Pretty layouts, glossy paper, and alluring subject matter will get you in the door, but if the content’s not there (and boy is it not), you’re going to have a rough go of it. I’m looking at the March-April 2011 edition of iPhone Life that I picked up for free at Macworld, and ouch. It doesn’t bode well when you have to augment your periodical’s title (“+iPad & iPod Touch”). Presumably they’ll keep throwing names up there until Apple stops introducing devices or they run out of space on the cover.

Started flipping through and the ads look nice. The Editor’s lead commentary runs down what the issue covers rather blandly, but it’s the same sort of schtick every month, so I’m always inclined to cut slack there.

The “Meet our writers….” and iPhone Life Staff page is rather amateurish. A number of writers have professional head shots, but several look like they’re out on the beach surfing, one appears to be a mime, one is holding his kid, and another is driving in his car. The author descriptions are similarly disparate. The first fellow is a “Systems test and integration engineer” and you think, “Super! He’ll know what he’s talking about.” But then we get a freelance blogger, a “technology enthusiast,” and an “uber-cool soccer mom of four.” Methinks there might be a problem in the vetting of writers.

So it’s with skeptical eye that I turned to the first column, the “Social Media Report,” entitled “Using Social Media apps for Customer Service.” Really, it was just poorly named. It should have been “Using Twitter and Hootsuite for Customer Service.” But the article did close with what appears to be a theme:

I would love to know how you use your iPhone and iPad for customer service. Feel free to post directly to our Facebook page to continue this conversation.

This is intriguing in two ways. First, an author rarely ends a piece with a call for help. While it’s certainly fine to acknowledge that one can’t and doesn’t know everything about a topic, the job of the writer is to learn and share, not plead for assistance. Take that offline and do your research. Second, this is not a conversation. There is no two-way dialogue to continue. You may start a dialog on Facebook if you like and if others choose to pipe up, but this is not that since no one was quoted in the column and it wasn’t a Q & A.

In the reader mail section, a reader writes asking for iPhone Life to institute a star rating system on their reviews. The Publisher/Executive Editor answers:

In theory, I agree with your suggestion for a rating system. However, in practice, the engineer in me finds star ratings too subjective and inconsistent. We have at least 20 authors per issue, and it would be very difficult to standardize star ratings and to a lesser extent pros and cons about every product. Further, given that there are 200,000 apps in the App store, if we write about it in our magazine, chances are it’s a top app, so the difference between 3 and 4 stars wouldn’t be meaningful.

You think, “Great answer! He agrees that star ratings are nice but explains why it doesn’t make sense for the magazine. Perfect.” But then he tacks on this:

“Having said that, a rating system is an ongoing discussion, and eventually likely you will see it here.”

What the heck? You just finished elaborating why it didn’t work for your publication! So your answer to a star rating system is “yes, no, yes”? If this is the level of backbone coming from the publisher, I dare say all is lost. Don’t be afraid to offend your readers. Or minimally, disagree with them politely. Good Lord, man, it’s your magazine.

We turn then to the lead article, the one the cover touts as answering the question, “Next iPad: Still the best?” Now this is unknowable. Apple hasn’t released iPad 2 and they don’t talk about future products. So that’s a tall order to fill unless you have insider information. As you might have guessed, they don’t. Instead, we get a run through of what Apple rumors sites and pundits have speculated that a next generation iPad might have and a comparison to other tablets all of which are vaporware except for the Samsung Galaxy Tab. In other words, we’re comparing a hypothetical tablet against other hypothetical tablets excepting the Galaxy Tab, which runs a non-tablet operating system and which “many users complained…felt like a big phone.” Excellent. Good article. Let’s tackle how many angels on the head of a pin next.

How to conclude when purporting to answer the unanswerable? Here you go:

This is definitely the year of the tablet, but the big question is, will Apple still be on top when the year comes to a close? With over fifty competing tablets looking to take a market share, the iPad will have some stiff competition. Will other platforms be able to challenge Apple’s App Store lead in both iPad optimized apps as well as compatible iPhone/iPad touch apps? Will the next generation of iPad come out with any unexpected features? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure…It’s going to be an exciting year for tablets!

