Apple’s subscription plans – my $0.02

Last week the publishing world (at least the subset publishing magazines and newspapers) was set on fire, as Apple was apparently starting to tell some of them (either personally or via email) that it is changing it’s plans wrt. paid subscriptions of periodicals accessible via apps in the app store.

First, on Jan. 14th there was a blog post (dutch) from the publisher of the dutch newspaper Handelsblad telling that Apple approached them telling them that they had to stop the free access to the iPad version of the newspaper that is available to their print subscribers until April 1st.. Other Publeshers joined in and this was widely reported, e.g. here. I then also heard some rumors that a number of german newspapers and magazines have been contacted as well.

These actions by Apple are obviously connected to the “more than” rumours that Apple is prepraing it’s own subscription service (together with it’s launch partner NewsCorp and it’s new iPad-only daily newspaper: “The Daily”.

Yesterday evening Frédéric Filloux of MondayNotes.com provided the IMHO best account on what is happening right now in his post Apple’s bet on publishing. I urge you to read Filloux’s whole post, especially since i share his opinion that Apple’s solution is more aiming at the “Long Tail of Publishers”.  On the other hand the provided excerpts of the purported emails at least to me sound rather like a reminder of existing rules than a complete change of plans. The discussion is then taken on e.g in a R/WW post titled:  The New New Media: Apple’s subscription model.

Based on all this it is my current belief that

Apple’s recent actions do not signal a fundamental  change to their assumed inofficial position prior to theses actions.

With the  assumed inofficial position (more on this wording below) being:

  • Same digital content available in other digital channels via own fulfillment backend is OK
  • iOS only content via own fulfillment backend is NOT OK

At least i assumed this position based on my readings and my talks to various people in the industry. But as you can see i am not alone. Have a look at the comment thread at Peter Kafka’s Media Memo post: Time Inc.’s iPad Problem Is Trouble for Every Magazine Publisher (especially Ian Betteridge’s comment).

In some follow up posts i’m going to elaborate on why i think that Apple’s position hasn’t changed  fundamentally and also elaborate why obeying to these rules is particulary difficult for publishers of periodicals.

For now you have to live with the management summary:

  • If the first rule would be revoked, various Apps selling Books and streaming video including Amazon Kindle, Google Books, Hulu Plus and Netflix would violate them. First I haven’t heard that they have been notified and second Apple would have a harder time to revoke this Apps.
  • Publishers of periodicals and service providers like Adobe and Woodwing wanted to build new digital content bundles that take advantage of the capabilities of multitouch devices and not just display PDFs. Since for these new products right now there is no other channel than the iPad  they cannot argue that they are distributing the same digital content on multiple digital channels. In addition most of them also deliberately chose not to distribute the same content via the most obvious channel: The browser. The publications that did so, most notably the WSJ and the FT have been allowed into the App Store. I haven’t heard that they have been noticed.
  • Compared to all other publishers, publishers of periodicals right now have a unique disadvantage on Apple’s platform. There is no way to do the content delivery via the platform, they had to build that part of the fulfillment platform themselves. Nevertheless they had to use Apples’s Billing Infrastructure for In-App-Purchases of single copies and the same 30% Apple cut applied.
  • The result of this hole in Apple’s fulfillment infrastructure were Hybrid Apps that used significant backend infrastructure from the publisher /service provider (content delivery)  and Apple (billing) and opened the door to all kind of variations.
  • I think that Apple will fill the content delivery hole in their fulfillment system with their rumored subscription solution. If not the publishers have all reasons to complain about that disadvantage.
  • For the future i could imaging the following rule agreed upon Apple and all of its content providers:
    • Apps are only allowed to use either Apples fulfillment infrastructure and nothing else, or they have to build all of it by themselves (like Hulu and AFAIK all of the other examples from above etc. did). This should be a rule that everybody should be able to live with.
  • This might mean that a number of publishers would have to deploy two Apps on the App store but my guess would be that Apple is going to provide a separate Kisok app (similar to iBooks) for those who choose the first route.
  • My worst fear is that Apple is than overregulating the format of the conten bundles / issues that is going to be delivered via their infrastructure.

So if anybody knows of a publisher / App that plays along the above rules and has been notified i would be utmost interested to learn about it and have a closer look. The first question of such a publischer should be: what about Hulu. netflix, Amazon Kindle, Google Books etc

I would also like to hear some technical rumours about Apple’s subscription / iNewsstand. But i guess that besides a select few partners with draconian NDAs nobody knows right now. Everybody else has to wait until the announcement Another question of interest on this side of the pond is whether  and when it will be rolled out in markets other than the US.

