At its World Wide Developer Conference at the beginning of the month, Apple introduced iOS5, a close integration with Twitter and its plans for a Newsstand within iTunes. There was a brief overview of the Newsstand service in the presentation and this mention in the Press Release:

Newsstand is a beautiful, easy-to-organize bookshelf displaying the covers of all your newspaper and magazine subscriptions in one place. A new section of the App Store™ features just subscription titles, and allows users to quickly find the most popular newspapers and magazines in the world. If subscribed to, new issues appear in the Newsstand and are updated automatically in the background so you always have the latest issue and the most recent cover art. Apple Press Release, June 6, 2011

There is quite a lot yet to be decided about the precise shape and operation of the Newsstand but what we know looks promising. We know that its coming in the fall, which means that it must be near completion; we know that it will enable background downloading; and that it will present the front pages, front covers, of newspapers and magazines in a more topical and attractive way. We know that Twitter will be available as an omni-present system-call in the new iOS. We also know that Apple’s newly introduced in-app subscription process, with automatic iTunes renewals is working well, many mainstream publishers have announced that they will support it. This is a separate but important development. We also know that Apple has relaxed its previously announced, but over-restrictive policies on pricing of subscriptions “outside” the App store. Apple will not be ‘leaning over’ and requiring publishers to charge no more for digital subscriptions on the web or on Android than they charge within iTunes. Apple is loosening up a bit.

This really could be the very best news for the digital magazine and newspaper industry. Here is why:

  1. Apple sold nearly 20 million iPads in the year to April 2011. We do not know how many they will sell in the second year, but it seems reasonable to expect a very large number. Another 50+ million units seems probable. Three years after its launch the iPad could certainly have a 200/300 million installed base. That is scale.
  2. Apple has decided to bring some marketing and retailing focus to periodicals within iTunes. This is what the Newsstand announcement really amounts to. Apple will arrange focus and in-store presentation and highlighting. It is as though Tescos or WalMart announced that they were going to have a big newsstand kiosk in a prominent place within all of their retail outlets. The Newsstand will be a sales focus and it will attract masses of titles. Since periodicals have never been aggregated and retailed at remotely comparable scale, it is quite hard to envisage the potential for a newsstand which has tens of thousands of titles in all the main languages. Apple would only be doing this if it considered that newspapers and magazines could be a big category. Apple is building a platform from which it can sell billions of news and magazine subscriptions.
  3. It would appear that Apple will be going for a very ‘format’ neutral Newsstand. Apple has not said that all magazines and newspapers should have a specific file format, as happens with iBooks. It has not said that newspapers and magazines should or should not be ‘interactive’, though it seems certain that interactivity will be there (see most newspaper apps). This is ingenious because it allows/encourages publishers and developers to experiment with different sorts of delivery format. Apple is offering a sales platform, a payment platform, a cloud-based delivery and access platform. But it is not dictating the format or precise implementation of magazine services. This is ingenious in two directions. It encourages publishers with the advantages of a genuine platform (scale in distribution, and simplicity in payment and licensing for customers) but does not constrain publishers or developers in the services that they may offer. The platform does not appear to constrain the potential for innovation and diversity, except perhaps that these periodicals will of necessity have issues and front pages (even that limitation may be negotiable). Since magazines and newspapers have extraordinary diversity in their appeal and in their production processes, this is a masterstroke for Apple. And it is also clever in a second way since it enables Apple to be quite agnostic about how magazines and newspapers should be delivered. Apple does not have the heavy responsibility of managing content and dragging timely editions from publishers’ workflow. Apple allows innovation within the iOS guidelines and will benefit (to the tune of 30%) from not having to do the experimentation or day to day content management on their publisher’s behalf. Apple does not even expect to host the titles (as it does for iBooks).
  4. Publishers will complain about Apple’s 30%, and although I have some sympathy for the complaint, one notes that Apple’s recent loosening of its pricing rules, has given publishers an enormous opportunity. Magazine publishers especially. Magazines know how to sell subscriptions to consumers. They have been doing that for years. Magazines have a business model which encourages them to sell direct and they should certainly use that to build direct relationships with their subscriber base. But they should also welcome Apple as the cornerstone of their digital promotion. Apple is not telling its book publisher partners or its music industry partners that they should sell direct. Furthermore, there is little chance that Jeff Bezos will echo Steve Jobs when he said: “Our philosophy is simple—when Apple brings a new subscriber to the app, Apple earns a 30 percent share; when the publisher brings an existing or new subscriber to the app, the publisher keeps 100 percent and Apple earns nothing.” (Apple Press Release, February 15, 2011) Replace ‘Apple’ by ‘Amazon’ in that sentence — and I am not sure that Jeff Bezos would even recognise it as grammatical, he would certainly stumble if it were included in the Kindroid press release.

There is only one thing clearly wrong with the Apple, iTunes, Newsstand as far as I am concerned. Do you think there is any chance that they could move away from that rather corny idea of presenting magazines on a pine bookcase? Would it not be better if the Newsstand felt more like an Apple retail store? Not pine, but steel, marble and clean, abstract lines. Putting tens of thousands on pine book cases makes no sense at all.