Apple brews new News news to peruse - screws news dudes

If at first you don't succeed, burn it down and never speak of it again

WWDC 2015 Apple has burned its Newsstand app to the ground, and tried again with a new News application – one that tries to work with all publishers rather than a chosen few.

Speaking today at the iOS giant's annual developers conference in San Francisco, Susan Prescott, app product development veep, said News will be added to people's iPhones and iPads when they upgrade to iOS 9 later this year.

The new software is very similar to the popular Flipboard app in that you can flip through website articles and tap to read them, but with one big difference: Apple is still trying to control much of the content through its "Apple News format."

If you go to the trouble of reformatting your webpages or magazine into Apple's own proprietary format then it will look prettier, according to Prescott. (We lost track of the number of times that the only apparent advantage to this big effort was how "beautiful" it looked on the page.)

Apple appears to have learned from its previous Newsstand effort, in that the new software can pull in articles from across the internet, perhaps even El Reg.

What the company didn't talk about, though, was that it will try to drive subscriptions to those publishers that use the Apple format by offering specific "channels". Or that it will stick with the 30 per cent cut that it developed for the failed Newsstand app first launched back in 2011 with iOS5.

The News app looks promising. When you open it, it asks you what topics and publications you are interested in – exactly like Flipboard. Then it pulls together a personalized feed that you can flip through. You can also do a search and pull in new content. You can bookmark articles for later. Prescott said Apple has developed more than one million topics and that content is automatically scanned and entered into those topics.

Take a good look – this is the icon you may need to stick in that "Apple crap" folder when you upgrade to iOS9.

Lessons learned?

There was of course no explicit reference to Newsstand, but the lessons from its failure were written all over News.

Newsstand was an app bundled with iOS. Publishers had to provide their content in Apple's format to be allowed into the software, and once they had, they were stuck in there: there was no way for a user to lift their favorite publication out of it.

It was Apple's attempt to leverage its huge number of iPhone and iPad users to get money from the publishing industry. But in trying to control things, it added too many rules that scared off publishers.

For one, Apple controlled all the data, which is the publishers' bread-and-butter. Then it controlled how magazines could be received: there would be no sample issues, for example. Subscriptions had to go through Apple, and it kept a 30 per cent cut. Every time. Even when loyal readers simply resubscribed. Apple also sent irritating monthly billing reminders. And, of course, it stuck publishers in its own folder, a folder which large number of users simply shoved into their "Useless Apple stuff" folder along with iMovie, Keynote, Health, GarageBand, Passbook and so on.

In return for this terrible deal, publishers were required to reformat their product and content in a format of Apple's choosing.

So what's changed with News? Well, Apple has figured out that it can't keep content out and expect to be successful. So it pulls in content not in its own format (although you can bet it is still a curated list). It has also realized that it needs to provide content on a per-article rather than per-publication basis. So you will jump from one article in, say, Vogue to another in, say, the New York Times.

It has, however, stuck with its own app that it will force on all iOS users. It is hoping that app is liked, which it probably will be because it has largely ripped off Flipboard.

But it has pulled its Newsstand approach into the News app by trying to get publishers to publish in its format, and to push a subscription model through which it takes a 30 per cent cut. In return, publishers will get more heavily promoted in the app, and they will get their own "channel" within the app, which is less clunky that the app-within-an-app approach of Newsstand, and they may get a new revenue stream if the software takes off.

It not clear yet whether Apple has relaxed the other issues, such as those annoying billing updates. It is notable that it has however signed up the exact same people as it did when it launched Newsstand four years ago: The New York Times, Conde Nast etc. It has however added quite a few more publishers early on – who knows under what terms – in an effort to get more momentum behind it this time.

Likelihood of success?

If the app is good, if people decide to use it instead of their dedicated news apps, or Flipboard, if the traffic is there, then this could work for publishers. And that would make the app more useful over time, rather than it increasingly becoming a backwater, as happened with Newsstand.

But if the traffic isn’t there, or if Apple tries to exert too much control – which it nearly always does – then the publishers won’t bother to go to the trouble and expense of reformatting their work, the income stream will die off, and Apple will wonder why it has gone into the news app business. ®

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