But IMHO the biggest problem of it all this FUD is that there is only an assumed inofficial position and not an official one. That makes it particulary difficult for people like me , who are building systems for periodicals but are not on Apple’s radar, so they do not get the chance to talk to Apple and learn the inoffical one that is only deliverd orally-

Disclosure: For more than a year i’m actively involved (in my capacity as the head of the dpa-newslab) in the developement of various e-reading solutions. Since May of last year we are focusing most of our efforts on a framework for newspapers with the obvious first incarnation as an iPad App.  Since we are not a big publisher we do not have any direct connection to Apple. We also don’t have an App in the store yet, so we couldn’t have been rejected yet :-)

I’ll share more on our approach to in upcoming posts. For the purpose of this post it suffices to say, that on the business side we early on dedided to play it save and start with a single-copy In-App-Purchase, and to avoid any “clever” subscription scheme. For the curious. We decided to do a Web-Technology first approach . Our content packages are purely web based (HTML5, CSS§, Javascript and JSON), and we  only use a native rendering when the typical shortcomings of mobile devices kick in and affect the user experience: These shortcomings being slower processer, less memory.

A nice side effect of this approach in the context of this post that it makes it easy for us to come up  desktop browser version and hence a second digital channel for the same digital content.

Comment on yelvington.com on algorithmic layout

Steve Yelvington’s blog and twitter stream @yelvington are a must read in my daily inbox.  His latest post called: Algorithmic layout: Another thing the visual journalists are going to hate is a must read. Here’S (a little bit more than) the gist of it:

Print designers want total control over arbitrary layout. The makers of tools for print designers — especially Adobe — will be trying to cram their toolkit into digital bottles. Adobe’s plan for the iPad was to use InDesign for page layout, generating Flash components that would be compiled into a downloadable app. Now that Apple has killed Flash on the iPad, magazine designers are making iPad “applications” that are really collections of giant JPG files generated by print tools.

Image files! No wonder the apps are so huge. It’s like a flashback to the mid-1990s, when the New York Times homepage on the Web was one big GIF file.

Here’s my prediction: Algorithmic layout is going to win. The economics are brutal and they will decide.

We already have Gannett moving its newspaper layout work to central “Production Centers” — hospices for print. My friends in the visual journalism community hate hate hate this. I understand why. I laid out newspaper pages for years. Decoupling product construction from reporting and editing the news is not something to celebrate. But I also understand the economic drivers behind it.

The entities formerly known as newsrooms — Gannett calls them “Information Centers” — will oddly enough be more closely coupled to their websites than their print products. Their world will be inverted. They will be paying more attention to metadata — classification, tagging, geocoding, the elements of the semantic Web.

When you do this right, you create the conditions necessary for efficient algorithmic construction of a broad set of products tailored for specific situations. Web pages. Apps for the iPad. Mobile services. Microzoned products, defined by geography or interest or the user’s current status, delivered via electronic or even print processes, but “finished” with fairly little human involvement in the “pages” that are consumed

I very much agree with Steve, that at least for non-print products and escpecially tablets,  algorithmic layout will win. Here is (a slightly edited version) the comment i posted on his blog:


IMHO algorithmic “layout” already has won in web and mobile. It’s the only way to produce that content in an economically feasible fashion for a multitude of devices and screen sizes. Ok, it’s discussable if the placement of boxes in a mostly linear fashion deserves to be called layout

More advanced algorihmic layout using constraint-based layout techniques to place content on a 2d grid  is  used in  directories, most yellow pages and catalogues.

The publishers desire to have a newspaper like rendition of the content on  tablets like the ipad (not sure if this also the readers desire)  can IMHO only be solved with algorithmic layout.   National/global monthly, and may be weekly magazines can be manually relayoutet twice for a horizontal and a vertical layout  for a single device like the iPad. But even Adobe admits that their approach is not suited (maybe yet) for daily newspapers,

And even these magazines often have a placed layout only for one of the orientations and use very simple algorithmic layout for the other.

Manual layout will not be able to scale with the upcoming plethora of tablet devices. It is also impossible to have a manual layout that works well with user scalable font sizes (IMHO one of the big advantages of  tablets in an aging society).

Alltogehter manual layout is simply undoable on a daily, or subdaily basis for a multitude of screen sizes and devices.

Hence we are working towards story(tyoe) templates, , priorities, placement rules and layouthinting in our approaches towards newspaper-like renditions of newspaper content on tablets and  e-readers.


