Tablet publishing software: 5 key attributes

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You can tell when a market is taking shape by the number of technology vendors who spring up to support it. Tablet publishing is still in the formative stage, but new workflow and publishing tools from a variety of software and service providers could add some definition.

The tablet market is attracting a broad range of vendors, from established software developers (Adobe) to small Russian startups (iBuildApp). Some, such as WoodWing Software, have been offering solutions since the iPad’s launch last year, while others, such as Texterity and Polar Mobile, are adding tablet support to existing smartphone solutions.

tablet publishing solutionsMany of these tool providers are shooting for what publishers may find as a welcome middle ground between cheap PDF replicas and expensive custom apps. They also may help publishers solve the internal-vs.-external app development debate.

“Some publishers just want to be on the device with a PDF,” said Hans Janssen, CEO of WoodWing, which is based in the Netherlands. “Some add some basic interactivity. Some people go wild with completely different content and much more interactive rich media.”

While there’s no right or wrong approach to developing tablet editions, Janssen says he’s seen enough early examples to offer some insight into what’s working. The most effective apps appear to be those that don’t try to do too much – at least initially.

“You have to give added value to the printed product, but you want to look for the right balance and build from there,” Janssen said in a phone interview. “You want to add something new every issue and surprise your readers.”

What should publishers be thinking about when shopping for tablet publishing solutions? Here are five elements to keep in mind.

Integration

If you’re a print publisher, you likely want a “medium-neutral” solution that integrates with your existing production tools and workflow; there’s no reason to reinvent the publishing wheel to deliver content to tablet devices. Here, established print publishing vendors such as Adobe and WoodWing have the upper hand. Publishers are familiar with their tools and the vendors are now stepping up with products that integrate with existing design platforms such as Adobe’s InDesign.

Time Inc.’s use of WoodWing’s enterprise publishing platform led it to WoodWing’s Digital Magazine Tools for its Sports Illustrated, Time, People and Fortune apps. “We showed them that using InDesign, they could create those publications without having to create new apps every week,” Janssen.

Similarly, Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite offers integration with InDesign and other applications in its Creative Suite software. Conde Nast, which last fall announced plans to use the Digital Publishing Suite across its full portfolio of magazines, has cited this “author once, produce for anywhere” concept as key to a successful tablet edition strategy.

Cross-platform support

Polar Mobile has released 500 apps from more than 200 publishers across a variety of smartphone devices and is now extending its solution to tablets. The company recently announced that its Smart Platform, a hosted solution for developing mobile apps, will support the new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet, which Research in Motion released today. iPad and Android support will follow this summer, CEO Kunal Gupta said in a phone interview.

“Success in mobile requires reach,” said Gupta. You won’t get that reach if you’re creating custom apps for each device.” Polar Mobile includes cross-platform support as part of its licensing model. But Gupta acknowledges that every device offers a unique user experience, which publishers need to tap into. He says Polar Mobile’s platform helps them do that by leveraging a pre-built platform with templates that are optimized for each device type.

Texterity and Wonderfactory are also developing cross-platform tools. Under a partnership announced last December, the companies are developing a common reader interface and a series of design modules for iPad and Android smartphones and tablets.

Dynamic, sharable content

Gupta says publisher apps are falling into two primary camps: paid apps that effectively are walled gardens to paid content (think The Daily), and free apps that encourage social sharing of content (think Flipboard). “We want to enable an experience closer to the latter, making it easy to access content across all devices and making it more social for sharing,” he said.

Gupta also believes publishers should be able to reciprocate, by pushing real-time content to users dynamically. He sees this as a key differentiator for app publishers. “Notifying the user in real time about content coming to their device is very powerful,” he said.  “We do it today with breaking news and sports scores, but we’ll be investing more in personalized content, where you can receive different updates based on your history or stated interests.”

Analytics

The ability to measure user interactions with editorial and advertising content will be critical to helping publishers not only to improve the user experience, but also to set proper pricing for both their apps and their advertising. New engagement metrics such as time spent on each page or with each issue, as well as return sessions and video starts/stops will provide a deeper level of insight.

Moving Media+’s Mag+ platform enables publishers to integrate analytics from Omniture, Flurry or Localytics. Adobe’s Digital Publishing System includes built-in analytics from Omniture, which Adobe purchased in 2009.

Pricing

Publishers can get into tablet publishing at virtually any price point – starting with free and ranging up to thousands of dollars per month. Because pricing models are all over the map, direct comparisons are difficult. Any comparison shopping must take a hard look at the services, platform support and functionality offered in return. Here are a few examples:

Adobe offers tiered pricing for its Digital Publishing Suite. The Professional Edition, scheduled to ship later this quarter, is priced at $495 a month, an up-front distribution fee ranging from$5,500 to $60,000 plus per-download fees ranging from 12 to 22 cents per folio, depending on volume. The Enterprise version, released last month, carries a custom fee and is targeted at large publishers.

Moving Media+ offers its Mag+ creation tools for free, but charges for distribution. Publishing the app costs $2,500 per tablet platform, which includes unlimited content for five months. After that, the cost is $500 per issue or $500 per month for unlimited publishing.

Pricing for WoodWing’s workflow solution, including tablet creation tools, starts at $214 per user per month, or an enterprise license starting at $6,500. The company’s Reader App is priced starting at $305 per month, which includes multi-device support. Issue delivery pricing begins at $325 per month, including up to 100GB of monthly data traffic.

A tool called iBuildApp is at the very low end – meaning it’s free. The self-service website from a Russian startup of the same name lets publishers use one of three basic templates to create an app that pulls in RSS feeds and other digital content, including audio and video. Originally designed for iPhone and Android smartphones, the iPad version is currently in beta.

iBuildApp is a good option for small publishers that want to test the app waters before diving in, said Rafael Soultanov, CEO of the two-year-old startup, which has an office in Silicon Valley. “People want to try it first to see if this publishing model is for you,” Soultanov said in a phone interview. “If this is where you find clients, you’ll want to invest more.”

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