Today’s new-product announcement at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference was, overall, a doozy. In addition to introducing the long-awaited OS X Lion and announcing noteworthy Twitter integration, Apple has also, from the looks of things, gone on a veritable app-eating binge. The company, it announced, has created: “Reading List,” a read-later functionality that allows users to time-shift their consumption of content (sound familiar?); a cloud-storage service, iCloud (which looks remarkably like this one); and a new camera and image-editing feature (kind of like this one). Among others. Possible follow-up announcements: Apple is introducing badges to reward users for visiting places in-person! Apple is releasing a game that involves shooting birds at pigs!
Anyway, if you’re interested in the specifics of all the updates Apple will be rolling out to its products and services, MSNBC.com has a nicely comprehensive list. But we watched the conference, of course, with an interest in how the updates will affect the future of news. From that perspective, here are three developments that stand out:
The biggest news is Apple introduction of Newsstand for iOS, which looks to be essentially an iBooks for publishers’ content — a central location for users’ magazine and newspaper subscriptions. With the new feature (well, new as of this fall), readers can browse a virtual bookshelf — literally, “wooden” and all — and subscribe to a periodical in one tap. New issues will be downloaded in the background, solving one of the biggest problems for magazine publishers who push out issues that are hundreds of megabytes in size. As Cult of Mac noted, Newsstand will act as “a direct line between magazines and newspapers to your iOS device.” From the user perspective, it’s the closest digital publishing has come to the news consumption model that worked so well for so many years: having your morning paper tossed, every morning, straight to your door.
While the specifics of the Newsstand are so far unclear — can any magazine- or newspaper-style app get in on the action? Is it only for paid apps? — it’ll be interesting to see how publishers respond to the new feature. If you want to play in Apple’s garden, of course, you have to play by Apple’s rules — which includes giving up 30 percent of your subscription revenue to Apple. (Compare that to Google’s relatively measly 10-percent cut for its One Pass system.) But what today’s presentation suggested is that the iPad will likely not only become increasingly ubiquitous, but also increasingly simple to use — for users and publishers alike. That’s a pretty powerful combination. And it’s hard to imagine a publisher not wanting to see its glossy magazine sitting there, right next to other glossy magazines, on 25 million virtual bookshelves.
Reader, the Instapaper-and Readability-like feature that debuted in the desktop version of Safari a year ago, will now be part of Apple’s iOS 5, Apple said. With the Reader interface, news articles are stripped down to clean, readable text. No graphics, no buttons — and, very importantly, no ads. Users will be able save articles for later, generating a “reading list” that syncs across all of the user’s iOS devices. That experience is, again (and as predicted), awfully similar to other “Tivo for News” services. (Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, summarized his response to Apple’s news like so.)
The desktop version of Reader, while we don’t have usage data on it, never seemed to make a big splash. But that could well change once it undergoes iOS integration. Mobile, after all — and particularly the iPad, which is increasingly touted as a consumption-tailored device — is the perfect environment for uncluttered reading. It could be the place where this feature really takes off. And since another feature of Reader is that it automatically renders even long articles into single-page interfaces, that could lead to a damaging dent in pageviews for publishers. Not to mention a loss in ad sales.
Apple introduced the iPad in 2010 as a complement to, not replacement for, the traditional desktop or laptop computer. While the ever-improving iPad still can’t match the PC in horsepower or functionality, an improved iOS will allow the iPad to function even more independently than it already does. With the new operating system, an iPad owner can get up and running without being forced to, say, sync with iTunes. Nor will the iPad need a PC for syncing or software updates, since that all happens wirelessly and — per today’s other big announcement — in the cloud.
In many households, Apple noted, the iPad is the only “computer” there is. That’s pretty remarkable, and it creates all the more pressure on publishers either to play in Apple’s garden or to otherwise develop mobile-optimized reading experiences, whether in app or mobile-web form. If you’re a newspaper or magazine with a website but no app or mobile site, you may be missing a whole (and increasingly large) demographic of “post-PC” readers. “I think the biggest takeaway from today’s Apple event was how many different companies were disrupted,” Reuters’ Anthony de Rosa tweeted after the event. But the biggest takeaway for news organizations may be the increasing number of ways there are to work with, rather than fight against, the disruption.