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June 4, 2018, 2:58 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Revenge of the desktop: These are the most important announcements Apple made for news publishers today

Apple News comes to the Mac, breaking news alerts get a little extra scrutiny, Siri learns a few new tricks, and the web — or some version of it — comes to your wrist.

Today is the second most important day of the year for Apple: the start of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, when thousands of app builders descend on San Jose to learn what the company has planned for them. And while the annual September iPhone launch might be more important for Apple, WWDC is the most important for news publishers, since it’s where the OS-level announcements that most impact them are made.

The keynote ended moments ago, and there were a surprising number of updates and changes worth knowing about. Here are the big ones.

Apple News comes to the Mac. Three years ago, Apple announced the latest iteration of its strategy for publishers. The old, awkward Newsstand… — app? folder? what was it again? — was dead; taking its place was a new app called Apple News that would be a shared platform for publishers — think Facebook Instant Articles, minus the Facebook. Initial results were underwhelming, but usage, traffic, and user experience all improved over time; many publishers now think of Apple News as their second-most important distribution platform — behind Facebook, ahead of Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.

There were a few minor updates to the iOS app, mostly visual; Apple News stories are also now available in Apple’s (historically underpowered) Stocks app. But today’s biggest announcement was that Apple News was expanding from iPhones and iPads to Macs. (The Mac app looks almost exactly like the iPad app.)

Now, you may be asking: Hey, didn’t everybody move to mobile? Why should anyone care about nasty old desktops and laptops any more? Good point, Nieman Lab Reader! Just about any way you measure it, Internet traffic on desktops and laptops has either plateaued or declined slightly as phones have become our favorite screens to stare at. (See slides 11 and 97 here for visuals.) The Mac has something like 100 million active users worldwide; the number of active iPhone and iPad users is around 1 billion. Holy addressable market! News audiences have moved to mobile too, with 3-to-1 mobile/desktop splits now common.

That said, desktop is still a very important driver of traffic during the daytime on weekdays, when many millions of people are sitting in front of a screen much bigger than a phone’s.

And sometimes those people get bored. They want something to distract them from their TPS reports. Jonah Peretti, cofounder of The Huffington Post and CEO of BuzzFeed, built an empire based on that fact. Check this 2010 presentation:

Desktop’s share varies from site to site — I’d wager TMZ’s audience is very mobile all day and all of the night — but for niche sites that are in any way work-related, desktop can still be king. For instance, here at Nieman Lab, our web traffic so far in 2018 has been 57 percent desktop, and its peaks match workday hours pretty closely in whatever time zone you’re visiting us from.

Desktop visits last longer than mobile ones. The median daytime desktop user is likely to have higher income and education than someone tapping a Facebook link on a smartphone. And within desktop, all of that is even more true of Mac users vs. Windows or Chromebook users. iOS users way overindex for news consumption compared to Android users; Mac users do too. (I won’t pretend the Nieman Lab audience by any means typical, but over 40 percent of our desktop traffic comes from Macs, even though Macs have a global market share of under 10 percent.)

Aaaand, unlike in a browser, you can’t use an ad blocker inside Apple News. Useful for those times when there actually are ads inside Apple News. Depending what number you believe, something like 30 to 40 percent of American desktop browsers use ad blockers — and that number is significantly higher in many other countries. (In Greece, 57 percent of people under 35 use one!)

It didn’t take long after the debut of the iPhone for publishers to figure out user attention was moving from web browsers to separate apps. But for some reason, that same transition never happened on desktop. If Apple can use push notifications artfully and get the user experience right (which I broadly think they have on iOS), maybe Apple News will become the thing some people command-tab to when their brain needs a break instead of

Speaking of the desktop. Wondering why Apple News on Mac looks almost exactly why Apple News on iPad? Turns out it’s basically the same app. Apple announced it is planning to make it possible for developers to easily convert their iOS apps to Mac apps. This won’t be available to developers until 2019, but several of the new macOS apps — including Apple News — are actually built using those conversion tools.

