There are strongish rumours that Apple is preparing to launch a magazine-oriented, specialist Newsstand solution, similar to iBooks. The rumours gained some credibility when Mike McCue, Flipboard’s founder, made the suggestion at SXSW in an interview with Kara Swisher. I havent seen the interview but the Guardian had a report:

I have no inside information but wouldn’t be surprised if Apple did their own newstand similar to iBooks……

We are assured that McCue has no inside information, but McCue sits on the board of Twitter; Apple and Twitter are surely talking, Flipboard is highly regarded by Apple and there can be little doubt that an eBooks/iBooks style of magazine kiosk would be very advantageous for Flipboard and for Twitter. Indeed there might be strong synergy between a free and promotion-oriented Flipboard giving access to magazine subscriptions generated by {iMagazines, or iKiosk, or whatever Apple choose to call their mooted storefront}. So, maybe Mike McCue was flying a kite or tugging its string. It would be very helpful to Flipboard if there was a stronger and more reliable stream of ‘ebook style’ magazine issues channeled through iTunes, rather than the indigestible and quirky chunks of Adobe-Illustrator apps that seem to be favoured by the large consumer publishers. I don’t think Apple is likely to be very happy with the Adobe-InDesigned efforts that we have seen so far.

Co-incidentally there was a slightly different rumour in Gadget Daily News, that Apple might be aiming to encourage a bit more standardisation and reliability in the digital magazine space by developing some magazine publishing templates. According to Gadget Daily News this will be ‘implemented by the end of the year’. Maybe. Maybe not. I doubt that it would take Apple anything like so much time to develop such a tool if it decided to build it.

What are the key problems that Apple might wish to tackle to improve the position of digital magazines in iTunes? There are principally three issues that could be addressed:

  1. Distribution
  2. Presentation
  3. Production

Which if any of these problem areas is it likely that Apple may be planning to address? I think we can dismiss the distribution solution straight away. Apple believes that it has built a perfectly reliable and usable digital magazine distribution system already. The latest move to introduce a new system for in-app subscriptions to magazine content is all that is needed. Apple considers that with the iPad, the app store, the 200 million iTunes accounts, and the new subscription system, it has done enough for magazine publishers already on the distribution front. There is, admittedly, another perplexing digital distribution system to be solved (building digital magazines that can be distributed painlessly via iPhone, iPad, Android, WebOS, the web, etc, etc as many viable digital channels as possible), but Apple is not going to do anything about that.

The presentation problem is another matter. The variety, illogicality, diversity and plain bugginess of many magazine apps is rather shocking. So, it is quite possible that Apple is working on some standards or templates that may bring a bit of order to the chaos. Apple may produce some exemplar iTunes solutions which show how well digital magazines can work as iPad apps (cf the Garageband app that they produced for iPad 2). But I am not convinced that Apple’s investment in digital magazines will go much further than that. It doesn’t need to, because Apple has already built and 100% owns the best digital magazine platform, the iPad. Furthermore the rules of its distribution and e-commerce system require that digital magazines sold through its service pay a 30% commission to Apple, so there is really no need to invest heavily here. This has always been the strong point in the Apple position. It owns a platform that other parties wish to play on. There is a lot of innovation and experimentation going on in the digital magazine space on iOS devices and Apple benefits from this whatever the outcome.

It is when we get to the last problem area: production that the chances of Apple intervention are most unlikely. Consumer magazines are still produced in an immensely complicated, labour and design-intensive process, under considerable time pressure and with very diverse inputs and requirements. The workflow is still very much in thrall to a print output. Developing new databases for content management and high-design work-flow is not the kind of business that Apple wants to be in. The diversity and chaos of publication-oriented content management is even worse in the newspaper business, so we can conclude that it is most unlikely that Apple will build solutions that are intended for this kind of intricate deployment. Apple is not going to build a tool which takes high-design print-oriented inputs and explodes them into multimedia apps. Apple may have been willing to take a friendly look at the way that News International was building its bespoke-for-the-iPad Daily app. It is not probable that Apple’s software engineers are going to spend time figuring out how the New York Times manages or streamlines its manifold production issues.

So Apple may show us how some magical magazine apps will work, but if they do, the chances are that the fireworks will be highly specific to the iPad. They may involve intimate and innovative use of the touch interface, the gyroscope and new sensors in the iPad 2, or ‘social’ effects through Twitter, Facebook or Facetime. If Apple is going to do something with magazines it could be highly innovative if they exploit the capabilities of the iPad 2. If they do that they may add another twist to the distribution dilemma facing magazine publishers: should digital magazines now be designed primarily or even exclusively for the iPad? Or should they also be designed for access and use through other devices and above all through the web? Apple has a huge lead in the tablet market-place and it will use that lead to develop the primacy and superiority of iTunes content. Raising the bar on the expectations and ‘quality’ to be found in iPad-specific magazines is one way of making the ‘distribution dilemma’ faced by the magazine publishers even more acute.