Yes, the tablets I’ve talked with are all very excited. And to answer your questions: Yes, no, and probably. Thanks for your help in sorting through that, “Enterprise Editor.” I see from your bio that you “strongly believe in the technology not for the sake of technology, but rather to improve capability and efficiency,” a stand for which you should be applauded in the face of a world that takes a diametrically opposed view. For who among us—other than the Enterprise Editor—doesn’t say to himself, “I need a technological gizmo that will do nothing for me, that neither improves what I can do nor how quickly I can do it. In short, I need to have this gizmo simply because it is a gizmo.” A brave stand, indeed. I can’t wait to read what you write next.

And there it is on page 18: “Apple’s Innovative Evolution: How Apple is facing the ‘innovator’s dilemma.” The Enterprise Editor graces us again:

In 1997, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen wrote a book entitled The Innovator’s Dilemma in which he described a phenomenon where new technologies have a tendency to be quite disruptive in the market. Market leaders are focused on meeting the needs of their existing customers through incremental improvements in existing technologies, leaving the door open for new market entrants to leverage disruptive technologies. The disruptive technologies might initially only be attractive to a small, niche, or low-end sections [sic] of the market, but once they begin to mature and gain traction in the market, they can overtake the existing technologies with the previous market leader unable to do anything about it.

That’s a powerful idea (not his, of course), horribly written (absolutely his words). Are they paying you by the word? Let’s see what we can do with paragraph one:

In 1997, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma. He described how some new technologies can be quite disruptive in the market. Market leaders meet the needs of existing customers through incremental technological improvement, allowing market entrants an opening with revolutionary technology that initially only appeals to small or low-end customers. Once these technologies mature, they can quickly gain market traction leaving the previous market leader unable to compete.

That’s an admittedly imperfect quick fix, but it reads a lot better and, I should note, I’m not the Enterprise Editor for a national publication. The larger problem is that nobody cares particularly that some Harvard Prof wrote a book. It’s not the worst lead in the history of journalism, that quaint now-much-scorned academic discipline, but it’s not Edward R. Murrow either. So a better start might be something like:

In 1896 my great grandfather travelled from Montana to Oregon by covered wagon in a hard and somewhat dangerous journey of two weeks. Years later, he would fly the same distance in the relaxed comfort of an airplane in the span of just two hours. This is a story about Apple, technological change, and about what happens to the builders of today’s covered wagons.

Is that more compelling? I think so. It transports the reader a bit, at least a few of whom are likely saying, “Thank God. Not another iPhone app review.” More importantly, it draws the reader in while describing what the story is going to be about. I can write about technological change and Apple and iPhones, no problem. I’ve gotten the reader to at least the next paragraph without inducing narcolepsy, and I’ve probably decent chance at getting him to read several more paragraphs as well. Maybe the whole thing if I don’t mess it up.

Anyway, we get to the end of the piece and what do you suppose we find? Questions? But of course:

…What does Apple have planned next? Will they bring the simplified iOS to a laptop form-factor like the MacBook Air? Will the app revolution invade the living room with an iOS-based Apple TV? Since only Steve Jobs knows, we will all just have to wait and see.

Now that may be the single worst conclusion to an article I’ve ever read because it prompts one further question from the reader: Why on God’s green earth did I read this?

That in mind, I flipped through the rest of the magazine and watched as the quality of the various app reviews and articles bounce up and down. How could this be? Well, the answer is at and it goes like this: “Up front, please understand that we don’t pay authors.” Excellent. So what level of objectivity can we expect authors and, more importantly, reviewers to have? If I’m an iPhone app developer, like it turns out the Enterprise Editor is, why don’t I just have my brother/friend/cousin/mom write a review of my work for you because, you know, they really like it. Best thing since covered wagons. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening; I’m saying that’s what could happen based on the non-payment policy in place. You can’t argue, after all, that you’re paying your authors to be objective.

So I appreciate the free issue at Macworld, but no, I don’t think I’ll be subscribing.