Remember the fanfare when Wired launched its first iPad app, and the frenzy that ensued once Conde Nast announced it had been downloaded over 100,000 times? 

Publishers need to swallow the fact that Wired’s success was an anomaly, and it isn’t likely to be repeated unless the current app development and pricing strategies change dramatically.

The proof? According to stats from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), iPad app sales for the top publishers, including Wired, declined over the course of 2010. 

So what happened? Why aren’t magazine publishers’ iPad apps living up to the hype?

Despite the claims, iPad magazines aren’t really worth much more than their print counterparts (at least in their current iterations) 

Monday Note’s Frédéric Filloux sums it up quite nicely: 

I began to harbor some doubts when traveling to the United States: I realized that, instinctively, I was picking up the very same magazines at newsstands. With the product available at the right combination of time, price and location at nearby kiosks, having it on my iPad suddenly lost its appeal.

Print “on steroids” isn’t good enough 

Though most iPad magazines offer the ability to watch videos, and click or swipe links and ads, for the most part, the reading experience still isn’t quite “interactive.” Per Filloux: 

A (retroactively obvious) fact emerges: a magazine designed for print is much better on, ahem … paper than on bits. The browsing experience, the photographs, even the sensation of reading long form articles are all more enjoyable on a physical glossy.

Publishers lured themselves into thinking electronic convenience plus a dash of add-ons would fill the gap between paper and tablet. Nope, they didn’t. Once ubiquitous availability removed the storage advantage (which only appeals to the road-warriors segment), the magazine on paper won. 

At best, iPad magazines feel like touch-enabled PDFs; at worst, they resemble interactive CD-ROMs “from the 1990s.” That’s why there was so much interest around Flipboard; it actually brought new functionality to the iPad reading process. 

Magazine publishers need to figure out how to build social-sharing and other interactive tools into their apps, and make it feel organic, if they’re going to be successful. It’s a tough, expensive lesson to learn, especially since there’s no real data available about what’s working.

Perhaps publishers will use some of the research emerging about the most engaging kinds of iPad ads, to help influence the development of their apps.  

Apps are too expensive to sustain reader interest 

It also comes down to pricing. In some cases, iPad versions of publications can be more expensive than their print counterparts.

Sure, there’s the possibility of having two or three back-issues of a favorite magazine available on demand but aside from specific targets like business travellers, how many people actually need that storage? 

Without quantifiable additional value, which clearly, consumers aren’t getting with the current iteration of iPad magazines, so what’s the incentive for them to pay a premium? 

Publishers must keep innovating

With a rumored new iPad launch later this year, and dozens of tablets to premiere at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Vegas this week, there’s no way that publishers will give up on trying to create better magazine apps.

Let’s just hope that the declining iPad app sales are inspiring them to come up with more innovative, interactive, and valuable experiences.