tech, simplified.

On TypeEngine, Design Inspiration, and Publishing

In early January, I heard of a new startup - TypeEngine - on App.net, one that piqued my interest immediately. Daniel Genser and Jamie Smyth have set out to make a high quality system to let writers and publishers launch their own iOS Newsstand apps, without touching a line of code. As a writer and editor, I've found Newsstand to be an exciting potential for a new way to publish, but the need to make a full iOS app has made it far more challenging to consider actually making a Newsstand app. But, TypeEngine is setting out to level the playing field, so anyone could make their own Newsstand magazine as long as they can do the hard work of lining up quality content for their app.

TypeEngine is aiming to offer a platform to make simple, text-focused magazines, in a design similar to my theme here on Techinch.com as well as many newer blogs today. But then, it's also similar to Marco Arment's The Magazine, a new iOS Newsstand (and now web-based) magazine that's been the inspiration for many of us to try to make digital magazines. The Magazine is quite the awesome project, and I've been a subscriber for months and had planned to write about it this week since it launched web-based subscriptions. Marco and his team have done a great job putting together amazing content in a great app, and deserve the success they've achieved so far.

What's frustrating, though, is that TypeEngine is already getting criticism that its initial designs are too similar to The Magazine, enough that TypeEngine addressed them today in a newsletter. Marco then followed up on his blog with a mildly critical stance on TypeEngine.

But here's the thing: magazines aren't a new idea, just like newspapers aren't a new idea. Neither are blogs; they've been online for well over a decade now. Clean, single column designs with light backgrounds and sans serif fonts aren't unique either; they've been used in print in the past, are terribly popular on writing-focused blogs today, and are now being used in new iOS magazines, including The Magazine, upcoming magazines from TypeEngine, and undoubtedly many others. Even if we all blogged with the very same theme, it wouldn't mean we were all copying each other; after all, almost every newspaper worldwide looks very, very similar at first glance.

What must - and will - be unique is the content. TypeEngine is setting out to do for iOS publishing what WordPress did for web publishing. WordPress democratized publishing, making blogging accessible to anyone, no matter what their coding skills. You can fuss over it all you want, but it's a powerful piece of software that now powers sites from the smallest startup blog to Time Magazine's blogs. But that didn't take away anything from the early hand-coded blogs, and original bloggers such as Dave Winer have kept on blogging, even though the rest of us now can so easily star our own sites with WordPress or other blog engines without digging deep into code.

If TypeEngine does for mobile publishing what WordPress did - and is still doing - for web publishing, then that will be a huge success for everyone. I look forward to continuing subscribing to The Magazine and hopefully subscribing to more new magazines on different topics that can be launched, now that writers can focus on writing and still publish easily on Newsstand.

I find TypeEngine exciting in the same way I find blogging engines exciting, and as a writer, launching a magazine is an exciting new potential. That's why I got in touch almost immediately with TypeEngine about the potential of launching a magazine with them. Last month, Techinch was picked as one of TypeEngine's launch partners, and I'm currently planning on launching a digital magazine this year. So I'm not just a unaffiliated bystander, but then, neither is Marco.

I highly respect Marco's work on Instapaper and The Magazine, and that inspires me in my own work. But I don't feel like I'm ripping his work off by launching a magazine with a text-focused design with TypeEngine, any more than The Magazine is ripping off the Facebook iOS app which popularized left-to-right slide-out menus that The Magazine and countless other apps now use. Perhaps everything is a remix far more than we all want, but that doesn't mean we can't all be unique in our own work even while we get inspired by the work of others. That's what the Magazine's design is, and that's what most other app designs are, and yes, even my TypeEngine magazine will be inspired in some ways by The Magazine and other publishing efforts, including early 1700's newspapers.

Woe betides if I or anyone else copies the content in any other publication, or the precise design of another app or site. But no one has a monopoly on a clean, text focused design in an iOS app, any more than anyone has a monopoly on similar designs on the web.

Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter or App.net