June 2011
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Newsstand in a Nutshell

Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
- MY BACK PAGES

A year ago I had a dream that I was having an intimate chat with Steve Jobs about newspaper and magazine applications. “All the news apps currently out there “, he said after a thoughtful pause, “are shit. Why on earth should I have to wait tens of seconds, or even minutes, after I start the app before I can see the first page of my publication?”

“Well, Steve-o”, I said. “The main problem is that we can’t quietly download issues in the background. The only way we can do that is shiftily declare our app as a VoIP app in which case we get some background capability. But it only works after starting and stopping the app, and your digilent App Reviewers would reject the app anyway.”

“Good point, Boofie, good point”, he said. “I think I better fix that.”

And, with the release of Newsstand for iOS 5, he did.

Newsstand is here

Newsstand was announced this week as part of the fanfare that was the WWDC 2011. In essence, a new icon will appear on the home screen of all users and will be used as a folder to store edition based content. It looks rather similar to the iBooks apps. One big difference is that iBooks is an app that one needs to download from the App Store. Newsstand is baked into the operating system.

End Users: Newsstand is a Clever Folder

From the point of view of an end user, Newsstand behaves like an iOS folder. Previously, each news application you had would sit on your home screens like any other app. Now, news apps will instead sit inside the Newsstand folder/application. This will give a few nice user interface advantages too. Instead of a generic icon for the publication, Newsstand will show the cover of the latest issue. And it will be able to tell you if a publication is new, and send you push notifications when a new issue is ready for your reading pleasure. As I understand it, publishers can choose to ignore newsstand completely and submit apps as they’ve always done. But if they do this, they won’t get the benefits of the new API that apps in the Newsstand can use.

Developers: Newsstand is an API for background download

For me, this is the cool part. Steve has come good on his promise. If, when developing your application you register as a Newsstand application, you get access to the NewsstandKit.framework. This lets you do two new things. Firstly, it lets you add and remove issues from the Newsstand application on the user’s home screen. Secondly, and most importantly, it lets you download your new editions in the background, even if the app isn’t running in the background. So the user will wake up in the morning, and your new edition will already be on his device. #FTW

Apart from this new API, you write your apps in exactly the same way. You submit them to the App Store in exactly the same way, and they are downloaded from the App Store in exactly the same way. So developers of stand alone news applications don’t need to worry about Apple stepping on their toes. iOS 5 is wonderful news for them, not a competitor.

It seems that there are some things that the API won’t support yet. It’ll work great if you’re a title that publishes weekly or daily like the good old print days. It isn’t clear how it will help if you want constantly updated content pushed to your daily edition – it appears that every background download job relats to a whole issue, a.k.a. a new icon in the Newsstand. We’ll need to dig deep to see how this can be done.

Publishers: Newsstand doesn’t change the publishing workflow, or economics

Newsstand does not provide any authoring tools, so you create editions in the same way you’ve always done. If you’ve got an existing standalone application, not a huge amount changes. You’ll still pay Apple their 30% as you do at the moment. Your users will still pay for your editions through the App Store or through In-App Purchases.

There seems to be a common misconception that people can discover edition based content (news, magazines, etc) through Newsstand. Now I don’t believe this is true. Newsstand will only show you titles that you have downloaded already. However, there probably will be a new way to search these titles through the App Store, which will create a new little market dynamic all on it’s own. I guess there might well be a view of the App Store embedded into Newsstand like there is for iBooks at the moment.

Winners and Losers

It’s a sad fact of life that OS-baked app “innovations” from the big boys will destroy smaller players that have a competitive product. From my perspective, the winners here are the end users, publishers and developers of stand-alone news applications. Companies like Adobe (with their Digital Publishing Suite) and those that create tools that sit on top of InDesign to create standalone apps (Woodwing, Mag+, Aquafadas, etc) are largely unaffected, unless they had an idea they could also create their own store front.

The losers are the poor sods that are creating aggregator readers and charging outside of the App Store. I’m thinking mainly of people like poor Zinio who I think are going to struggle. For publisher consortiums that are more about the relationships than the technology (for example Next Issue Media), things might still be okay if they just adopt the new technology. We mustn’t forget that iOS isn’t the only platform out there and that Android is becoming increasingly important. But, for 2011 at least, iOS is really the only platform out there that matters.

And a Shameless Plug

And for those of you that don’t know, my new company is working on a hybrid iOS/HTML5 based reader called Pugpig. We’re lauching very very soon, so follow @thepugpig for the latest news. Here is a sneaky screenshot of our Pugpig Guide sample book in the Newsstand.

Disclaimer: The API may change before iOS 5 gets released, so I might be completely wrong about all of this. And, in my dream, Steve didn’t actually use the word “shit”.

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