Apple's News app in iOS 9: All the news that fits, they print?

Apple's News app raises questions about what the company will approve. Will it be like podcasts, or App Store review?

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When Apple unveiled the News app in the WWDC keynote on Monday, my first reaction was glee. As a past participant in its Newsstand experiment, which is probably the best way to describe it, the News app had several characteristics that made it seem far superior for many purposes.

By the evening, though, gloom had set in. The News app looks more like yet another push news service—the latest incarnation of PointCast for those with long memories—that delivers what the product’s producer thinks is valuable to you rather than what you necessarily want. It’s sophisticated, but takes choice out of readers’ hands.

If a user can’t choose any news source, whether a blog updated yearly and read by 10 people or a multinational media conglomerate’s river of articles, I believe it’s doomed to fall by the wayside. When presented with curation and choice, only a subset of people, the least avid, choose a walled garden unless the benefit is truly remarkable.

Apple’s choices will shape how expansive News is—how porous the wall and how easy to scale it.

Not the second coming of RSS

RSS, a syndication format for news and blog items, arose out of the ashes of push technology in the 1990s. The idea behind push was that in an era of low-throughput broadband, slowly trickling in news headlines, stock prices, and other data to computers in the background would allow people to be up to date, and have a high value to advertisers, as it would capture attention.

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The trouble was that push was too popular. By 1997, there were a dozen or more popular companies creating push products for consumers and businesses. By 1999, the approach was nearly dead for a few interrelated reasons.

First, early push was one-to-one, flooding the narrow-diameter pipes of companies by sending the same data to dozens or thousands of computers. (Companies later introduced server software, often free, that could take a single feed and broadcast it within a company’s network, but too late.)

Second, none of the general push networks offered enough choice. As web publications exploded in the late 1990s, a tightly curated feed of partner networks wasn’t enough.

Third, as throughput expanded in companies and households, people preferred access to the whole web, which is where RSS came in. RSS was a reworking and expansion of Netscape’s Channel Definition Format, one of the standards use for push. But RSS had no central server architecture or company that controlled it after some early jockeying about development and direction. (Aaron Swartz is often incorrectly credited as co-creating RSS; he was on a committee that developed a variant standard that became little used.)

Any site could publish a syndication feed using one of a couple of standards (RSS 2.0 and Atom ultimately dominating), and users could choose to subscribe to any feed in newsreading software. The most popular OS X app was NetNewsReader, which remains under development.

Newsreaders used pull instead of push. The feed formats were in plain text, fed by web servers like any other page. At regular intervals, a newsreader would poll every syndicated feed’s web server to ask if it had changed in that time. If so, it would bring down a new copy of the file. The site never knew anything about you beyond an IP address and newsreader version. (Some feeds required a user name and password, but that was never very sustainable as a way to prevent access.)

If you had hundreds of feeds, your newsreader might make tens of thousands of requests per day. Multiply that by millions of people using newsreaders.

This was unwieldy, and aggregation and synchronization services rose to allow a central point where a server would request updates once and then distribute to every synced account that subscribed to that feed. These services also allowed you to have every newsreader you used on every device, including mobile, stay up to date both in terms of which subscriptions you maintained and which you’d already marked as read, as in email.

Then Google entered the scene with its Reader web app in 2005, which also had sync services, and killed almost all competition. When Google pulled the plug on Reader in 2013, there was no obvious replacement, though some have risen since.

Social networks appeared for some to render RSS pointless. A stream of always timely links from other people—and brands and other advertisers—replaced some, but not all of its utility.

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News will be competing against not just other news apps, but also Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature, which lets content creators publish to News Feed.

It’s into this context that News app steps foot, alongside Facebook Instant Articles (launched in May) and SnapChat Discover (January).

All three promise rich media, beautiful layouts, seamlessly integrated advertising (why is that a good thing for readers?), and curation from major media brands. All are free. All are designed to “enhance engagement”: to divert precious attention from elsewhere to these particular apps, and by grabbing high-quality attention, sell high-value ads.