But i don’t think, that algorithmic layout will be used near term in german newspapers.  May be in a support role for small ads and for initial placement on some pages, but not for the newspaper as a whole.

iPad News Apps review – Welcome to the link free zone

I now had the chance to have a closer look at a number of news apps on the iPad. Here is my ranking (To a large extent i agree with  the reviews of Engadget):

  1. BBC News
  2. Reuters News Pro for iPad
  3. npr for iPad
  4. The Wall Street Journal
  5. USA Today
  6. NYT Editor’s Choice
  7. AP News
  8. Welt iKiosk

But before i share some background info on why i’m doing this as well as some quick notes and screenshots for the different apps i have to note the following.:

I could not find a single link to any ressource on the web within any of the news apps i tested.

If you happened to find one within these apps or know of a news app that does, i would love to hear from you.

Some background

At the dpa-newslab we are actively investigating the different options for getting newspaper (and news agencies) print and online content onto ereaders and tablet devices.

On one hand this means that we are fully aware of the discrepancies and tensions between different fractions and schools of thought at newspapers, ranging from “This has to look and behave exactly as a printed newspaper” end of the spectrum to the “This has to be a fully digital native experience optimized experience” end at the opposite side of the spectrum (think VIV magazin).

On the other hand this means that we are investigating which of the three main content delivery channels (web, app, ebooks) makes most sense for which kind of content that newspapers and news agencies) have.

Our plan is to come up with a number of prototypes and products that range from the more traditional approaches to the wilder, more visualization heavy ones (Hey, we are a lab).  But more about this soon at the newslab blog.

Hence i was very interested to see with which ideas our colleagues came up (given 2 month time and no physical device to test it with).  But now the notes on the different apps.

BBC News

MY favourite app due to its vertical home page layout. The horizontal layout gives either too much or too little space for the index views of the different sections.Intuitive way of moving from article to article (with visual feedback in the index view)

Lots of video that starts super fast, (when it starts at all). Live radio streaming (although only one station :-(.)

Would have preferred a pop over for section selection instead of button bar in vertical mode. Irritating place for tickernear the top of the screen.

Reuters News Pro for iPad

Second place, because of its use of iPad / tablet user interface options in the overview screen and its use of video. as well as the interactive graphics in the Markets and Stocks  sections. I’m wodering if the latter are native charting components or done in Javascript. Does Anybody know?

On the minus side:  The Article detail view is ugly and the split screen accordion view in horizontal mode  is overkill.

npr for iPad

Third place, but close to Reuters. Clearly shows its radio heritage and focus, by indcating which articles are available as audio.  Easy to build a playlist and listen to it. Vast array of radio live streams (grouped by state) with ability to store favourite stations.

Big minus, no possibility to configure the topics of the home screen.

The Wall Street Journal

Clearly the best of the applications that follow closely the printed paper layout. Nicely lay out index pages.  Interesting navigation betwenn sections and articles within a section by vertically and horizontally swiping, Clever visual implementation of the paywall by obscuring parts of the screen.

Minus: Sending emails with forgotten passwords does not work. No font size change at the index pages possible (too hard a problem to recalculate the layout?) Pop-Up ads too intrusive.

USA Today

Often crashing app that tries to mimick the printed version. Nice solution for navigating between the sections.

But the Home pageuses iFrame like tricks. Small imagages in articles. Strange way of navigating within the pages of the article (vertically) and between the different articles of a section (horizontally). I expected it the other way round (IMHO the pagination of the articles would also have been technically easier that way).

NYT Editor’s Choice

A step back from what was shown on Jan. 27th. Clearly the print people had a say. Too little content wrapped in a layout that resembles  NYT skimmer and the NYT reader Air App and hence inherits the nice multicolumn arbitrary width layout of the single article pages).

AP News

Sorry my dear friends at the AP. I simply don’t get it.

Minus: Confusing design metaphor (at least for europeans). Figure it should resemble a bulletin board. These look distinctly different in germany!. Is the lower half of the index page a timeline or not? Waste of screen estate by not using the whole screen at the detail level (text, images, and video)  Too small images and videos, Completely counterintuitive and non HIG way of personalizing it, …

Plus side: Possibility to localize the news (but no longer german news, since AP sold it’s german subsidiary to ddp. Content available in th iPhone App though)

iKiosk

Weirdly named application by the german  newspaper Die Welt (Part of Axel Springer)

In short: A very thin wrapper around the PDF version of the paper, that does not work, since everything that triggers the accelerometer, unzooms to the whole page view (in which you can’t read anything). Unless this is fixed totally useless, afterwards only useless or a scam since after a 30day trial period the paper is only marginally cheaper than the printed version (ok. it’s free for print subscribers)

But presumably was worth doing it from a corporate point of view since it enabled Axel Springer Chairman & CEO Matthias Döpfner to show something in his talk with Charlie Rose (for a couple odf seconds)