It’ll be a year until it impacts consumers, but this means that every publisher with an iOS app — which is an awful lot of them — will be able to pretty easily have a Mac app. So there can be a New York Times Mac app, a Guardian Mac app, a CNN Mac app, a Google News Mac app, a BuzzFeed News Mac app — without much effort.

It also means there can easily be a Facebook Mac app, a Twitter Mac app (again), a Pocket Mac app, a Headspace Mac app — everything. Every company that until now thought that the Mac was too small of a platform to be worth maintaining a separate code base will now get a Mac app without doing much at all.

That’s potentially revolutionary for how people use Mac. There’s an enormous amount of user activity that happens within native apps on iPhones and ipads that, on a Mac, still gets done inside Chrome or Safari or Firefox. Will the same sort of unbundling that we saw on mobile also come to the desktop? It’ll be very interesting to see. (Google is already doing something similar with Android apps on Chromebooks.)

One final cross-device thought: If Apple News can move from iPhone to Mac, why can’t the Podcasts app? Podcast listening is an intensely mobile activity, so it likely wouldn’t see the uptake I expect Apple News will on desktop — but it’d be a chance for the industry’s most important platform to further entrench itself while reaching new audiences.

Tracking “digital health” might not be great news for publishers. Your Apple Watch may be designed to improve your physical health, but your iPhone will now be more dedicated to monitoring (and helping you improve) your digital health. (Smartphones have become so critical to our lives that “we might not recognize just how distracted we’ve become,” Apple’s Craig Federighi said on stage.)

iOS 12 will come with new tools that monitor how much time you spend using various apps. This is part of a much larger trend toward technology companies recognizing that some of us just might not have the healthiest relationships with our pocket glass slabs. (The person most associated with this trend is ex-Googler Tristan Harris, who longtime Nieman Lab readers may remember from his startup Apture back in 2011.)

Maybe most important for publishers will be a set of new policies around notifications. One new feature called Instant Tuning will allow users to easily stop notifications from a particular app from appearing on the lock screen. On one hand, that’s a little terrifying for publishers — notifications are a critical way publishers direct attention to their work. On the other hand, though, making notifications simply skip the lock screen (but still appear in the total notifications list) is better than turning off an app’s notifications altogether. And without any granular options available beyond on/off, off was awfully tempting.

Still, this means notifications will only be deemed valuable by iOS if the user interacts with them. That’s unfortunate: A lot of the work of the recently ended Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab was around making rich notifications useful even when the user doesn’t tap through. And now Siri will also recommend you turn off an app’s notifications if you haven’t interacted with them in a while. Basically, you’ll have to be more careful about what you decide is alert-worthy.

The new efforts to remind users how much they’re using parts of their phone are a good idea; I’m sure everyone reading this could stand to be more ~~mindful~~ of their phone usage. But “spend less time looking at your phone” is unlikely to be a societal shift that on net benefits digital publishers. Though hey, maybe we’ll see a Farhadesque boom in print subscriptions! (I doubt it.)

Still, let this overall trend be a reminder to publishers that there are real benefits to constrained user experiences. A morning email newsletter eventually ends; a podcast eventually ends; your news site and your social feeds effectively don’t. We see this in a lot of third-party apps, but there are still good ways yet to be designed for a news publisher to give its users the satisfying message: “That’s it, you’re all caught up — check in tonight or tomorrow morning.”

Siri finally gets app smarts. Apple’s voice assistant — the oldest and yet somehow still worst of the major voice assistant platforms — got a much-needed update. And it finally got a feature I’ve been crankily calling for for six years: Individual apps can integrate with Siri and define phrases a user can say to get app-specific information. (This was previously available for only a defined set of tasks.)

So Siri commands like these are now technically possible:

— Hey Siri, what are the Times’ top stories right now?

— Hey Siri, has anything really important happened in the past few hours?

— Hey Siri, what’s the latest on the Trump Russia investigation?

