I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been rooting for iOS 9’s upcoming Apple News app to succeed. I’ve been a dedicated Reeder user since it debuted in the App Store, quickly dumped alternatives such as Flipboard and Pulse, and don’t need to change my daily news reading routine. But ever since Apple launched Newsstand in 2011, I’ve been waiting for a truly next-generation iOS news reading experience. Apple hasn’t just missed the boat on this; it actually sank the ship it launched, and lost a lot of talented sailors to rival companies that were developing digital book and magazine apps.

Having paid for Newsstand digital magazine subscriptions, I (like many people) was beyond disappointed when Apple abandoned Newsstand and the publishers who supported it. Newsstand was a great first step, and had the potential to become much better. Today, it seems obvious that Apple was hoping to coax Newsstand publishers over to its new app Apple News, but after testing iOS 9, I don’t think News is ready to replace Newsstand. Moreover, unless something major changes over the next few months, I’d be very surprised to see News succeed where Newsstand failed.

Whether it’s Apple or someone else (say, Amazon’s Kindle division), I’d like to see a bold company take the next big step and unify published content — at least traditional newspapers and magazines, and probably also traditional books and Internet-based publications — into a single Reading app with the best features of News, Newsstand, and iBooks. Below, I’ll explain why this would be a great next move for publishers, consumers, and Apple itself…

Who Creates News, And How

Historically, news periodicals were like albums: bundles of content that couldn’t be de-bundled for individual purchase. The Internet changed that, giving readers access to thousands of potential news sources and — thanks to search engines and RSS — the ability to consume individual articles from separate sources rather than getting all of their news in one place.

Today, the news publishing industry consists of newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Although they substantially overlap in many ways apart from their publishing frequency, they’re primarily distinguished from one another by the relative importance of text, photography, audio, video, and layout (graphic design) within their articles. Whereas a newspaper might be fine delivering bare text, each article in a magazine such as Vogue might be entirely reliant on photography and a specific layout. Web sites, by comparison, tend to rely on combinations of text, photography and/or videos, generally with at least some (if not complete) flexibility as to layout.

Who Creates Books, And How

Historically, getting a book published meant winning the approval of a publishing house, which would then invest money in editing, laying out, printing, distributing, and advertising the book, possibly also funding the actual writing and photography/illustrations contained inside. But just like newspapers and magazines, computers and the Internet eventually reduced publishing costs and challenges to the point that an independent individual author could handle everything — typically less than ideally, but well enough — without a publishing company’s backing.

Book publishing is a lot more like news publishing than you might guess. Some books are like newspapers, heavy on text and light on photography, with a minimal need for layout. Others are like magazines, requiring proper balances of text, photography, and layout. Each can technically be assembled by an individual but benefits from the expertise of a team. The major difference is that books are typically produced as one-offs, with no guarantee of a sequel, whereas newspapers, magazines, and news web sites are recurring “periodicals” by design. You don’t subscribe to a book, but you may want to follow the author or publishing company to see what else they produce.


What Apple’s iBooks + Newsstand Tried To Do

iBooks is the more successful of Apple’s digital reading ventures. Launched alongside the iPad in 2010, it created an on-device vault for digital replicas of visually-heavy art, photo, and cookbooks, an engine for displaying text-heavy books, and a store for purchasing books. Apple later added support for interactive scholastic textbooks, though the company took a huge PR hit when it was found guilty of conspiring to fix digital book prices, and has barely marketed its iBooks Store for years. Still, iBooks has evolved at least a little each year since it arrived in iPhone OS 3.2, and as a part of iOS 9, there’s no sign that it’s going away any time soon.

Introduced in iOS 5, Newsstand similarly attempted to embrace traditional newspapers and magazines for what they were — and add support for what they likely would want to be. As examples, Apple gave The New York Times and Time Magazine equal opportunities to craft digital interfaces that resembled their print publications, with individually-developed apps that could leverage iOS hooks to sell subscriptions, deliver complete “issues” rather than streams of articles, and visually notify readers know when new issues were available to read. Newspapers and magazines could choose to create “digital replicas” of their print editions, or offer reformatted/interactive versions optimized for Apple’s devices. Some web sites were excited enough by Newsstand that they signed up to create and distribute new magazines in the App Store.

Unfortunately, despite support from thousands of leading publications, and an untold number of subscribers around the world, Newsstand effectively collapsed. Apple unilaterally broke some of its core functionality in iOS 7, hobbling the notifications system and shifting to a flat, boring icon that obscured the publications inside. It also de-emphasized Newsstand-supported publications in the App Store, and appeared to be unwilling to resolve longstanding publisher complaints about subscriptions. As a final step, Apple completely removed the special Newsstand folder in iOS 9, leaving former Newsstand apps to fend for themselves in the App Store and find new ways to alert readers to updates.


