Publishers know that tablets are not going away. They also know that publishing for tablets is no easy task. In this article series, I will address many of these publishing challenges; this article will begin with which operating systems and devices to target.

Challenges of Publishing for Tablets

It is hard to believe that the first iPad went on sale only 15 months ago. Today, virtually every major newspaper and magazine publisher now has a presence on tablets. Some have been very successful and are still investing heavily; others have suffered setbacks and are slowing down a little. All, however, agree that tablets are here to stay, and that a long term publishing strategy needs a strong tablet element.

But publishing for tablets isn’t easy. Once a publisher has decided what content should be accessible from a tablet, there are suddenly a host of new questions which need to be answered:

  • which devices, operating systems and distribution channels should I target?
  • should I be writing native applications, web applications, or use a “create once, publish anywhere” framework?
  • how will my production workflow need to adapt to support these devices, with all the different form factors, aspect ratios and user experience metaphors?
  • should I be producing a single, constantly updating edition like my website, or a daily/weekly edition more like my print product?
  • should I be publishing from my InDesign/Quark print system, or the Content Management System that powers my web and mobile sites?
  • how will I make money from this new channel via subscriptions and/or advertising?
  • how will I be able to track the success of these applications, and will I own my subscriber data?

In this article, I will talk about the tablet landscape. Future articles in this series will address the other challenges listed above. The articles are aimed primarily at those publishing newspapers or magazines, but elements are also very relevant to book publishers, or “non-publishers” creating brochures, portfolios or other magazine-like applications. On to the first challenge -- picking the operating systems and devices to target.

Operating Systems and Devices

As things stand, there are five or six operating systems that may become important in the longer term. The table below summarizes these systems. Click on the image to see a larger screenshot.

  Operating System MarketPlace Hero Tablet Devices
Thumbnail image for ipad.jpg
Apple iOS App Store iPad
iPad 2
Thumbnail image for SamsungGalaxyHoneyComb.jpg
Google Android MarketPlace for Android
Amazon Appstore for Android
Samsung Galaxy
Motorola XOOM
Asus Eee Pad
Vizio VTAB (Q3 2011)
Amazon Tablet (Q3 2011)
Thumbnail image for hptouchpad.jpg
HP webOS App Catalog HP TouchPad
Thumbnail image for rim-playbook.jpg
BlackBerry Tablet OS
(QNX Neutrino)
BlackBerry App World BlackBerry PlayBook
Windows 8 / Nokia Windows Marketplace Likely released in 2012

So how should a publisher choose where to focus their attention? The chart below highlights the fact that iOS and Android are likely to maintain their dominance for the next three or four years -- publishers are wise to focus on these until something major happens.


The market share of the other systems is extremely low, and it is unclear when any of them will make an impact on the market. The BlackBerry PlayBook feels like it was rushed out of the door, although they may make a comeback in the next few years. Microsoft is still finalizing their strategy and have recently announced a partnership with Nokia. It seems like Windows 8 will be their dominant tablet operating system, although Nokia’s Meego may still have a part to play. WebOS looks quite slick, but still has a long way to go to attract developers and market share. As most publishers will probably be ignoring these devices for now, let’s look a bit deeper at iOS and Android, and what they mean for publishers.

Apple iOS

Apple's iOS is the most closed of all the operating systems, which in one sense makes it the easiest to develop for. The fact that it is controlled means that the OS feels consistent, the general quality of the applications are good, the documentation is good and there are no difficult decisions to make about which devices to target. There are only small differences in the hardware (for example, no camera on the original iPad), and incremental changes in the operating system are mostly backwardly compatible, so an app you write for iOS4 should work just fine on iOS5.

The device generally is smooth and a pleasure to use, making it an ideal target for newspaper and magazines applications. In addition, all content can be designed to perform in the 4:3 aspect ratio iPad screen. Apps are purchased through the Apple App Store, and Apple has made this process as frictionless as possible.

