There has been a spate of news stories in the last few days about Apple preparing (or discussing) a central kiosk for newspapers and magazines. See Bloomberg and the WSJ. This is mostly speculation, but it may be well-informed. It is surprising that Apple have not already launched a common framework for delivering newspapers and magazines via subscription. Many observers assumed that it would be there when the iPad was launched, in much the same way that the iBooks app is there. In much the same way that iTunes is there so that users can buy music.

One reason that we havent already seen an iKiosk is that it is a challenging proposition to build such a service, and perhaps even more challenging to win the agreement of the major publishers who need to be signed up for it. In an excellent post M C Siegler at TechCrunch summarizes the obstacles. He points to four areas of difficulty:

  1. Publishers do not want to surrender control of their subscriber lists and the associated or derivable data on individual use. Apple does not want to allow publishers to ‘grab’ intrusive information from users of Apple devices.
  2. A thirty percent Apple-tax on subscriptions sold through iTunes is too big a chunk for the publishers to surrender.
  3. Timely publication (especially of newspapers) is a challenge.
  4. Handling full publications (and their archives) is a problem — remember the first Wired App was over half a GigaByte.

These issues are in subtle ways inter-related, and I suspect that lurking behind them are two bigger challenges that Apple really cannot solve for the newspaper/magazine industry. The first, and the major challenge, is that the old prevailing model of newspapers and magazines being largely paid for by advertising is fundamentally broken. It is not coming back. That model can not be resuscitated (at least in the transition or medium term) by a digital solution. But the publishers’ budgets and business models are so wedded to advertising revenues that they will not be able to embrace solutions which appear to abandon or de-emphasize it. Publishers will insist on securing more data on their subscription customers, but they will not be able to do very much with it. The digital advertising networks are not going to be publisher mediated or publisher controlled. The second major challenge, is that it still is not obvious or certain what the ‘file format’ for these digital publications is or should be. There is a radical unclarity about what it is that is going to be digitised.

Take the issue of ‘timely delivery’. Magazines and newspapers that are fed to an iKiosk have to appear in their digital format a few hours after they have been released in print. Or, better, they have to appear in their digital format before they appear in print. The book publishers and Apple have weeks to play with in transforming files from a printed book into iBooks. But an iKiosk must be much faster. If digital newspapers and magazines are to appear reliably and pretty much instantly on the iPad/iPhone they need to be processed automatically from a content management system to an app service. How can this be done, without congestion and additional work in over-stretched design and editorial offices? How can this be done automatically by Apple? Apple can not afford to reach back into the editorial and content management systems of the publishers. This requirement raises in an acute form the question of what a digital magazine/newspaper really is. Is a digital periodical something like a web site or an RSS feed, something elastic and flowing which can be updated in real-time and adjusted from moment to moment through the period of live publication? Or is the starting point for a digital periodical the fact that it is a series of determinate issues, each of which need to be automatically transformed from something like a PDF file into something like a set of virtual pages? Are we talking feeds or pages? Or both?

One last point. These apparently well-informed (because repeated) rumours about an Apple News Stand do not tell us whether the service will be for iPad and iPhone or for iPad only. If Apple’s new news service is aimed solely at the iPad, I think we can expect a very adventurous and cool solution, but in being tied to the iPad it will raise even more challenges for publishers who do not want to be platform-specific. If, on the other hand, Apple backs a much looser format comparable to the ePub solution used for iBooks, then we should be able to use and read newspaper on the iPhone with comfort.