Zero Distraction / An Anthology of Examined Nerdy Things

Thoughts on TypeEngine

Every time I visit the city of Seattle, I always have a wonderful time. Last week I received an invite from the folks at TypeEngine to join their launch party on Friday. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to join. I’ve been following the progress they’ve been making on their website ever since they first announced their intent to develop a new and radically better publishing platform. As a writer who’s primary income is not this site, the notion of powerful publishing tools that can help me offer well presented content, in a Newsstand app that I can charge for, piques my interest.

The Current Problem

In case you’re not aware, TypeEngine is a new as of yet unreleased set of publishing tools. It’s goal is to help writers publish beautiful Newsstand magazines, without the terrible UI/UX that plague most gargantuan PDF based magazines. I’ve written about the problem in general with digital magazines in the past, and plenty others have too. It’s clear that customers don’t want to have to download 700+ MB apps that have poor design, typography, non-selectable text, and no article sharing capabilities. The barrier to entry for readers, has for the most part, been too large. I have experienced first hand how frustrating it can be to download one of those behemoth Condé Naste apps. One would think that after downloading a magazine from Newsstand, you would be able to start reading it right away. Wrong. I’m greeted with yet another online store where I need to order individual issues, which take incredibly long to download. At that point, the level of anger percolating inside me tends to reach higher levels than an irate 80 year old man, impatiently waiting in line at the local delicatessen to get his corned beef sandwich. When I go to a book store, I can pick up a magazine, quickly flip through a few pages to see if it’s interesting, and head over to the cash register to buy it if I choose. Imagine if your experience at a book store was the same as what most of these current digital magazines offered. Instead of paying for your product and walking away, you were escorted to a waiting area, where you would sit down and patiently wait for half an hour before an employee hands you what you paid for. I can say with certainty that I just wouldn’t bother with making the trip to the store. I would never buy another magazine again. The subscription process for digital magazines has been absolutely atrocious, that by the time I have an issue ready to read, I’ve lost all interest. What’s depressing about this situation is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m empathetic to publishers who have tried and failed at offering the level of quality that customers deserve for digital magazines. The software available to them have been engineered to simply shoehorn their existing print designs and layouts into a consumable digital bundle. Big media have invested millions to try and come up with their own bespoke apps for Newsstand that would break the mould. Just look at what News Corp. did with The Daily — a utter colossal failure ending in tens of millions of wasted development dollars and an inevitable closure of the magazine. It wasn’t just bloated and clunky design though that portended its demise, it was also the lack of quality investigative reporting. It’s unequivocal that digital magazines have failed at being ubiquitous. Consumers just haven’t adopted to reading Newsstand apps in the volumes that publishers want, comparatively speaking to their print counterparts. As far as I know, the New York times are one of the few who have made the transition profitable (I still don’t agree with their pricing model, but hey, at least their iOS apps are not shit). It’s not just big media that is continuing to struggle. Small publishers and independent writers have not had the opportunity and right tools presented to them to set them up for success. Where’s the iBooks Author version for Newsstand publishers? Surely companies like Apple would care enough to foster adoption of their content delivery system by providing them with world class publishing tools. After all, Mac and iOS developers have Xcode, lauded as one of the best IDEs (Integrated Development Environment), so that they can more easily produce polished apps for that ecosystem. An ecosystem that would not exist, mind you, if the proper tools were not made available. So what’s taking so long? Why hasn’t anyone cracked the code and released a product that will revolutionize publishing? It would seem that this market is ripe for disruption. Indeed, something like TypeEngine seems perfectly timed. With millions of iOS devices in the hands of individuals across the globe, there’s no reason why every single person shouldn’t have the absolute best reading experience on their smartphone or tablet.

We recently have seen at least one Newsstand app which offers the kind of exquisite typography, clarity of layout, and superior experience that we crave. Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, launched his own Newsstand offering last year called The Magazine (disclosure: I contributed a piece in issue two), which he built from scratch. He took it upon himself to build the app that he wanted to read. Of course, most people don’t have the skills, time, money, or inclination to develop their own custom solution. This is where TypeEngine comes in to save us all from PDF nightmare. As an independent writer, I’m incredibly excited to see a product like TypeEngine that promises to make it easy for people like me to release my own beautiful app. I won’t need to hire my own development team to build something from scratch. The product becomes my team to help me put my content out there, where I want it to be, and exactly how I want it to look. It also caters to technical writers by supporting native Markdown syntax, thus allowing people like me to simply paste my existing text in without bothering to convert it to HTML or rich text.

The product won’t be officially out until June, however, you can now download and subscribe to The Loop in Newsstand — the first digital magazine to launch built with TypeEngine. I was able to download the app in a matter of seconds. Additionally, I’m pleased to report that subscribing to the first issue was also quick an absolutely pain free. It took seconds before I was reading the first article. This is precisely how I want every magazine to operate going forward. The bar has been set extremely high now. Once this launches, I foresee publishers, both big and small arriving in droves to use this. At the moment, their product currently is designed to only publish to iOS. Whilst I haven’t heard of any plans to support Android, I can only imagine this must be a logical next step. One can’t ignore Android as a viable mobile operating system anymore. It’s come a long way since the introduction of 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). When you have such amazing tools available for one platform, why not expand them to as many places as possible? I don’t know about you, but even as an iOS user, I don’t feel like publishers should be left out in the cold from making their work available to all. This is something I would love to see them work on.

Coda

I want to personally thank the TypeEngine team for extending an invite to the launch party. Not only did it get me fired up to hear your that your business is aligned with my interests, but I had a chance to meet some old and new faces. It was also fantastic listening to the stories from the launch partners about their past frustrations with publishing and their future desires for Newsstand. A lot of the people I tend to chat with are heavily entrenched in writing about technology, so it was refreshing to see writers that aren’t solely just focused on that industry. People such as Thomas Deneuville, for example, who writes at icareifyoulisten.com, a website covering the intersection of contemporary classical music and art. There were other international launch partners as well, varying in the kinds of niche topics they cover, many of which were not at the event. It should be interesting to see what people are able to do with this thing. I really want to find some new writers to read and expand my world outside of the technology sector.

In short, I can’t wait to get my hands on this product and will be keeping a close eye on its progress. A promising and bright future is looming on the horizon for Newsstand and digital magazines in general. I think we’re really close to it. For now, I recommend you subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on App.net or Twitter (pick your poison) to stay up-to-date on what’s going on.