May 23, 2011

A pair of Berlin-based designers has released a prototype of what they call the world’s first HTML5 magazine for tablets.

The project, called Aside Magazine, is an impressive demonstration of the design, interactivity and app-like experience that can be created using new advances in the language that powers the Web: HTML.

The newest version, HTML5, goes far beyond pages, hyperlinks and images. It includes new support for multimedia and graphical content without using any plugins such as Flash. These advances are important for news publishers seeking independence and a universal development strategy.

Web apps enable publishers to avoid several problems with developing news apps for mobile devices: developing different versions for iOS and Android (not to mention BlackBerry or Windows), submitting the app to Apple for approval (which can take days or weeks) and giving Google or Apple 30 percent of revenue.

“Don’t get us wrong, we love the App Store. But in our world, magazines are press content, not software,” Nico Engelhardt, who along with Johannes Ippen designed Aside Magazine, told me by email. “And we don’t want a big company to decide whether our content is allowed to be published or not.”

The prototype is mostly written in German, but the language isn’t as important as the interactive features and elegant stylings that show off just how much a magazine publisher could do with this platform. With a tap or drag of the finger, users can enlarge photos, play music clips or manipulate interactive graphics. Engelhardt calls it “a technological experiment, showing our audience the power of HTML5.”

Aside uses the same WebKit rendering technology behind the browsers built into iOS and Android devices, but it doesn’t feel like a website at all. It launches as an entirely free-standing app — an immersive experience without any sign of the browser.

Engelhardt predicts that HTML-based apps are the way of the future: “In a few years, we will not install each and every application we need on our mobile devices. There will be a core set of apps like a camera, a browser and voice-recording software — the rest will fetched out of the cloud.”

The design duo met during their studies at Design Akademie Berlin. Engelhardt’s focus is in infographics and corporate and editorial design, and Ippen has experience in modern Web technologies such as HTML5 and user interface design.

HTML5 is still a developing standard, and so it has its shortcomings. Mobile experts at a conference in Seattle last week said it wasn’t ready to support some types of mobile product development, according to PC World.

Because HTML5 apps are not coded in a device’s native operating language, they can’t operate some hardware such as the camera or microphone. But HTML5 can do everything necessary for a content-delivery app that just needs to display text, images and multimedia.

There are still some obstacles to developing an entire app in HTML, but they are quickly being resolved, Ippen told me.

“This field of mobile development is quite new, and many features we used were released while we were working on our product — we had to do a lot of pioneer work,” Ippen said. “In the very beginning of our work, e.g., you could only embed one non-system font on the iPad; more fonts would have just crashed the iPad. Apple fixed this with the release of iOS 4.2, when half of our magazine was ready.”

The cover of Aside Magazine.

So is the technology demonstrated in Aside usable for publishers today? Yes, says Ippen.

“At this time we’re still optimizing the overall performance to make the reading experience much more fluent, especially on the iPad 1. But in theory you could already publish more issues or other magazines with our technology,” he said.

Some news publishers already are experimenting with HTML5 Web apps — less visually intense than Aside but still impressive. The New York Times, for one, has already built an HTML5 Web app you can see at — a clean browsing interface that can be controlled with a mouse or touchscreen gestures. The Huffington Post has a beta Web app called NewsGlide that mimics its iPad app in a Web interface. NPR has an impressive Web app as well.

News publishers should be releasing HTML5-based apps and helping to push this technology forward. Financially, they stand to keep all of app revenue instead of giving Apple or Google a 30 percent commission.

And, perhaps more importantly, publishers should not let the App Store approval process stand between them and their users. No newspaper would outsource its printing to a press facility that could reject an issue it didn’t like. And none would host its website with a company that could take down pages it didn’t like. There’s no reason to be comfortable with such restrictions on mobile platforms.

“You should ask yourself,” Ippen said, “‘Is there a slight possibility my app could not make it into the App Store?’ If the answer is yes, consider using HTML5.”

There is a downside to ditching the App Store; you lose exposure to millions of people  looking for new apps to download. For a game application, that might be a dealbreaker. But any media company that already has an audience of thousands should have no trouble effectively promoting a Web app through its other channels.

Ippen and Engelhardt say they are talking with several publishers about the opportunities of HTML5 publishing, not only for magazines but also books and photo books.

Engelhardt also said they may release a free template in the near future to encourage other developers to advance their work. Aside would publicize such an announcement on Twitter, he said.

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Jeff Sonderman ( is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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