Is Next Issue worth your $15 every month?

Next Issue

I’ve been testing out Next Issue’s all-you-can-read magazine app for a few weeks now, to see whether it’s worth your time and money.

So is it? My short answer: mayyybe, if (a) you absolutely love many of the titles they offer and (b) you want to continue experiencing them with as much fidelity to the print version as you can manage on a tablet — no matter the trade-offs.

And there are some real trade-offs. Such wholesale reproduction of the print experience introduces significant usability problems, and it forces users to abandon more natural consumption patterns on tablets in order to honor an older analog format.

I’m coming up on the end of my free trial, and I’ve decided the cons outweigh the perks. I may miss out on some good articles now and then without a subscription, but ultimately, it’s just not much fun to get magazines this way.

The Netflix of magazines, or the Kabletown?

When I first heard about Next Issue a few months ago, I thought of it as the magazine world’s answer to Netflix. The similarities to Netflix, as well as other content subscription offerings like Hulu Plus, Spotify and Amazon Prime, are easy to identify: you pay a flat fee, and you get wide access to a pool of content that would cost far more if purchased à la carte.

But then you look at Next Issue’s $15 monthly fee, and the comparison fails, and in a big way. Look at what these other services charge:

  • Netflix – $8/month
  • Hulu Plus – $8/month
  • Spotify Premium – $10/month
  • Amazon Prime – $7/month ($80/yr)

Netflix, Hulu and Amazon give you access to lots of movies and TV shows. Spotify gives you unlimited music streaming. Amazon even throws in free shipping and a free ebook rental each month. Setting aside any discussion of the “real” value of the participating magazines, why is a Next Issue plan so much more expensive than any of these four offerings?

To the consumer side of my brain, there’s a lot of missed savings in this $15 monthly fee. Unless I’m a power user, I’m probably only going to consistently read a couple of titles each month, which makes Next Issue a risky investment of my entertainment dollars.

Let’s say I want Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker. I might occasionally check out some other title throughout the year, but the hurdles to downloading issues (I’ll get to that below) make “impulse shopping” in the app less and less likely once the shininess wears off.

Those two titles together would cost me $85 a year on my iPad if I subscribed to them through the App Store. Under the Next Issue plan, I’ll have to pay $180.

Maybe Next Issue has the market research to back up its $15 fee, but to me it looks too high, and it makes me wonder if the fee was set to meet publisher demands and not to compete aggressively in the marketplace.

My conclusion is that Next Issue’s model is really a lot more like cable television, where lots of low-value channels are bundled together under an expensive monthly fee, and where the most popular premium content is only available at an even higher-priced tier.

Unfortunately for Next Issue, consumers can unbundle this offering pretty easily, so is there another compelling reason to use Next Issue? Well…

The overall user experience is kind of clunky.

If you force a publisher to choose between usability and business goals, guess which one will win most of the time?

Below are some problems I had when testing out Next Issue. I’m sure some of these problems will be mitigated through future app updates, or with the help of new technological advances. But as long as magazine publishers try to replicate the print world in the digital space, there are going to be some big problems.

No background downloading.

You have to keep the app running in the foreground to download a magazine issue, and you can’t download more than one issue at a time, even if you’ve got lots of bandwidth you’d like to take advantage of.

File sizes are huge, and downloading is slow.

waiting waiting waitingIn my tests, downloads took anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes, and although in theory you can start browsing the issue as soon as the index is downloaded, in practice the app then becomes so unresponsive that it’s pointless to try.

A single issue can easily cross the 500MB threshold, which makes it impractical to store more than a few issues at a time; I was constantly having to calculate whether it was worth the effort to go back and browse through a past issue, especially if it meant I’d have to delete and then re-download a more recent issue.

The app can be sluggish, or even buggy.

On my iPad 2, swiping through an issue of The New Yorker can be a frustrating experience, even after it’s fully downloaded. I might swipe to turn the page and see no response, then swipe two more times and suddenly see the transition kick in. Or it might move to the next page but only display a white screen for a couple of seconds, then load a poem and nothing else. What took it so long to display, literally in this example, about three dozen words and one interface icon?

I’ve also had the app crash several times when trying to open or navigate through an issue. In one early test, an issue became corrupted after about 15% had been downloaded, and I had to delete it, force quit the app, and reboot in order to get it working again.

There are lots of ads.

How many pages of traditional magazine advertising are too many when you’re looking at the digital version? What’s the right user experience for viewing ads on a tablet? Maybe these answers have yet to be discovered, but all I know for certain is if I’m having trouble just getting the app to respond quickly to my page swipes, the last thing I want to see when the next page finally loads is a full-screen ad. And then, sometimes, another one right after that. Wait, why am I paying $15 a month again?

One time, I tapped on a Gucci ad seven times over a 10 second period and nothing happened. When it finally responded, it accepted two of my taps back to back, so the navigation interface appeared and blinked off again immediately. This is not a fun way to browse a magazine.

Do we even want traditional magazines on tablets?

There’s a lot of work that could be done to remedy some of the problems above, especially the problem of massive file size, which would in turn improve download times and responsiveness. But maybe the real question is, should anyone bother? The high-value content of magazines are articles, and maybe in the digital world those articles shouldn’t be forced together without a more compelling reason than to drive ad sales.

As Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has noted, the way people find, consume, and share content online doesn’t follow old patterns of media consumption. Digital readers incorporate social networks and aggregators, two methods of content discovery that run counter to the closed, tightly controlled presentation style of print mags. In this sense, using Next Issue feels a little like locking oneself in a small reading room in order to read magazines, while the rest of the world engages in an open exchange of information.

Ingram also points out that Next Issue doesn’t offer any truly innovative service, which perhaps reveals the ultimate business goals of its publishers, which is to simply preserve the old business model for as long as possible:

If Next Issue were to pull individual articles out of its magazines and collect them based on popularity or some other algorithm — or made it easy for readers to share individual articles and other content outside the walled garden of the app itself — that might make it more appealing to those who have gotten used to a Flipboard-style model for consuming content. But it’s not clear that magazine publishers would be interested in doing that. For them, the game is about increasing circulation figures so they can try to keep their advertising revenues from bottoming out as print-based revenue continues to decline.

So instead of competing with the highly engaging UX of apps like Flipboard or Zite, a Next Issue customer is stuck with a digitized variation of a print model that was built to sustain giant full-page advertising. It’s not fun to use, it’s not very engaging, and it doesn’t take much advantage of the medium.

Next Issue may appeal to hardcore magazine readers who can wipe out four or five separate subscriptions with one monthly fee. For the rest of us — the occasional reader, or the reader who sticks to just a couple of titles per month — it’s an expensive and not very fun solution to a problem that doesn’t need to exist.

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