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Richard Branson's quest for shiny iPad stardom

It might not be as lofty a challenge as creating a space tourism industry, but Branson's Virgin Group has its work cut out for it in the launch of Project, a visually stunning iPad-only magazine.

Richard Branson poses in front of the Manhattan flagship Apple Store with newsprint-covered mannequins to promote the launch of Project, his new iPad-based magazine.
Caroline McCarthy/CNET

NEW YORK--There must be something squirreled away in the human brain that is hard-wired to go absolutely bonkers at the sight of anything that's shiny, slick, and begging to be touched. That, after all, is how Apple CEO Steve Jobs sells products.

But an iPad is only as good as the things you can do on it, and in this sense the device is implicitly a bit of a challenge, an Everest to climb or an English Channel to swim, for developers and entrepreneurs: What can you do on this? How can you take advantage of the features it offers--the touch screen, the accelerometer, the Internet connection--to tap into that human desire for all things slick and tactile? Will you succeed?

Leave it to Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson--the man who wants to revolutionize the consumer airline industry on multiple continents, take tourists into space, and save the planet--to add Jobs' challenge to his to-do list. On Tuesday morning at the trendy Crosby Street Hotel, he took to the stage in a screening room to unveil Project, a monthly iPad-based publication that he calls "the first truly digital magazine for creative people about creative people."

Developed in collaboration with U.K. digital shop Seven Squared, Project is a flashy, multimedia-filled affair that requires a little bit of time to build familiarity. Swipe up and down to flip between "pages" of the same article, swipe left-to-right to switch articles, click at the bottom of the screen for links back to the table of contents and the "library" of Project issues (which cost $2.99 apiece), and keep an eye out for pop-up surprises like lists of Web links, video and audio clips, and cues for wacky ways to fool around with the images. One article in the premiere issue, about farm-to-table chefs in restaurants around the world, has a title page covered in "dirt"--rub it away on the iPad's touch screen, and you'll see the title. A feature about touring Tokyo is accompanied by a 3D flyover of Google Earth and time-lapse photography of clouds rolling over the cityscape as night falls.

The cover of the debut issue of Project. Project

On the video "cover" of the first Project issue is actor Jeff Bridges, star of the upcoming film "Tron: Legacy," accompanied by flickering lights and static and an ambient electronic humming not unlike the background noise that runs through much of the film "The Social Network." The article about Bridges himself (entitled "DUDE, SERIOUSLY" in a nod to his role as "The Dude" in the cult film "The Big Lebowski") features the actor walking slowly across a beach as waves crash in trippy accelerated motion behind him.

It's beautiful and speedy (though the download time for an issue tops 10 minutes, the actual experience has little lag time) with all the visual allure of an aquarium of bright tropical fish and the tactile appeal of a sandbox. The obvious issue, of course, is whether the high-tech ornamentation is so much that it actually detracts from the fact that this is, at its core, a magazine--and magazines are meant to be read. The articles themselves, as well as the messages in the souped-up advertisements for brands like Lexus and Panasonic, can come across as afterthoughts when there's so much audio-visual distraction. It's not clear whether the digital world's massive case of attention-deficit disorder will be a good or bad thing for Project.

(A counterpoint to this, in turn, could be the hand-wringing a few decades back over whether computer-generated effects would kill high-quality cinema.)

The media absolutely adores Richard Branson, as evidenced by the number of broadcast and still cameras poking their lenses around during Tuesday's presentation. Particularly in Branson's native U.K., they've made the whole affair into something worthy of Project's own shiny digital pages, too: an alleged horse race with News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, whose own tablet publication "The Daily" is reportedly launching before the end of the year. Never mind that comparing a daily newspaper to a monthly culture magazine is a bit incongruous; these two billionaires absolutely must be feuding!

Branson seemed eager to shoot these allegations down while, that penchant for the slick and salacious likely ticking away in his own mind, courting the idea of a rivalry.

"I've read quite a bit in the past few days about a battle I've launched with a certain newspaperman. This is not a battle, it's not a war, it's the future of publishing," Branson said. "If people would like to call it a battle, we'll accept that battle as a battle on quality, and I think once you see our competition you'll agree that our team wins, hands-down. It's all about choice, but a fair bit of competition doesn't hurt."

Later, he referred to Virgin's executives as "cheapskates," highlighting that the publication only has about 20 full-time employees, and added that they "definitely haven't got a Rupert Murdoch-style advertising budget."

Indeed, Project's marketing is primarily of the "guerrilla" variety, with Virgin installing odd newsprint-covered mannequins in different locations in major cities, with USB filed "drops" attached that offer access to materials for a contest to design future Project cover art. It's a strategy quite in keeping with the jet-setting creative thinkers whom Project hopes to court as its readership. The highbrow audience is one thing that Branson implied will set Project apart from its News Corp. counterpart: "I have intelligence based on 30 years of reading News of the World and other newspapers that they publish," he said in reference to Murdoch's affinity for the lowbrow, "that quality-wise, I think, on quality--we'll be willing to be judged."

One outlet that likely doesn't see much rivalry is Apple, which has reportedly been helping out both The Daily and Project as the two publications prepare to launch. As wholly digital publications, they're some of the first big showcases of the iPad's potential as savior of the beleaguered publishing industry. So Apple, for obvious reasons, wants these ventures to succeed. Some media outlets have even tossed about the rumor that Apple has some kind of stake in The Daily.

"I don't believe that Jobs has an investment in The Daily, but I may be mistaken," Branson said on Tuesday. "Nor does he in this project, but I think he's very supportive of both." Indeed, Apple vice president of product marketing Michael Tchao, who began his second stint at Apple last year while development of the iPad was in full steam (his original role at Apple had been in the early '90s on its failed Newton device), was in the audience as Branson unveiled Project.

But even the seal of approval from Apple doesn't guarantee success--especially since Project's team has said that other tablet platforms will eventually become part of their strategy, something that loosens the currently-close ties to the iPad manufacturer.

"If bloggers don't like it we'll be dead very quickly," Branson admitted with regard to Project's relatively slim marketing budget and reliance on word-of-mouth buzz.

And if he fails in this quest, he's obviously got a few more big projects (pun intended) to tackle. Like, you know, space travel.