News, and Apple News

From all the announcements Apple made in WWDC, I thought one of the most interesting ones was the Apple News app, because it’s trying to solve a problem I have encountered myself for a long time. Finding the best content online has always been a painful experience because there is a lot of great content being produced everyday and it is impossible to keep up with everything, it feels overwhelming.

I’ve been fine tuning my “reading strategy” for years: from RSS clients, Twitter lists, Newsletters, News aggregators… I’ve tried them “all”, but I always end up with a crippled, suboptimal experience where something is missing.

What’s the problem?

At the end of the day, you aim for “comfortably read all your content in one place, in digestible bits and discovering new stuff along the way”. This simple sentence tough is not easy to master, because the business models and incentives that are in place make it really difficult for all the pieces to fit together.

When it comes to build an amazing news reader, you set out to solve five main problems. These may sound familiar, because these are the problems that you may have faced if you ever tried to build your own curated news feed with RSS, Twitter lists or whatever. Boiling it down to an ordered list:

  1. Sources. Having all the sources is the hygienic factor all services should resolve beforehand. Later on we can touch on fancy additional features, but actually having what you want to read is a prerequisite. That’s not easy though, because content comes from a variety of channels and not all the sources commit to a particular one. And most important, if your service builds upon a proprietary platform (like the Apple News does) you’ll need to get some publishers on board, because you have to consider the revenue streams that are in place.

  2. Reading experience. Once you have all the content available, all you want to do is read. But most of the time the reading experience is inconsistent and suboptimal. When your sources are scattered and don’t come from a central provider, you are presented with confusing typography, “Read more” buttons and links that redirect outside your app, so you might not enjoy your favorite sources at all. The reading experience is key to the engagement and should be carefully considered.

  3. Quantity. There’s so much content out there and you have little time to consume it. One of the most frustrating experiences you’ll be facing is the 999+ unread count. What was supposed to be a delightful and relaxing moment turns out to be a task, yet another inbox zero thing.

  4. Quality. When you are presented with a digestible amount of content, you’ll be committing 30 or 40 minutes of your day to read. Therefore you want to make sure you are not wasting your time, and you are reading the most relevant content. The problem here is that sometimes you find yourself skipping over 30 mediocre tabs you’ve opened, and distilling the signal from the noise should be taken care of.

  5. Discovery. You might think you already know where all the great content comes from, but I’d also bet that there’s a hidden gem out there you might have skip. An unexpected article that surprises you is always a delightful experience, and that’s an underlying feature that might end up boosting your engagement. Therefore having a recommendation engine that learns about your reading habits will subtly get you hooked and coming back for more.

Enter Apple News

While re-watching the WWDC Keynote, I noticed that it might be useful to think of Apple News and Apple Music as kind of together, because they share some common ground on the problems they are trying to solve.

As Jimmy Iovine pointed out, if you want to keep up with your favorites artists you have to follow them here and there, you have to check Facebook, Twitter… and you might end up seeing one in ten posts with a suboptimal experience… I’m paraphrasing here, but he was describing a broken experience.

Sounds familiar? That’s because those are most of the problems we already discussed in the first section of the article.

I obviously can’t predict if Apple News is going to work or not, but from the outside it is definitely tackling the right problems, so it might be onto something. They have also might learned a lot from previous (floppy) initiatives, like Newsstand. Newsstand was great from the aggregation point of view, but it clearly failed to deliver the experience.

  • The on boarding process had a lot of friction, because you had to install each app for the content.
  • The content was usually delivered in PDF, and that was not getting the most of the digital platform. PDF are OK to print, but they are not great way to read a newspaper on an iPad (adaptive layouts, resizable fonts…).
  • Downloads were huge. Given the PDF nature of the content it also made the delivers slow and data consuming.

With Apple News it seems like they have clearly understood what was broken with Newsstand.

  • They were confident of having most publishers on board from big ones, to smaller ones (wink to John Gruber included).
  • They clearly put a lot of emphasis on the reading experience. Up to a point where the speech felt more directed to the user than to the publisher. In stark contrast with the Facebook Instant Articles announcement that focused mostly on publishers.
  • They also touched the discovery side, again, I can’t help but note the parallelism with Apple Music.

Despite the service is run by an algorithm, (we also have recent evidence that human curated services are hard) I see it as the most holistic approach to news delivery that I’ve seen so far. And on top of that, the fact that it will be the default news app for almost all iOS users, will matter.

The only flag I might rise is the social aspect. Innitatives like Nuzzel are working like a charm only because they tap on your social graph and that makes it easy to build on your interests. Apple News might lack of this aspect and it will be interesting to see how this Curation vs. Algorithm plays out.

The most interesting part though is the peripheral movements. It might seem unrelated, but have also taken good care of the publishers revenue model, tapping of course on the iAd program. But they are also (casually) facilitating ad-blockers across the system. So they are not only building a good app to deliver content, but also taking a strategic approach by cutting the revenue stream from 3rd party channels. Perks of being the platform owner.