The early years of portable digital magazines

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May 21: As we wait for tablet devices and digital magazines to bring the publishing industry back on the upswing, a closer look shows us that before tablets went mainstream, portable, digital magazines had been in existence for some time. It may not have been Esquire on your iPhone, but the video gaming device PlayStation Pocket (commonly known as PSP) allowed players to read magazines specially made for the device. The height of these publications was back in late 2005 and early 2006, when titles like PSP-O-Mag and X Mag were being downloaded and read on the go.

Sam Bathe, a magazine editor based in London, is the former editor of Load, a now-defunct music, gaming and entertainment magazine that existed solely on digital screens. Load offered editorial and multimedia content that could be downloaded once, then put in your pocket and read whenever and wherever.

The first issue of Load was released in September 2005 at 120 pages. It was a series of images, occasionally with bonuses like music and video, available in a ZIP file, which had to be downloaded and unzipped to be viewed. Once unzipped, each page was available as a JPEG file that served as an image of the page. Content was limited to whatever could fit on the screen at any one time, no zooming or page-turning technology involved.

“One article could span 20 pages,” Bathe said. “So I guess back then we had to adapt to the format. News features were really small, maybe one per page or two pages for each one, but band interviews – there was no getting around it, they would go on about 20 pages.”

Today, digital magazines rely on Flash or PDF files, which allow the page turning and zooming capabilities we’ve grown familiar with. “It is a massive improvement, but the method is pretty similar. It’s just the way of packaging that is completely different now. An app now does all the downloading and extracting for you,” Bathe said.

Load was a popular read among PSP users, and its premier issue had 40,000 readers. Shortly after Load’s release, Sony developed PSP Media, software that was parallel to iTunes, simplifying the magazine’s download process. So why didn’t this set the magazine industry abuzz as our modern reading devices do today?

Bathe offers up two answers. For one thing, although its editorial content spanned the entertainment industry, Load was definitely targeted to a very specific audience.

“No one kind of knew about it outside of PSP people. It was specifically for the PSP, it was tailored for those readers, and no one else was interested or able to find out about it,” he said. Additionally, as new pocket gaming devices emerged, such as the Nintendo DS and DS Lite, the magazine declined in popularity along with the PSP itself.

“It kind of got to the point that for the amount of work it took to produce the magazine, it wasn’t worth it to hit the slim amount of readers,” Bathe said. Load produced a little more than a dozen issues from late 2005 to early 2008. While his first issue saw a readership of 40,000 and over time peaked at 50,000, readers were down to only 5,000 by the time the last issue came out.

Since Load ceased publication, Bathe has been publishing Fan the Fire, a music and entertainment digital magazine that evolved from where Load left off. While Load was far ahead of its time, supplying readers with portable digital content and multimedia-like music and video long before the iPhone, Fan the Fire is an example of advances in technology we’ve seen over the years. Using as its digital platform, Fan the Fire is available online and as an iPhone app, for zooming and page turning at the tap of a screen. Readers can download the app from any Wi-Fi hotspot, no computer required, and it automatically knows when the next issue is available.

Currently the iPad version is in the works, and holds possibilities for even greater technological innovation, according to Bathe, who expects it to take the “concepts of our iPhone app on leaps and bounds.” He hopes to release the iPad app before the device hits the UK, making Fan the Fire the first British publication available in this format.

–Janelle Zara

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