Apple’s big push into services this year was doomed for disaster—at least if you considered Apple News+ representative of what was to come back in March. Many of the problems I hated back then remain central to the experience: the mishmash of PDFs with digital content, the hassle of searching for publications, and the lack of real reasons to give up many direct subscriptions to notable magazines. Seven months on, the best thing about it is that it’s a relatively cheap way to read The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. With services, Apple News+ suggested last spring, Apple was biting off more than the famous hardware maker could chew.
Today, Apple’s trouble with its paid news service looks like an anomaly. Apple TV+ may not yet be as “sexy” as services like HBO or the brand-new Disney+, but all the same, it’d be a stretch to call any of its launch-week shows “duds.” (In fact, I’m surprised to find myself looking slightly more forward to new episodes of See than to those for Disney+’s phenomenal Star Wars epic The Mandalorian.) Apple Arcade is an unqualified success, at least judging from the number of people chatting about it on social media. For almost every Friday since launch, Apple has cranked out one or more fantastic games that often release alongside console counterparts and play well on every screened device in the Apple ecosystem. Aside from some grumbling that Apple Arcade is only available on Apple devices, I’ve seen virtually no outright hate for the service. And then, of course, we have years-old Apple Music, which now boasts over 60 million subscribers and faces lawsuits from rival Spotify aimed at keeping its rapid expansion in check. Along with iTunes, it served as early proof that Apple could dominate in an arena that wasn’t strictly related to hardware.
Without exception, Apple Music, Apple TV+, and Apple Arcade are all now firmly part of The Conversation. But Apple News+? Hardly. Indeed, the most damning thing about it is that no one seems interested in talking about it at all—not even in the form of random Apple-bashing in the Android subreddit. When we do hear about Apple News+, it’s usually in the form of tepid statements like that from Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch last week (via Variety), when he said the “jury is still out” on the service. CNBC also dropped a report last week saying that Apple has struggled to gain more than 200,000 subscribers in the months since launch. For many, I imagine the main impact of these reports was to remind them Apple News+ exists at all.
It’s hard to determine Apple News+’s success because Apple doesn’t discuss the specifics about it in its earnings calls, and it’s easy to get the feeling that Apple wishes it would just go away. You don’t see ads for it. You don’t see patch notes detailing improvements, aside from a weirdly enthusiastic press release about a new button in May. The best we’ve gotten recently is a rumor from Bloomberg claiming that Apple is thinking about bundling it with services like Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade in 2020—and while I’ve long been a fan of the idea of an Apple services bundle, this isn’t a good look. It suggests Apple thinks the only way more people will pay for Apple News+ is if it tacks it on to something more popular.
What went wrong?
Most of Apple’s seeming trouble with Apple News+ may spring from the fact that it’s the only one of Apple’s large paid services that’s mainly out of its direct control. And as the company best associated with the term “walled garden,” Apple clearly loves being in control. It thrives on it. I’ll even go so far as to say that with the right conditions and proper products, this control is a good thing.
But journalism is messy, as I can easily attest as a journalist. With Apple News+, Apple finds itself struggling with multiple publications in various stages of the shift from print to digital media. It’s struggling to find the best ways to pay sites and to make them believe that Apple News+ benefits them, particularly when those sites tend to have vastly different means of generating their own revenue. Apple also has no control over the frequency or quality of the content. This doesn’t matter much with the free version of Apple News, but it’s a clear problem with the premium content of Apple News+. Maybe these issues wouldn’t be so obnoxious if Apple at least seemed interested in making an effort to fix them (as it is with the notoriously buggy iOS 13), but there’s little proof that it is. Maybe, with so many aspects of Apple News+ being out of the company’s control, it just doesn’t know how.
Compare all this to how we see Apple flexing its muscles with the paid services it has more direct control over. Just this week, we learned that Apple was pulling planned theatrical screenings of the Apple TV+ Samuel L. Jackson flick The Banker after allegations of sexual abuse were directed at the real-life son of the movie’s subject (via The Hollywood Reporter). For that matter, Apple approves and signs off on all the shows on Apple TV+ (and I’m sorry, but all those Apple product placements on The Morning Show can’t be coincidences). And so it goes with Apple Arcade, a service in which Apple partially funds games and decides whether or not it’ll include them in its carefully curated service. In all of these cases, we’re seeing exactly what Apple wants us to see.
Apple can do almost none of that with Apple News+, a service that insists you awkwardly look at PDFs on an iPhone display. Apple News+’s shortcomings result in an experience that feels uncharacteristically “scattershot” and “grab-baggy” for Apple. The iPhone maker doesn’t even seem to know how to make people care about the content, as you don’t really get the kind of careful curation you see on the App Store with Apple News+ stories. Apple Music is probably the service that most resembles Apple News+ because of the diversity of its content, but it doesn’t suffer from the same problems because you access all the content through the subscription and everything shares the same file type. For that matter, it’s usually pleasing to listen to the music regardless of which device you’re on. With Apple News+’s magazines, though, you’re almost certainly going to want to use an iPad or a Mac.
I’m not saying I want more control from Apple in this space. If anything—considering Apple’s increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the U.S. president and its close ties with the censorship-happy government of China—a little less control from the folks in Cupertino would be preferable. I’ve also long believed that Apple gets too much of the benefit of the content from Apple News+, while the actual content makers get comparatively little. If Apple decided to let Apple News+ go the way of AirPower, I might even be happy.
But it’s important to remember that—so far—it looks as though Apple News+ is the only true minus in Apple’s big metamorphosis into a part-time services company. I believe it’s safe to say that it was always considered the least important of Apple’s new services (there was plenty of head-scratching when Apple bought Texture, which Apple News+ is based on). Apple is a services company now, and for the most part, it’s a good one. It just needs to stick to services where it has more control.
Maybe Apple News+ will get better: Apple Music, which also had a slightly rough start, proves that’s a possibility. But for now, one half-baked new service out of three ain’t bad.