Death to dead trees

Interview: The man (and tech) leading a publishing revolution

Jonny Kaldor has consistently been at the forefront of digital distribution throughout his career, having worked at Accenture, EMI, News Corp, News International and now his own studio. So when he says he thinks it’s “pretty much a given that HTML is the future of content rendering on devices like [tablets and smartphones]," he may well be right.

Pugpig, his company's first project, is an end-to-end solution for producing publications for tablets and smartphones. Though development started 18 months ago, Pugpig's origins lie in the older, aborted Project Alesia, an ambitious News Corp project conceived as 'Sky for publications'.

"We spent about eight months building the platform, which was html-focused, to take content from many publishers, in many different forms, aggregate it into as a single repository, and deliver that to a whole host of consumer apps, across phone, desktop, browser - with a consistent but yet tailored user experience," says Kaldor in a quiet cafe next door to his London-based office.

However, "conflicting pressures" within the company led to the project being shut down shortly before the public beta was to launch. "I think there was concern that it might be detrimental to some of the business," notes Kaldor. So he and his team left to start their own company, confusingly also named Kaldor, which has been working on Pugpig for the last eighteen months.

How on earth do you get content from all these different publishers, bring all that content into one place, and then deliver it across all of these different devices?

How much of Project Alesia is in Pugpig's DNA? "We didn't take any of the IP at all, I mean we literally started from scratch," says Kaldor. "But yeah, we certainly took the learnings we gathered over the course of a year and a half of heavy-duty thinking. How on earth do you get content from all these different publishers, bring all that content into one place, and then deliver it across all of these different devices?"

Above: Screenshots of The Week and The Word running on an iPad.

This legacy becomes clear as Kaldor shows off Pugpig in action. Apps open with a carousel of available issues, and each can be individually downloaded, bought either as part of a subscription or using native in-app payments. Pages are swiped through smoothly or navigated using vertical or horizontal contents menus; text can be selected and copied as in Safari.

And this isn’t just a proof of concept: there are a range of Pugpig-based magazines already available to read, including British magazines The Week and The Word, on iOS (the Android version is nearly done, and Windows 8 is on its way too). Kaldor says there are 35 clients, including some big-name publishers, actively working with Pugpig to bring more titles to market.

The tablet market may still be young, but Pugpig (the name is supposed to reflect the app’s hybrid of native and web) already faces serious competition, including FutureFolio, MagAppZine, Zinio, Laker and of course Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite. What Pugpig has on its side is its use of web technologies, which, says Kaldor, makes cross-platform publishing faster and cheaper.

“We take probably an almost completely opposite approach to most of our competition when you think about Adobe DPS and all of the InDesign-driven workflow publishing tools,” he says. “They're all about integrating into an existing magazine editorial workflow where every single page you publish is lovingly handcrafted in every orientation for every device, which is fantastic for monthly tier one anchor publications like Wired and Vogue and so on.

“But actually when you've got pressures on editorial it becomes unsustainable, particularly for anything other than a monthly. For a weekly it's almost impossible, and for a daily completely impossible.

“So our entire approach is based upon taking structured content, applying it to some sort of layout, and delivering it to a native app.”

This structured content is a key advantage, says Kaldor. For example, a publisher could easily pull together a “best of” issue using existing content, or a reader could filter the magazine by topic to produce a personalised edition.

"The beauty of this is your search results needn't look like search results in a traditional manner: your search results can actually be manifested in an edition,” says Kaldor. “So I could have, sitting on my app, 'Jonny's saved edition of The Week', and I happen to just care about news from the UK and theatre reviews, and it can simply create my edition based on all these searches."

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So that’s the pitch: but what technologies are running behind the scenes?

Each article is contained within a separate WebView container, explains Kaldor, adding that using native browsers rather than a custom solution. "In everything we do, we're trying to leverage standard software components as much as we can, and not trying to work around device manufacturers' technology."

