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June 10, 2013, 4:33 p.m.

Push notifications for news stories, better background downloads, and more of Apple’s new promises to news orgs

Is this the move that lets news organizations get the most out of pushing breaking news to users, on their phones and at their desks?

newsstand-ios7Apple just finished its semi-annual extravaganza of new product announcements, this time at its Worldwide Developers Conference, and it was an eventful one: new MacBook Airs promising 12 hours of battery life, a crazy space-bullet-looking new Mac Pro, the long-rumored iTunes Radio, and a new version of OS X. It’s the new iOS 7 that attracted the most attention, though. Video of the whole shebang is already posted.

I try to watch these events from the perspective of news organizations developing for the iPhone and iPad, and while most of the action was elsewhere, there were a few new developments worth noting. And that’s beyond the aethetic refresh that Newsstand is getting (right).

More reliable content downloading

iOS 7 promises substantially better background updating, a key issue for news apps. Apple promises that updates will be more frequent, and tied to app usage:

Because iOS 7 learns when you like to use your apps and can update your content before you launch them. So if you tend to check your favorite social app at 9:00 a.m. every day, your feed will be ready and waiting for you. That’s multitasking in iOS 7. It knows what you want to do before you do.

The keynote highlighted CNN’s app as an example of the sort that would benefit from this invisible background downloading of new content. It didn’t specifically cite Newsstand apps, which are the ones that typically have much bigger payloads to download — I’m looking at you, iPad magazines — but one hopes they’ll be able to benefit too. Too many iOS news apps suffer from a lengthy delay from when tapping the icon to seeing the full content downloaded.

As an aside, automated downloading of content is one of the key appeals of having a Newsstand app, as opposed to a generic iOS app. If frequent regular downloading is now available outside of Newsstand, it may push some news orgs to switch back to a “traditional” app.

(Update, 5:45 p.m.: Benedict Evans points out another small point in this direction: Newsstand’s icon used to show tiny icons of the covers of the publications within. Now it’s just a generic icon with generic publications. A lot of publishers weren’t too keen on Newsstand taking away their allotted space on user’s iPhone screens and burying it in something else. If you can get in-app subscriptions outside Newsstand, and you can get background downloading outside Newsstand, what exactly is Newsstand good for? An auto-updating icon?)

Moving push notifications to the desktop

Our phones have gotten us used to the idea of push notifications, and while news orgs haven’t used them to their fullest extent in my judgment, they’re a great way to usefully attract attention to content people find valuable. In the new version of OS X, push notifications from your iPhone will also show up on your Mac. So when a news app on your phone sends an alert, it’ll show up on your desktop too.

Needless to say, this is potentially really powerful — although, as with phone push notifications, hitting the right balance between useful and annoying interruptions will be key.

There’s one other piece that sounds really interesting that I don’t remember being mentioned in the keynote — and we won’t know the details until we can play with the software. But check out this language from Apple’s website:

Now when you choose to receive updates from a website, your breaking news, sports scores, auction alerts, and more appear as notifications — even when Safari isn’t running.

That language has a footnote: “Requires adoption by third-party websites.”

That’s really interesting — the idea that you might not even have to have an iOS app to send push notifications to the Mac desktop. Individual websites could do it. We’ll have to see what that means — and what websites will have to do to send these pushes — but it could be a reasonably big deal. (Update: See more details about this here.)

A way into Siri

Siri still doesn’t have an open API for developers, which is disappointing. It would be great if you could ask your phone “What’s the latest from Syria?” and have a news app provide an answer. But there’s a new, semi-hacky way to get you 20 percent there: Siri will now show the most recent tweets from a Twitter feed the phone’s user follows in answer to “What is [Twitter user] saying?” So you really could ask your phone “What is The Guardian saying?” and it should pull up the latest tweets from @guardian. Small steps.

Location, location, etc.

The new version of the App Store highlights apps that are popular near your location. So if you’re at Fenway Park, it should highlight Red Sox, baseball, or Boston tourist apps; if you’re in Paris, it’ll show you apps about the Louvre or French translation apps. That might provide a small boost for local news organizations; one presumes that The Dallas Morning News app would be popular in Dealey Plaza, the L.A. Times app in Chavez Ravine, and so on. Could be a useful discovery tool for local-driven news orgs with apps.

iBooks on the desktop

Apple’s ebook platform now comes to OS X too. A laptop screen is a much worse place to read paginated ebooks than a tablet (or even a phone), but for note-taking and the like, the physical keyboard will be a boon. For the many news organizations who are now selling ebooks, it’s nice to have even a small bump in addressable market.

Finally, one inside-baseball update. For years, Apple liked to feature The New York Times’ website when it showed off a new version of its browser Safari, and it gave the Times’ pre-release access to the iPad to develop a news app to show off at its unveiling. But last fall, it was CNN that took over Apple’s most-favored-news-org status. This time around, CNN got some quality screen time, but it was The Washington Post that got showed off in Safari. Apple still holds a grudge, apparently.

POSTED     June 10, 2013, 4:33 p.m.
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