The Magazine of the Future (on floppy disk!)

More than 20 years before the iPad, an entrepreneur saw the potential of interactive, digital magazines

Editor John Henson of The New Aladdin floppy disk magazine
Editor John Henson of The New Aladdin floppy disk magazine Disk Publications, 1987

In 1987, a small Dallas-based company launched a floppy disk magazine that was supposed to be a grand experiment in the future of the medium. At $19.95 an issue, The New Aladdin was a bi-monthly general-interest magazine that hoped to give readers an entirely new kind of interactive experience; complete with animated graphics, computer games, music, puzzles, and feature stories that allowed you to ask questions.

And though you couldn’t “wrap a dead fish in it,” the magazine hoped to make up for this short-coming with fancy 8-bit graphics. The New Aladdin editor John Henson is pictured above, recording a scene in miniature for the magazine.

From an Associated Press story in the June 27, 1987 Galveston Daily News (Galveston, TX):

The magazine is two disks in a case with a label on it that looks like a miniature magazine cover. The sophisticated artwork is in a style reminiscent of The New Yorker magazine. Insert a 3 1/2-inch disk in a disk drive and an image of Aladdin pops up on the screen seated next to a lamp billowing smoke where tiles of stories appear and then fade with the push of a button.

This was to be more than a passive magazine-reading experience. As the July-August, 1987 issue of The Futurist magazine explains:

How does it work? One sample magazine story might be about how to refinance your home. With most magazines, you would have to read hypothetical stories that may not apply to your own situation. But with The New Aladdin, you plug your own facts and figures into the story to find out precisely how much refinancing your home would cost and how much it may save you in the future. Another possibility is to conduct your own “press conference” with the president of the United States, asking the questions you want answered.

The AP story elaborates a bit on what a virtual presidential press conference looks like:

In a recent issue, The New Aladdin carried a cover story that was a spoof on a presidential news conference with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. “Meet the Pres” starts with the music “Hail to the Chief” and allows readers to ask an animated Reagan questions from a list and to create their own. They also can respond to questions from Reagan about the press. The Reagans talk to the reader, mouths moving with sentences rolling out of them, word by word. Some of the answers are taken from actual press conferences, others are creative satire.

It sounds like some of their experiments may have worked better than others. The article in The Futurist describes one story that sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure, minus the whole “choosing your own” thing. There were 65,000 different possible versions of the story:

For a fictional story in one issue, five writers contributed a different version of a story developed form a master outline. The computer randomly assembled the paragraphs, so the reader could enjoy a different story each time it appeared. More than 65,000 different versions of the story were possible, says Henson. The magazine also features animated graphics, computer games, and puzzles.

The AP story also explains that they’re targeting a mass market, attempting to make it as user friendly as possible.

No knowledge of computers is necessary to read the stories or respond to them — they work with the push of a button or the movement of a “mouse” hand controller on Commodore Amiga computers, Atari ST computers and Atari 8-bit computers. Magazines programmed for the Apple IIg will be available soon.

It was obviously difficult to define this new form of publishing, as editor John Henson told The Futurist:

“It’s a magazine; it’s software; it’s a video game; it’s literature,” says Henson. “Content-wise, we are a family entertainment and information journal. The New Aladdin has similarities to everything from a news magazine to a science-fiction digest to a children’s book. But because the user can interact with The New Aladdin, that makes it fundamentally different from any printed publication.”

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