The big downside with iOS is also the fact that it is closed and controlled. If you hit a brick wall, you have nowhere to turn to outside of Apple. The approval process for an app can be drawn out and frustrating, and the rules can change at any time. This is especially true in the publishing industry where Apple and publishers are still battling over Apple’s 30% cut of the revenue, and the control of the valuable subscriber data. At present, a content app is allowed to sell subscriptions outside of the App Store without using Apple’s payment system. However, apps that do this are currently not even allowed to provide a link to the user registration system.

An interesting publisher specific feature has been included in iOS 5 -- Newsstand. Before Newsstand, there was no way to download content in the background. This meant that your average user Joe had to remember to download the latest edition on their home Wifi before leaving for work or risk a very slow download or, even worse, having no signal while sitting on an underground train. With Newsstand, Joe’s new edition will be ready and waiting when he wakes up in the morning. More on Newsstand in later columns.

A final warning for book publishers. Apple also changes the rules here. Some publishers like to submit books to the App Store instead of using the native iBookstore or Kindle for iPad. At the moment, Apple is rejecting “apps that are primarily books,” suggesting they be submitted to the iBookstore instead. Books that feature a degree of interactivity not achievable in EPUB 2 will be approved, as will those that connect to a server to interact with remote content. The release of EPUB 3 might change the rules again.

Google Android

Android is iOS’s arch rival -- it is open where iOS is closed. It is open source, and has been adopted by almost every tablet OEM except those with their own operating systems (Apple, Microsoft, BlackBerry and Nokia). Like iOS, it was primarily an operating system for smartphones, but has now been extended to tablets. However, unlike iOS, Android didn’t feel natural for tablets. Only the latest version, Honeycomb, is really designed for tablets (Android versions are named alphabetically, after desserts. The previous two versions were Froyo and Gingerbread. The next is Icecream Sandwich).

The variety in the Android ecosystem is wonderful and a testament to the success of the project. It is also a pain in the ass. The different Android versions really are quite different, and the devices all behave differently. And, when publishing content for Android, you need to worry about how it will work on both a 7 inch and a 10 inch device, with screens that have a wide variety of aspect ratios (4:3, 16:9, 16:10 and counting).

There is another issue. Google hasn’t yet released the source code for Honeycomb -- arguably because they want to retain control in a more Apple-esque way. However, until they do, some companies may not be able to use it. Most importantly, the Next Big Android Tablet due from Amazon later in 2011, may not be able to use it. The general view is that a tablet running Gingerbread or earlier isn’t really a tablet at all.

In my humble opinion, even with Honeycomb, but for reasons that aren’t easy to explain, the Android devices just don’t feel quite as good as the iOS devices yet. This is especially true for publishing apps where the editors are incredibly protective over the feel of the brand. I do find it rather sad that most of the Android manufacturers lead their advertising with the fact that Android supports Flash, while iOS doesn’t. There must be a better reason that that ...

And a last point on the distribution. Android Apps are purchased through the Android Marketplace, or through third-party marketplaces such as the Amazon App Store for Android. But despite the rising Android market share, people simply aren’t spending as much on Android Apps as iOS apps. This isn’t an issue if your app is free and you are aiming for the mass market. It is a problem if you’re charging for it.

In Closing

It turns out then, for most publishers, choosing the target operating systems really isn’t that difficult. Start with the iPad, and focus on Android next. There are of course exceptions. The main three reasons I see publishers putting Android in front of iOS are:

  • The commercial terms imposed by Apple
  • Wanting to differentiate as there are far more good iOS content apps than Android ones
  • Getting a good deal with a hardware manufacturer or network operator

The Cathedral is beating the Bazaar in this round. But Android isn’t going away, and, in the long run, open tends to beat closed. It might take anywhere from two to five years before Android overtakes the iPad as the first choice for publishers on a tablet, but my bet is that it will happen.

So problem solved -- we’ve chosen our target devices. In the next article I’ll address some more sticky questions, including which standards to adopt, and the choice between native apps, web apps, or the hybrids that sit in the middle.

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