Marco Arment is taking heat over comments made about TypeEngine — a new CMS/App that is coming out to allow individuals to publish periodicals on Newsstand. You can say it’s sub-compact publishing, or that it is The Magazine-like all you want, but he truth is, systems like TypeEngine look great, are in demand, and will likely be a boon for digital publishing. They are built to help great writers get paid, and be read.
That’s the truth. But the other truth was that The Magazine did it first.
Not first like Rio MP3 player first1 , but first like iPod first. As in: early enough, and substantially better than all other offerings, that we’ll eventually just remember the iPod as first when we look back decades from now.
So is TypeEngine a rip-off, kind of, but we can’t say that for sure until we see the execution on a larger scale. Should Marco Arment and crew be worried? Not yet, because there isn’t likely to be a publication popping up off of TypeEngine that can get the writers The Magazine has, let alone pay those writers $800 a pop (which is likely a large reason why the writers want to write for The Magazine).
Right now TypeEngine is giving users the ability to clone The Magazine if they want, but ultimately TypeEngine is trying to stay out of that fight. When you think about it, that’s a rather boring position to take.
One of the most interesting problems facing the web is design theft. During one of the design changes to this site I was emailed by a reader that wanted to copy my design, line by line, for his site — he was asking me for permission. I found this offensive and told the emailer so, to which he took exception.
In his mind, and likely in the mind of many, my “theft” (at the time) of the Daring Fireball business model (linked lists, articles, one ad, RSS sponsors) was a far worse offense than his theft of my design would be.2
I think that is what we are rubbing up against with TypeEngine, and other similar sub-compact publishing systems — that somehow the theft of the design is nothing, just so long as they don’t steal the business model. And to be clear, none of these offerings to date are stealing The Magazine’s business model, they are just enabling others to do so if they wish.
There isn’t a clear cut line here either. Dark text on a light background certainly isn’t a unique design, nor are red links3 , but the combination of all the elements as TypeEngine has screenshotted can hardly be looked at as anything other than Samsung, I mean copying, Copying.
But I would also caution that, as far as I can tell, the line between design theft and design inspiration on the web is drawn in sand on a good day, and often gets washed away and redrawn in a new spot on a daily basis. Which makes it very hard to call someone out for copying your design — hence the murky waters Arment finds himself in.
Mostly, as Arment says, these companies are focusing on the wrong thing: the tool.
Arment is right about the importance of quality editorial in attracting and maintaining a readership, but his argument about platforms is surprisingly out of touch. Platforms are of critical importance in any new era of publishing.
Sure the advent of Blogger, WordPress, and the likes also ushered in an era in which we have been bombarded with substandard writers filling up the Internet with pages of crap. But such software also allowed some great writers to emerge, and some of them have launched careers and created decent businesses because of it.
Bullshit. Utter bullshit.
The advent of WordPress or any other platform had fuckwithall to do with the success of great writers emerging — if you make that argument then you must make the same of word processors, typewriters, and on and on. It’s simply too shortsighted to argue that a platform, or any other tool, allowed anyone to emerge. It’s a combination of everything: tools, access, barrier to entry, willing and able readers, spellcheck, and on, and on.
And more to Mckenzie’s point, WordPress has nothing to do with TypeEngine. WordPress, Blogger, et al are free systems built atop a mostly free web which is freely accessed by the world (exception to China, North Korea, and on). TypeEngine, née, The Magazine, née, Newsstand, née, iOS is a closed and expensive platform. Great writing will not emerge because there is an easy way to all of a sudden publish to iOS readers AND charge them — such a tool isn’t even in the same league as blogging engines, or the printing press for that matter.
The tools used to create The Magazine are trivial, the hard part is finding good writers, editors, and finding the money to pay those good writers and editors.
Once you figure that out, people keep coming back. All TypeEngine is, is a blank page that will look like The Magazine — that’s a long way off from being The Magazine.