News that you can use or abuse

The reason for my initial excitement at News is that I misunderstood what Apple’s VP of Product Marketing Susan Prescott was showing. I thought News was going to be a rebuttal to Google’s disinterest in Reader, a product that was exceedingly popular but they couldn’t figure out what to do with.

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I thought News would combine pull and push. On the one hand, readers would add sites they were interested in, and Apple would scrape pages or rely on RSS to produce something like its Reading List stripped-down text view in Safari, only better. On the other, Apple would push the availability of both partner sites that had formatted using its richer Apple News Format (not yet released) and those it had opted to include via RSS or which sites had specifically submitted for inclusion.

Unfortunately, it’s all push. Apple is relying on machine learning to sort incoming articles into a million search terms and categories. Machine learning relies on massive datasets that allow neural-network software to be trained in subtleties and pull out patterns it can apply. Such approaches underlie an increasing amount of our automated interactions, as with Google Now and Siri.

Apple announced a list of initial partnerships with media companies but stressed “indie” publishers would be included as well, perhaps trying to conjure images of big record labels and inde labels as a parallel. The web is enormously more diverse, however.

The initial documents about News Publisher, Apple’s name for its inclusion program, allows submissions via RSS feeds, with the requirement that a site have at least two sections. (Who this weeds out, I don’t know. Blog software that offers distinct feeds by category seem to apply.) Apple is clearly spidering RSS as well, given that it offers an opt-out option.

Not every publisher will want to create an iCloud account and manage submissions through Apple’s process, whether for fuss or a disagreement with the terms to which it needs to agree to be included. Some will opt out from principle as well. The long tail of sites that are routinely updated and read by millions of people in small numbers will neither bother to opt in nor be included in Apple’s sweeps, unless Apple plans to be quite a bit broader than it’s hinted at.

News is a gatekeeper, and we are all wise—whether publications, bloggers, readers, or users of social networks—to be skeptical of those who set themselves up that way, no matter their track record. We have Apple-that-runs-the-App-Store, rejecting software that too closely competes with its own or through an extreme interpretation of a content rule doesn’t pass review.

We have Apple-that-runs-a-podcast-directory, which seems to include everything submitted through a simple process (though it wrote its own extensions to RSS particular to iTunes to which we have to conform). The only requirement is that material that’s deemed mature by its description should be tagged “explicit” either for an entire podcast or for particular episodes.

And we also have Apple-that-runs-iBookstore, which rejects books that link in any fashion, even as a mention in an author’s biography, other bookstores.

Which Apple will review publisher submissions?

The fine print

I don’t believe News has the potential to become so powerful and expansive that it shapes what a substantial portion of people read, even when, as with iBooks, it later comes to OS X, and potentially pushes headlines to the Watch. Nothing in News is exclusive, but it’s also not expensive.

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That is, no periodical or blogger is required to only publish in Apple News Format, which by early accounts is another text-based syndication variant, nor publish items exclusively to News. Rather, those who want a bigger audience will likely apply for (or be swept into) News.

Full-scale news apps will still be needed, as News has no subscriber login or in-app subscription purchases—as of yet. For publications that offer paid subscriptions, News is a leaky paywall, allowing access to a limited but tasty subset of content, which entices some readers to subscribe to the full hose available via native and web apps. The New York Times and the Economist have explicitly made that connection.

The best part of News is that it allows for a rich display of content to be discovered by readers who otherwise might not be able to find it. Modest blogs and small-scale publications could have some parity with larger organizations without the cost of creating an app or adopting a publishing platform. The iAds advertising platform could also bring ad revenue to sites that don’t want to work with Google or that have meager results from Google or other programs.

By limiting the set of what can be read, News may draw a circle around its potential audience at the outset. For every site that someone cannot find and subscribe to, and every kind of content that’s thinly represented in News, people wind up using a website, an app, or even an up-to-date RSS aggregator app.

Apple’s biggest problem with News is that it may not be relevant to readers’ interests. By favoring curation and discovery, Apple may recapitulate both push and portals. Neither path is a good one to take. Tear down the garden wall, and make it a push-you-pull-me service, and Apple might just fill an empty spot in readers’ hearts.

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