For some time I've been pretty derisive of the "animated .pdf" school of web publishing.
You've seen these Frankenstein creatures: dead wood print publications that are zapped with flash magic in the lab and then propped up on a slab on the web for people to view "just like the real thing" complete with animated page turning and even swoooshing sounds as the page flips open.
A lot of people have been trying variations on this technology for a long time. Initially papers and magazines would simply post static .pdf's of their actual pages, as a "service" to readers, but mostly I think it was an attempt to lead their advertisers online. "See? Look how nice your ad looks on the web! And it didn't hurt a bit!"
Things began getting a little out of control as different companies (Olive, PressSmart come to mind) began offering tools that attempted to duplicate the print exeprience online. The National Post — and all the CanWest daily papers — offer fairly sophisticated digital editions (which include the option of listening to a machine read each story). In our own chain we've used the technique for some advertising-
focussed sections (like the Spectator's "New Home Living" magazine) and a few complete specialty publications.
I can understand why publishers go for these little monsters: they're relatively cheap to produce and you can upsell advertisers to the product, or at least, as I said before, get print advertisers used to the idea of being on the web, but I can't really believe they do much for readers.
I mean, they really seem like a transitional technology, a crutch, or perhaps training wheels, to help print producers move into the digital age. But as the father of three daughters I can tell you from experience: you learn to ride a bike a lot faster without the darn things. You'll fall down a couple of times, but if you're depending on your own sense of balance to survive (rather than leaning on those little wheels), you soon learn what it takes to get moving.
Putting dancing pictures of our print products on the web, instead of going digitally native (think: links, rich content, searchable databases, interactive maps and graphics, audience contributions and user-controlled filtering etc) seems like shackling ourselves. It woud be like television networks broadcasting shows that blanked the TV screen and then simply streamed audio — radio shows — through our TV channels. Maybe that's what early television looked like, and maybe some viewers and advertisers liked it that way — at first. But it didn't last.
As I said, that's been my thinking for some time now, but lately I've seen some things that are making me re-evaluate that derision. Mayebe, just maybe there is a future in duplicating the print experience on the web. Sort of. I'll elaborate in my next post, but for now, what do you think? Are digital editions a waste of space, a crippling crutch diverting scarce web resources and attention. (Objection! He's leading the witness. Sustained.) Or are they a simple added benefit for readers and advertisers who happen to like them?