In order to mask loading times and avoid “that awful flicker”, static snapshots are displayed during the transition between each article - a “latency masking” tactic also implemented in iOS. "So as I go from page to page, that's a new WebView," he says, flicking between pages. "And so we're using that snapshot to transition from WebView to web view without getting that awful flicker."

Each page template is custom CSS and JavaScript, using media queries to adapt the content to whatever device it's being displayed on - or to use a trendy buzzword, using responsive design. Yet this isn't just Pugpig jumping on the bandwagon - in fact, the idea of using media queries to adapt layout dates back even to project Alesia. "We probably didn't call it responsive design back then, because it didn't exist as a coined phrase," says Kaldor.

This means that magazine and newspaper layout becomes radically different. White space, for example, traditionally the bane of subeditors, must be tolerated in a cross-platform, scalable world. "The key here is the whole concept of responsive layout, and knowing that any template you create this screen size and resolution," says Kaldor. "As soon as you have a situation where you're publishing the same content to more than one screen size and you're allowing text resizing, editorial teams are going to have to work in a different way from a layout standpoint."

The use of HTML also means that interactive elements - obviously a key draw for iPad magazines - can be put together rapidly and at low cost using just HTML5 and JavaScript. And of course, adverts can make use of this interactivity too. Kaldor demonstrates an ad within a magazine which features an interactive carousel of phones, which when tapped brings up specs and prices for each.

We probably didn't call it responsive design back then, because it didn't exist as a coined phrase

In an even more impressive example, an image of an armchair from an advert is superimposed onto the camera’s view of the room. It may be fairly simple stuff for a web app, but in the context of a magazine it feels more like a revolution than it should do.

"There's no limit now to what you can do, because HTML5 is so sophisticated in terms of the user experience you can create,” enthuses Kaldor. “And the beauty is, you can integrate it with the device, because you've got the native app container, which you can offer hooks to the webview app with to get things like gps data, orientation data, or access to the camera."

Also highly customisable - though a little trickier, being native Objective-C or Java - is the shell wrapped around the WebViews, which is used primarily for navigating within (and between) issues. Kaldor shows off a range of customised clients, with features such as expandable contents pages, note-taking in the margins and custom skins. While all follow the same basic design, Kaldor emphasises that developers can shape it to fulfil any function desired.

Pugpig's architecture.

The other half of Pugpig consists of the server tools and modules at the backend, used to process content into appropriate formats.

“So what the server components aim to do is to exist as neatly as neatly as we can into an existing editorial process,” says Kaldor, “and allow the editorial team to either take existing content or create content and apply it to that layout.

“They can create an edition by taking pages and pulling them together - just as with any other flat planning - bundle it all up, add advertising, preview it, and then prepare it for things like Apple's Newsstand and so on, and then deliver it all to the client.”

The recommended method of inputting content is using a CMS like Drupal (“our favourite,” says Kaldor), and Pugpig already supports WordPress, EPiServer, Jahia , Umbraco and Hippo - but of course hand-crafted HTML pages are fine, too.

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So Pugpig is not only gambling on touchscreen devices becoming the norm, but on HTML's continued success - not a bad bet to make by anyone's measure.

Kaldor himself is convinced tablet publications are the future: "A lot of publishers are thinking hard about [publishing on tablets], and a lot of publishers aren't thinking hard about it and are just madly trying to get their content out to these devices," he says.

It's a platform for eReader content, but you can extend it to a lot more

As for further plans, besides Windows 8 support the company is looking to apply the Pugpig framework to more than just newspaper and magazines. "It's not just a pure eReader,” he says. “It's a platform for eReader content, but you can extend it to a lot more.

“There are so many content owners out there, whether it's a law firm, or a financial services company, or the government - they have all this content, and they're trying to disseminate it either to their staff, or to their customers."

It’s a big ambition, but Kaldor - the company, not the man - seems well-placed: it has all the tech in place, plenty of connections and working apps already being sold. Now all it needs to do is for the public to catch on to this publishing revolution.

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Elliot Bentley

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JAX Magazine - 2014 - 03 Exclucively for iPad users JAX Magazine on Android

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