Review: Interweave’s new eMag, SpinKnit

I’ve just spent the morning with Interweave’s new eMag SpinKnit, due to be released on Friday, 12/3/2010. I’m a weird combination of reader in that I both love and hate digital content. I worked for 15 years in information technology, primarily dealing with electronic publishing, and then I left that career to focus instead on writing about and teaching people how to engage in the millennia-old technology of spinning yarn by hand. Why? Because one of the major things I learned in my high-tech career was that the preservation and distribution of knowledge is hard, and technology has limits for achieving those goals. Despite many advances, for some things, nothing can rival in-person instruction, and for long-term archival, there’s still nothing that beats ink on paper, a technology that’s lasted thousands of years.

So, I regarded SpinKnit with a mix of skepticism and excitement. Here’s my overall take.

SpinKnit, like Interweave’s other eMags, is a platform-dependent product. It’s a standalone application that depends on the Adobe AIR environment, which means when you buy a copy, you must choose if you want it for Windows or Mac. It isn’t available for operating systems that don’t support Adobe AIR. This has pluses and minuses; instead of thinking of SpinKnit as being like an ebook or an online magazine, think of it as an app that includes all its content and the means to view it on your chosen platform.

One thing this means is that it’s large, and takes a while to download — it took me about 45 minutes on my full T1. That’s long enough to derail the sense of instant gratification one has with buying an ebook or subscribing to web-based content, putting this more in line with downloading TV episodes or movies. But unlike a video, once downloaded, SpinKnit can be read and navigated in a way that feels very much like reading a magazine; and unlike much video content streamed from the Internet, the resolution and playback are excellent, well-integrated with the text. Neither text nor video seems like an afterthought or a supplement — this is well-made multimedia content.

That’s where the product really gets exciting, both as a reader and as someone who teaches the subject at hand. When describing tactile, dynamic processes, like handspinning, in words, you have to use a lot of them to really get at what you’re describing, and it’s never a sure thing that your message gets across, even when you include lots of pictures. Well-integrated video content changes that profoundly. In this
product, a content producer can say “And then it’s like this, see? Watch the video, it’s right here,” and the viewer can say “Ohhhh, I get it, it goes like that!”

But the medium alone doesn’t make that happen; you need people who really know the subject, who really have a depth of experience in communicating it, to choose topics, put the content together, and deliver it in approachable and meaningful ways. In the fiber arts publishing world, absolutely nobody beats Interweave founder Linda Ligon when it comes to doing just that, and Interweave is full of people, like SpinKnit editor Anita Osterhaug, who are likewise brilliant at bringing their topics to life.

While Interweave’s print magazine, Spin-Off, has for decades been the cornerstone of the North American handspinning community, and I literally grew up waiting for each issue to arrive, I found myself lingering far longer on SpinKnit than I usually do on Spin-Off content. Why? Because where, in reading print, I would be thinking, “Man, I wish
I could see that happen,” with SpinKnit, I could do just that. Before I knew it, my entire morning was gone, and I was eager to call my colleagues and tell ’em, “You’ll want to check this out.”

Not all my skepticism has vanished, though. Digital content remains a challenging field, one where all the problems aren’t technical and where, for many of them, there aren’t clear solutions. From experience, I know that in a decade, the platforms for which SpinKnit was developed may no longer be available or supported, and that there are no
guarantees it’ll always be easy, or even possible, to access this content. However, the same can be said for buying music or movies — content with a similar price point to SpinKnit. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any of them digitally, even if there is a chance I’ll someday have to buy the content again for another platform. It’s no different from
buying another copy of The White Album or replacing the HD DVDs I bought when it wasn’t clear BluRay would win out — just issues faced by content consumers everywhere in the digital age.

All in all, SpinKnit is an ambitious and daring product, and one I find very exciting and full of potential. The software developer and system administrator in me views it warily, like she views all software after decades of experience; but the handspinning teacher in me is purely gleeful and eager to see more. The latter wins — I’ll be recommending SpinKnit to anyone who’ll listen.