What Apple News Is And Isn’t

Apple News is:

Apple News is not:

  • A replacement for printed or digital magazines
  • A place to subscribe to publications or buy books
  • A permanent repository for content, individual or otherwise
  • A consistent display format across devices

It’s important to understand that Apple News is indeed a publishing platform with its own format and specifications. Apple has seeded publishing companies with guidelines enabling the creation of articles with styled text, photo galleries, multimedia content, and iAds. If a publisher adopts Apple’s format, it can sell iAds within its News-formatted content and keep 100% of the proceeds. If not, the content is effectively stripped of whatever advertising the publisher surrounds it with on its web page, and Apple could sell ads against it. Since iOS 9 probably won’t be released until September, there are only a handful of Apple News-formatted pages on display right now within the beta version of the app.

Apart from the prospect of better-looking articles, however, the Apple News app isn’t exactly inspiring. You can create a collection of “Favorites” by specifying publications and topics that interest you, resulting in a grid of doorways that lead to Flipboard-style grids of RSS-scraped articles. Apple also lets you “Explore” collections of suggested publications and topics, drill down within some categories, and search seemingly all of the publications using a unified search engine — a non-trivial new feature that has the potential to be great over time. A tab called “For You” assembles a mish-mosh of recent articles supposedly tailored to your interests, and a Saved tab lets you recall either articles you’ve specifically marked for reading, or items in your reading history.

Notably, most of Apple News’s content isn’t available offline, which is to say that you need an active Internet connection both to acquire new content and read most of the content the app previously accessed. This is a major difference relative to Newsstand, which stored issues on your device for reading at any time, and a weakness that shows how News could and should be more.

In short, Apple News is currently just a glorified RSS reader with the option for news publishers to create and monetize better versions of their web content inside. It’s not terribly exciting, and given what happened with Newsstand, it’s hard to imagine that publishers will be rushing to fund News-formatted versions of most of their upcoming content, particularly if it will just disappear into the ether after a day or two like typical web pages.


What Apple News Should Be

My belief is that Apple News, Newsstand, and iBooks should effectively be merged into a single Reading app with the best characteristics of all three of Apple’s initiatives. Most of the pieces have already developed — it’s just a question of unifying a bunch of seemingly different types of reading materials within a single place. Just like TV shows, movies, music videos and home videos all live within a single iOS app called Videos, think of Reading as an app-based version of a Barnes & Noble bookstore (minus the old Nooks and awkward optical disc collections).

Newspapers, magazines, and news-focused web sites already have a lot more in common than not. They cover such similar content in such similar ways that most people today would be hard-pressed to completely distinguish them from one another. Books have a lot of overlap, as well. And as has been demonstrated by the market for Kindle Singles — short books and long magazine articles offered at low prices in digital format — as well as the growing popularity (love it or hate it) of fan fiction, the lines dividing web content, books, and periodicals are blurring. There’s no need to keep them in separate apps, or in separate stores.

A single Apple store selling digital books, newspapers, and magazines seems long overdue. Newspapers and magazines got short shrift in the App Store, and would be ideally positioned alongside other reading materials within an expanded Reading Store. Free but ad-supported publications could be offered alongside subscriptions and individual paid books, as well as out-of-copyright free classics, and podcast-like links to RSS feeds. Apple is already effectively doing all of these things already, across different apps and stores, so bringing them together wouldn’t be impossible. It could also be useful. Imagine reading a news story and seeing recommendations of books and magazines that could further your knowledge on the same topic — wouldn’t you consider buying one?

What sort of format should the books, newspapers, and magazines be in? Apple has already advanced its own interactive textbook and Apple News formats alongside the formats iBooks uses for eBooks, art/photo/cookbooks, and interactive textbooks, as well as the “anything goes” app formats newspapers and magazines were told to develop for Newsstand. Yes, it would be easier to have a single format across all forms of readable media. But it’s obvious that publishers would want more choices than a single proprietary Apple layout format, particularly because Apple didn’t create or popularize such a format years ago. Bringing all of the previous reading formats within one app, and perhaps offering publisher incentives (such as a reduced Apple cut of sales) to transfer old publications to the new format, could make things better for publishers and users alike.

It goes without saying that all of this would require high-level Apple approval to implement. But it’s also heavily in Apple’s interest to do so. As it currently stands, Apple News doesn’t have much more than the Apple name and the prospect of maybe-possibly future publisher support to set it apart from the many newsreaders that have come and gone over the years. I’ve had it on my iPad and iPhone for weeks, and it’s already gathering dust. An Apple Reading app, however, could become the core linking books, magazines, newspapers and web content together. It would be a major reason to acquire a big library of content through Apple, and a major impediment to using other devices to consume that content in the future.

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