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Virgin's iPad-only mag shows future of publishing

Richard Branson has gone back to his roots by publishing an iPad-only magazine entitled Project.

The Virgin boss started his illustrious career at the age of 16 when, despite being horribly dyslexic, he set up a school magazine. The beardy billionaire cut his teeth in the music industry by buying job lots of cheap vinyl recordings in France and flogging them at discount prices via mail order in the UK severely undercutting the likes of WH Smiths. Using the cash he generated from this venture and his first retail store in London's Oxford Street, he brought a crumbling pile of a house in Oxfordshire and equipped it with a recording studio.

It was here that Virgin Records recorded Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells which went on to sell as many as 17 million copies worldwide and set Branson on the path to business super-stardom.

Now it seems that the notorious self publicist's world has come full circle with the worldwide launch of Project, an iPad lifestyle magazine created by Virgin Digital Publishing.

What makes Project unique is that, unlike its iPad-centric contemporaries like FHM, Esquire and T3, it has no traditional print version. Every other commercial magazine on the iTunes Store has a made-from-trees equivalent.

Whilst many other iPad publications feel like an afterthought - a cobbled-together collection of post-production PDFs in some cases - Project makes the most all of iOS4's bells and whistles in an attempt to create a truly interactive experience.

One early reviewer has compared the magazine's animated pages to the newspapers and posters featured in the Harry Potter movies, another enthusing, "I was greeted by an animated introduction that for once is pertinent to the content."

The first issue, which is available now on iTunes, costs £1.79. According to Virgin, that price covers a full month of 'daily updated content' though it remains to be seen what that content will be.

The current issue contains an interview with Hollywood renaissance man Jeff Bridges complete with audio and video clips, and more than a few plugs for the remix of eighties kids classic Tron currently doing the rounds.

Backing up The Dude's ramblings are a look at Jaguar's 205mph hypercar, a 3D tour of Tokyo and... a moronic canoeist.

We'll be taking a closer look at the content of the first issue in another article, but for now I can't help but wonder what impact this first iPad only magazine and subsequent offerings from other publishers will have on the existing magazine industry.

Traditional publishers have been quaking at the prospect of the Internet onslaught for years now, but many seem to have cleverly ridden the digital wave. Those who have embraced the on-line world appear, on the whole, to have fared better than those who stuck rigidly to their paper and ink guns, finding that rather than diluting their own sales, having an Internet presence has acted as an effective marketing tool.

For many, buying a magazine is an impulse purchase, and being familiar with a publication's content through reading Internet equivalents is a powerful factor when it comes to choice.

While it's true that many venerable publications have fallen victim to the Internet phenomenon, an equal number have seen physical sales bolstered by a strong on-line presence.

But until now the sheer portability of a printed magazine has been its strongest selling point. Grabbing a copy of Snail Fancier Monthly at the airport or train station at the start of a long and tedious journey is very convenient. You might even leave it on the plane or train when you're done with it for someone else to enjoy. Doing this with an iPad is not recommended.

The future of publishing is tablet-shaped
I can't help thinking the days of the printed magazine might be numbered. It could take five years, or even ten, but I can see a time when the tablet PC in its manifold flavours is as ubiquitous as the mobile phone.

It's only a matter of time before the majority of airlines start offering proddable wireless slates to passengers as an alternative to difficult-to-repair seat-back entertainment systems. Anyone who has suffered a 13-hour flight in the only seat on the aircraft with a broken screen will agree. Several trials have already taken place.

Allowing people to access existing newspaper or magazine subscriptions, or letting them pay a pound or so for the latest issue, will soon be as simple as buying a cup of coffee. Biometric payment methods will smooth the process with a quick thumbprint or retinal scan enough to get the cash out of your bank and into the publisher's.

Having previously worked in the printed magazine industry for more than two decades, I will be truly sad to see its inevitable demise. I love the physical heft and flexibility and even the smell of a well-crafted magazine. Seeing an issue I had grafted over sitting on newsagent's shelf still gave me a tangible sense of pride right up until the day I upped sticks and moved over to the dark side of all things Interwebby. But all good things must come to an end.

There will always be a niche market for high-quality, high-price magazines reproduced on gravure presses. The kind of magazines which nestle on the coffee tables of people with £100 haircuts for a year or more.

But I'm afraid that Mr Branson's foray into the digital publishing market might just signal the death knell for magazine publishing as we know it.