We won’t know the technical details for a bit yet, but the demo showed Siri commands that don’t include a specific app’s name. (So it doesn’t have to be “Hey Siri, does The Washington Post think anything really important happened in the past few hours?” The Siri command landgrab awaits.) It’s unclear how flexible they’ll be — will apps be able to pull in variables from a command (“Hey Siri, what’s the latest news on _________?”) or whether every command will need to be tightly scripted.

The feature is called Shortcuts, and users will also be able to define their own. (The Shortcuts app shows clear DNA from Workflow, an app Apple acquired last year.)

This, alongside Amazon’s skills framework, is the best opportunity for publishers to get thinking about what sort of voice interactions they think their users might find valuable. I don’t expect to see a ton of pickup among users in the near term, but it’s a great thing to be thinking about.

[Update, 5:09 p.m.: I may have been too generous in assuming Apple was going to treat publishers right here. Despite no mention of it in the keynote, the new SiriKit documentation seems to indicate that these app integrations are still being limited to a defined number of “intent domains” — things like sending a message, adding to a list, calling a car, starting a workout, making a restaurant reservation. There is no explicit intent domain that would apply to a news app; there is a “Media” domain, but I’m thinking it means media in the A/V sense. (Its purpose is to “provide media playback.”) If this is true…UGH, Apple, I thought you’d finally gotten this right.]

ARKit gets shareable. I confess I thought we’d see more (and more interesting) uses of the augmented reality capabilities that were added to iPhones and Android phones last year. There’ve been a few one-offs from publishers, and a handful of places (like the Journal and Quartz) that have devoted a bit more effort. But it’s still far from mainstream.

ARKit 2, the new iteration of Apple’s AR toolkit, has a few nifty features, like letting the same AR objects exist within multiple people’s devices at the same time. So at a public event, for instance, some noteworthy object or individual could be “placed” in a space where multiple people in the audience could use their iOS devices to see it at the same time. Apple is also getting on board with a new file format, USDZ, that will de-abstract AR objects into files that can be shared across apps and platforms — or even published on the web.

Cool! But realistically, I think it’ll still take a mainstream AR glasses option to prompt anything like mass adoption.

The web on your wrist. watchOS and tvOS are the also-rans for publishers among Apple’s operating systems lineup, but there was a little of interest to publishers. Maybe most significant is the addition of WebKit to watchOS 5; that will let you view web content on your wrist. (At least some kind of web content, in certain specific contexts — emails and text messages were mentioned. Steve Jobs might call it “the baby Internet.”) No matter how limited it may be, this is likely the most flexible Apple Watch canvas for publishers yet.

Apple Watch does continue to grow impressively, up 70 percent in 2017; should any content producers ever figure out what the hell to do with at 42mm screen, there’ll be an audience for it.

(For Apple TV fans: The new tvOS will now get more live news streams integrated with its TV app.)

More anti-tracking efforts. I admire Apple’s restraint in not mentioning “Cambridge Analytica,” but its usual promotion of its privacy bonafides did take a shot at Facebook, referring to “like buttons and comment fields” that can track you across sites. “This year, we are shutting that down,” Federighi said. Safari will make you confirm you want Facebook to track you via like buttons (I’m guessing most won’t!) and add anonymization features that make it harder for ad networks to identify you individually by using tech details about your device.

This will happen on Safari on Mac — but also, much more importantly, for iPhone and iPad Safari too. I felt a great disturbance in iOS, as if millions of ad-tech companies suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

A renamed Apple Books. What has been iBooks gets what looks like a very attractive visual refresh, borrowing a lot from the App Store editorial-centric redesign last year. And it gets a new name! Apple Watch, Apple News, Apple Books…I’m sensing a trend.

32-way FaceTime. Realistically, most publishers won’t want to be limited by an Apple-only platform, but the prospect of OS-native real-time 32-way video chats brings to mind tons of engagement and virtual event ideas.

Some sort of subscription partnership. This wasn’t announced during the keynote, but I assume we’ll get details about it in the next day or two. The Washington Post’s Shailesh Prakash gave the game away at an INMA conference Sunday:

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     June 4, 2018, 2:58 p.m.
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