Talking New Media

Google’s Newsstand move may force the hand of Apple, leading to more aggregated content apps

The lack of progress in improving the Newsstand, combined with the news of the acquisition of a platform, has some wondering if Apple plans on introducing their own app that aggregates content and improves the reading experience of digital editions

Publishers are rather schizophrenic about their content: often wanting to make sure they protect their brands, while at the same time jumping at the opportunity to be included in such content aggregation apps as Flipboard, Zite, and others. The result is that, while continuing to charge subscriptions to readers when they buy directly, they often are willing to give away the same content when read within third party apps (often hoping the app makers will pass along a few pennies from their share of readership).

Google’s new Newsstand app, the Android version of which was updated today, is not a pure aggregation app. Readers still need to buy issues or subscribe. But the reading experience is tied to the Google app in such a way that many publishers may consider for a second whether they are being had.

While most in the tech world has seen Google’s app moves in this area as being in response to the popularity of Flipboard, and the failure of Currents to catch on, it is also a move necessitated by the poor quality of digital magazines and newspapers being released for the Android platform.

Most digital publishing platforms that can produce a native tablet edition for iOS are also now offering a solution for Android. But most digital publications released into the Android sphere remain replica editions. This situation is made worse by the fact that most readers who own Android devices are reading these publications on smaller screens than that of an iPad.

The Android platform is offering the worst of both words: smaller screens and a replica of print.

What Google Newsstand attempts to do is improve the reading experience by merging an updated design for articles, the old Currents aggregation scheme, and combining it with a paywall. (The old Currents scheme can be seen in this screenshot where TNM’s icon appears, even though the content is from the old Blogspot website.)

The updating of Google Newsstand, and the news that Apple has acquired (or acqui-hired) the digital publishing platform Prss, has a number of companies concerned that the next move will come from Apple, with the launch of a product similar to the Google Newsstand (or Flipboard).

Since 2010, the idea has been that Apple would allow publishers to launch apps like the rest of the developer community, in order to encourage the sale of digital editions – thus driving revenue for both publisher and Apple. From what one has heard, Apple has not been impressed, overall, with what publishers have produced. Sure, there are plenty of great digital editions, but by and all the apps have been poor. The original New York Times app, for instance, which only gave readers an “editor’s choice” selection of content, was said to be hated by Steve Jobs. The NYT quickly added more content, but the app has hardly changed since its initial release in 2010.

The big tech companies are completely isolated from the publishing community. Too often, Apple, in particular, seems to equate the media business with the fools who write for the major tech sites – few of which have developer licenses, and so rely on rumors generated from far off Asian websites. It would like a sports reporter not knowing that strikes means your out and relying on third party reports to write their game recap stories.

What some vendors fear is that Apple will release a reading app that makes creating separate branded apps unnecessary, overnight destroying a whole industry. Some understand that the various digital newsstands are becoming so mismanaged that the best hope for digital editions may be in allowing publishers to sell them directly through their own websites (a great guest column on this idea will appear here next week).

In conversations I have had with many digital publishing platform vendors, the impression is that for many publishers quality of reading experience is far less a priority than cheap and easy conversion of print editions for digital devices. A new Apple, or Google, or Amazon app, that allows for easy conversion of magazine and newspapers files to reading on devices might well attract these publishers – a prospect that I am sure keeps many of them up at night.

Note: the funny thing about writing a post like this one is that one might well be answer the implied question here simply with a “NO”. As in “no, Apple has no such plans.” But Apple’s App Store team, as well as their software team, are locked behind firewalls. This means that few publishers have any idea of what the future holds within the Apple (or Google) ecosystem. Apple generally reaches out to a few major publishers only after they have set their course, eager to have a few new apps to demo when their next event takes place.