First Look: Branson’s Virgin iPad Project Frustrates With Complexity

The future of publishing, if Virgin’s new iPad-only magazine is anything to go by, is messy – Project is a decent-enough male lifestyle title, beset by horrid UI and frustrating Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) delivery…

My iPad wouldn’t install Project wirelessly from iTunes Store this morning, telling me only to sync it to my computer’s iTunes. That application said Project didn’t actually work at all with my iPad’s software, so I decided to update to an iOS 4.2 I hadn’t wanted (unnecessary multi-tasking and a deprecated orientation switch). In order to do so, I first had to update iTunes itself and reboot my computer. After finally iOS updated, I successfully downloaded the Project app, which is merely a library wrapper, paid my money to download the debut edition within, then waited another three minutes for the download.

Total time to get Project: two and a half hours. This archaic process is not a good advert for Apple (severely lacking any helpful pointers throughout the upgrade process or why it’s necessary) or developers who choose to come to market with a big launch depending on bleeding-edge software.

Once inside Project, the animated cover of Tron star Jeff Bridges impresses. Print stylings like CMYK blocks and pagination marks in page borders suggest a dead-tree aesthetic of yesteryear. Indeed; Project is rather preoccupied with its magazineyness, running features like “The World’s Suckiest Ads” and “The Worst Ideas Ever”.

As an iPad app, however, it devotes a full-page schematic to explaining “How to use Project“. That’s something which should be so intuitive as to be almost unnecessary, but Project‘s guide is as confusing as a joypad button map in a first-person console shooter…

And it’s entirely necessary because Project‘s UI is all over the place. Pages look like they have been conceived and rendered in print. Because they use an unpredictable array of creative layouts (Project looks rather good in that regard), navigation items are often indistinguishable from static page furniture, meaning Project‘s UI frequently resorts to inviting you explicitly toward non-obvious interactivity (“Tap” here, “Swipe” here). You don’t know you’ve reached the bottom of a page until you’ve tried and failed to swipe any further. Basically, it’s confusing.

Project graciously nods to the open web by including revealable off-site links and by bizarrely embedding its own blog site inside the app. But, at one point, I found myself stuck in this section with no apparent way to get back to the magazine proper. Because iOS 4.2 saves an app’s state between closing and opening, not even exiting and re-entering the mag could return to the cover – for that, I had to remove the app from iPad’s memory via iOS 4.2’s new multitasking bar (please can I go back to 3.0?).

Sci-fi movies, sexy socio-economists, geo-politics, “mavericks”, interplanetary exploration and beer – content-wise, Project badly wants to be Wired or Vogue. It’s aspirational, male and clearly targeted at iPad’s early-adopter bracket.

With that, it’s certainly a decent lifestyle magazine – but not one that necessarily needs to be on iPad (far less a frustrating experience would be reading this on paper). Project feels like a title that desperately should be in print, a medium from whence it feels like it originated. The interaction, whilst it tries to inject some creativity and unpredictability, doesn’t feel especially iPad-native and flashy video is limited, perhaps thankfully. One of the most compelling features is listening to audio of cover-star Bridges talking about his past movie appearances.

The masthead lists an in-house staff of 12, with an extra 38 contributors, a further 13 from “customer engagement agency” Seven Squared plus two from Virgin Digital Publishing Ltd – all told, 65 pairs of hands.

One of their debut stories has a dig at News Corp.’s forthcoming iPad news project, which some observers have, for some reason, lumped in with Project this week…

“As Project went on sale, reports emerged that Rupert Murdoch will soon launch an iPad-only newspaper called The Daily, after it came to him in a dream or something.

“Which, like all Murdoch products, shall doubtless enrich humankind with its impartial political analysis and rolling coverage of shit exploding. Also: hi-def nudity, fingers crossed. But the point stands: the irascible Aussie despot doesn’t throw his corked hat into the cyber ring until he’s sure of a market. Apart from the Times paywall, maybe. And MySpace (NSDQ: NWS). But, well, you know.”

That’s the most back-handed attempt at self-validation I’ve seen in a while.

Update: Project’s team also tels us: “We are holding a competition for people to redesign our front cover. The best entries will be featured in a special download available with issue 3 and the winner will then get to design the actual front cover of Project 2 – a crowd-sourced issue coming next year.”