Project magazine is off to a good start.

Update: Well, as I often do when I have had a chance to use a product for a while, I have changed my opinion on the Project magazine/app for the iPad. Content is truly king and, in my opinion, Project has so far fallen short. When the first issue was released, it came with the promise that the stories would see some sort of regular updates throughout the month until the next issue was released. Apart from blog-style comments I didn’t see any changes to the stories in the first month and it took the publishers nearly a month and a half to release issue number two.

Given that they took so long to put together the second issue, I was hopeful that the content would be worth the wait. On the contrary, the content in issue 2 is even less interesting than the first. Their cover story is on celebrity and supposed adventurer Bear Grylls. My dislike of the story is probably personal preference for the large part, but given Grylls’s checkered history when it comes to keeping it real on his “reality TV,” I would expect at least a brief mention or a question allowing him to explain the discoveries that he was bunking in hotels instead of snow caves. Nada. Instead, it sounded like the writer had a pretty serious man crush.

Another thing that concerns me is that the publishers seem to have little respect for their readers. The letters to the editor section was shocking. Most of the notes from readers were scathing reviewed of the content and layout. Instead of simply stating that they were listening and maybe acknowledging that improvements were in store, the editors flat out mocked and ridiculed the people who had taken the time to share their opinion.

Sad. It was an exciting experiment, but a failed one as far as I am concerned. I bought two issues, but will not buy another unless I hear about drastic changes on the Project front. Until then, I think that RSS readers like Pulse will continue to take the lead and fit in much better with the iOS ecosystem and letting users zero in on the content and apps that are tailor made for them.

I knew it would take some time for publishers to warm up to the idea of porting their print publications over to a digital format. Even with that understanding, however, I’ve been very frustrated with the digital magazine offerings available on the iPad to date. For me, they’ve fallen into two categories. Most of them Zinio have just been flat repurposed versions of the printed magazine, sometimes with a little sprinkling of video here and there, but nothing that really reaches out and engages me as a reader. The file sizes have been huge and, worst of all, the prices of individual issues or subscriptions have usually been at least as expensive Zinio!as the old fashioned print media. Wired came pretty close, but their content and presentation still wasn’t enough to get me past their initial free issue.

The world just might have changed though, because Richard Branson has taken the same approach he seems to use with all the other kingdoms within his Virgin empire and realized that what people want is not just a repackaged version of something old. People didn’t buy an iPad because they wanted to flip through a PDF. They want something that is new and different and pushes the boundaries of what a mobile computer can do.

Enter Project magazine, the debut issue of which was released yesterday. Branson’s magazine addresses all of the issues I’ve had with iPad magazines and even throws in some extra goodies just for fun. To start off with, the reader app is free and monthly issues are priced at $2.99. There was no free issue, which would have been nice, but sales of new issues are handled in app and there is a flat preview of a few pages so you can get an idea of what’s inside. Even at $2.99, the price strikes me as a decent bargain, but Project ups the ante a bit by promising that existing content in each issue will be updated regularly between the monthly releases.

On the presentation side, the magazine is exactly what I had hoped for from an iPad magazine. You don’t even get past the front cover without realizing that you’re looking at something truly innovative. The debut issue features a moody, almost sinister, image of Jeff Bridges that features sound and flickers in a way that immediately tells you the story is about Bridges’ involvement with the reboot of Disney’s Tron franchise. You don’t even need to read the headline to get that message.

Dive into the issue and you find fresh, well written text complemented with interactive features that do everything from give you a 3D tour of Tokyo to show you video clips of beer commercials in an article chronicling the changing tastes of advertising.

I will say that it took me a few tries to appreciate the navigation scheme. There are certain elements on the page that look like they might be buttons but actually aren’t, so I spent a few minutes tapping on things just wondering if they were supposed to do something. The debut issue helpfully includes a “How To Use Project” section, but they might have done better including that as part of the overarching app rather than as page 3 of the debut issue. I started reading last night and didn’t even find the how to guide until this morning.

The social aspects of the magazine look promising. Right now you can click on a target icon to the right of every page that takes you to the Project Forum where you can read and leave comments on articles. There’s an option to share too, but right now all it does is take a snapshot of the screen you’re viewing at the time and email it along with a link to Project in the App store and to the magazine’s website.

Oh, and I should mention that they’ve done a very good job of designing the app so that pages look just as good whether you are viewing them in portrait or landscape.

Of course we all know that content is king. It doesn’t matter how cool the design is. If the articles aren’t interesting enough, people are never going to come back for more. I’ve only skimmed the magazine once and am about half way through with the serious reading, and so far I have to say I’m impressed. Project bills itself as being about design, entertainment, technology and entrepreneurs. Ever wonder what apps Vladimir Putin has on his iPad? It’s here. (eBay and Angry Birds, to name a few. Who knew?) The cover story on Jeff Bridges is well done and includes a bunch of audio clips tied to images where he gives his thoughts on various movies he’s been involved with. The content is fresh too. For a magazine that obviously relies heavily on graphics and digital production, not to mention the fact that they were working to put out their first edition, I expected that any news in there would be old news. Instead, the issue features an article on the escalating conflict in Korea. It’s not just something they stuck in at the last minute either, the article features enlightening information about the backstory and power players in North Korea, played out through an interactive graphic that introduces the characters as Russian nested dolls.

All in all, I’d say Project is definitely worth a look. There’s no option to subscribe yet. Not sure if that’s part of their business model or an indication that they themselves want to wait and see how things play out. Right now it’s only available for iPad, but they promise an iPhone version is coming soon. Text in the editor’s letter also hints at an Android version, so we’ll see.

Now all we need is for a guitar magazine to follow Project‘s lead…

Download Project from the App Store today.