For much of the last two years, or since the importance of the tablet category (read: iPad) became apparent, traditional magazine companies have been scrambling to convert to digital editions that work well. It’s been harder than one might have thought.

One issue is the business model. As with other digital delivery platforms, figuring out how to charge for intellectual property in a non-paper format on tablets has been tricky. Consumers are understandably fickle when it comes to digital magazines as they’re used to getting a lot of this kind of stuff for free online, even though they pay for it on paper. In contrast the paper magazine model has worked well for more than a century.

Publishers, retailers and advertisers developed a paper delivery channel that has stood the test of time. Until now.

Tablet advertising has also been difficult to fathom. Theoretically a digital magazine offers great flexibility, with many additional whizz-bang features such as video, tactile interactivity, location-based services, etc. Practically, however, few advertisers have been paying extra for these add-ons. In fact, most advertising pages found in magazine apps are simply print ads, often just a PDF rerun. Here and there smallish bits of interactivity can be found, but it’s not thenorm.

This may not be a bad thing. It actually seems as if consumers aren’t as interested in immersive digital trickery as what media and advertising fundis thought. Perhaps they prefer non-intrusive digital magazines, well presented, yes, but not too fancy-zancy or over the top.

Apple to the rescue

When Apple introduced its Newsstand folder as part of iOS 5, it instantly improved many of the first-generation magazine apps. These apps could now be optimised for i-devices, with developer assistance from Apple to improve user experience and to provide a similar app functionality for different magazines.

The result has been great, as digital magazine app creators have had to adapt to best practise for Apple devices. One such feature that’s hugely convenient is that magazines are downloaded in the background when your iPad or iPhone is in a Wi-Fi area. Your latest issue is therefore readily available. (Nowadays Apple also requires optimised art for the retina display of the new iPad.)

In addition, Apple defined the consumer business model. It forced publishers into Newsstand and it takes a cut of all purchases (through the App Store). Not all publishers were happy about

this retail stance and refused to join, but it’s worked so well that even latecomer The Economist compromised and has now been available via Newsstand since end-March this year. (It became a quick favourite, mainly due its uncluttered, easy-to-read format, similar on both iPad and iPhone.)

In Newsstand, my favourites now include The Economist, Fast Company, Wired, The New Yorker and The Social Media Magazine.

It’s expected that the Newsstand folder will improve further when the new iOS 6 is released soon.

Bouquet buying on the up

For consumers not part of the Apple ecosystem, freestanding magazine apps have been pretty messy, but not anymore. Mirroring digital pay television models, bouquet buying of digital magazines is on the rise.

A just-launched new subscription app called Next Issue offers massive discounts on individual titles for a monthly subscription fee. The app works on iPad and Android tablets.

I reckon outside of Apple, this bulk-buying trend is creating the foundation for how magazine apps will increasingly be sold.

What the future holds

Similarly to how retailers control access to paper-based magazines in the physical world, digital intermediaries such as Apple and Next Issue (as well as the boring old static Zinio app and others), are configuring the new distribution models for magazines. It’s noteworthy that just like magazine companies do not in general own retailers, they will most likely also not own their own digital distribution platforms in isolation. They’ll probably work together in bouquet stores and distribute via third-parties. In other words, the new digital models are shaping up to be similar to existing ways of doing business, albeit in non-physical forms.

I suspect magazine advertising is going the same way. Delivered on digital platforms, but essentially similar to how the system works in the real world.

As they say, the more things change…