool but it still works better that the Distro app.

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Rebecca Allen August 30, 2013 um 5:23 pm

Are you familiar with RR Donnelly’s "MyDigiMag"? I only am because in my quest to eliminate all paper coming into the house (not yet fully successful, probably never will be), I switched to reading CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter online, which uses that system? app? reader? to present fixed layout content. It is vile. I wind up having to click multiple times to turn pages, and it’s always either too large or too small but never fits the screen right. I don’t get why this stuff if out there and so terrible; I’d be vastly happier with raw text, minimal formatting and no pictures whatsoever (not that I should have to put up with that, either, but that’s how much I hate this solution). I find RRD’s plug for it on their website laughable:

Nate Hoffelder August 30, 2013 um 5:27 pm

I think I have heard of it but never tried it.

David August 31, 2013 um 2:28 pm

You seem to have found one of the worst magazine apps. What about naming some of the best ones? I have yet to read any magazine on my phone and would appreciate some tips.

Jim September 4, 2013 um 8:26 pm

I’m equally annoyed by the Distro app and the fixed layout. Basically unusable on a Kindle Fire HD (7 inch). Big fan of Engadget, but was disappointed by this app.

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