Quite a lot has been written about Apple’s entry into news aggregation, aka “distributed content
” or “off-line publishing
”: initially, when Apple first announced the News app at the WWDC in June 2015 to counter Facebook's Instant Articles initiative, and recently, when - without great fanfare - News started shipping to users (in the US only for the time being) with their upgrade to iOS 9. By and large, media analysts gave Apple’s latest content effort a general ‘nice try but no cigar’ rating
, focussing either on the inevitable comparison with other news aggregation apps such as Flipboard or Prismatic, and the demise of Apple’s rather ill-fated Newsstand initiative, or on some rather superficial comparison with seemingly similar efforts in re-routing editorial content, Snapchat’s Discover feature, and Facebook’s Instant Articles being the most prominent to date.
Let’s save the serious part of the discussion (the perspectives on the evolution of publishing in the light or ubiquitous information distribution) for a later date, and squarely focus on Apple’s efforts, or more precisely, on what it is that they are actually showing us.
First of all, focussing on what the News app does, (in other words, the technocentric view), is rather uninteresting. Apple is not in innovation mode here: News is in no discernible way more original or more compelling than, say, Flipboard, Prismatic or any other of the many news aggregation apps out there. But that’s ok: Apple isn’t even trying to impress with News' user interface or fancy features.
So why are we even talking about News?
There are actually only one or two aspects that set Apple apart from the competition here: The first one is the Apple News format, which allows publishers relatively sophisticated formatting for their content (including advertising) - but not only is it currently available only to a select group of publishing partners (the Apple developer website lists it as “coming soon”, without any further details); more importantly, it remains to be seen if, and to what extent, publishers will actually go through the extra effort of formatting content to use unique features of the News app. Personally, I’m not holding my breath - I’m fully aware of the complexities of multi-channel publishing, and any new outlet that requires special formatting work will really need to prove that it’s worth the extra effort. More likely than not, publishers will stick with whatever can be achieved with easily automated repurposing of content, the way it is done already. That is only likely to change if (and that’s a big if) Apple’s News app becomes a runaway success. (It is interesting to note that Facebook is facing a very similar challenge with its Instant Articles initiative launched a few months ago, and which has failed to have a noticeable impact on the information available on the social network. But more on that subject in a future post.)
The second distinguishing aspect is more interesting, and it is the only one, it would seem, that may give Apple an edge over the competition: the number of publishers who have actually committed to providing content for News. Where Facebook and Snapchat have garnered at best a handful of big-name publishers (ok, almost two handfuls), Apple seems to have signed up practically every household name in the field, and can pride itself of having not only the top on-line properties such as Buzzfeed (which pretty much every serious news aggregator on the planet is offering), but a long list of big-name magazine and newspaper publishers. Everybody seems to have joined the party, from the New Yorker to Vanity Fair, from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, the list goes on and on, more than fifty at the day of the launch.
The quality of the content is the only thing that counts
And this, from a user's standpoint, really does make all the difference. Apple’s News app doesn't just collect a variety of RSS feeds from around the web. The first time you launch the app, you are asked to pick your favorites, publications and topics, and from there on it is just something that hasn’t really existed so far: not just an app that brings you content - there’s no lack of those - but an app that gives you free access to a wide selection of first-rate publications, many of which usually charge for digital subscriptions.
And that could make the difference between an app that has some following, and one that becomes a key part of the value proposition of the device you are carrying around. Sure, you can go to all these websites on your smartphones - some of them, like the NYT, have pretty sophisticated apps that are available for free, while others, like the WSJ charge for access to full articles straight away, but having all of these highly qualified news feeds in one place is certainly quite unique for the time being.
What all this is really about...
Will the market go for that? It is hard to know. Right now, there are two ways of being exposed to distributed content, passively in the framework of your social media feed, or actively by trying to go to the right sources for your information needs. Both approaches are valid, and both approaches co-exist for almost all of us. Apple’s News app is clearly in the second group and requires the potential user to make that extra step of launching an app, setting it up, getting used to it, which will of course slow down adoption.
That being said, while a lot of information is getting distributed through Facebook, research clearly shows that, while Facebook users discover lots of news through their timeline, they generally don’t specifically go to Facebook to find out what is going on, to stay up to date. There is a world of difference between coming across a news item on Amy Schumer’s latest exploit or some other show-business gossip in your time-line, and between trying to stay up to date with a subject you care about in an efficient way.
The more you look at it, the clearer it becomes that as distributed content increasingly becomes part of our on-line experience, it will be essential to gain a better understanding of the multi-facetted nature of information gathering. That’s why a direct comparison of Apple’s News app, the Snapchat Discover feature, and Facebook Instant Articles actually doesn’t make any sense since it is not targeting the same basic information acquisition behavior.
What does it all boil down to? There is no doubt that we are at the very beginning of a profound change in the way content is delivered. And that means that we have to learn how to analyze our information usage patterns in a much more sophisticated way. There are clearly many aspects we are not taking fully into account yet.
More on that subject soon...
Andreas Pfeiffer, September 21, 2015