The first iOS 9 public beta was released on Thursday. We’ve been testing iOS 9 on a variety of devices but have been spending a lot of time with it on an iPad Air 2.
That’s partially to try out the new split-screen multitasking mode in iOS 9 for iPad — and it’s also to check out the new Apple News app. The News app is available on iPhone and iPad, but like Flipboard, it really shines on the tablet.
That’s not to say that there aren’t new features — there are — but the big news with iOS 9 is that it will improve battery life, have beter multi-tasking and generally fix bugs and niggles within iOS.
The big exception here is with News — Apple’s new Flipboard-esque news companion.
Not reinventing the wheel
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Apple’s News app (say that three times fast) is not going to revolutionize the way users get information. On its surface, it’s not demonstrably different from Flipboard, Pulse or any of the other various news aggregations apps that have appeared over the last five years.
Yes, there are some visual panaches that are different — and the human curation bit is definitely a nice touch — but this is a news app that in a lot of ways is very similar to the other news apps that already exist.
The difference, of course, is that this news app is always on your homescreen. This news app is from Apple.
Whether that matters or not remains to be seen. And although News is hardly an original concept, that doesn’t negate its need to exist. Users increasingly want to get access to what is happening on mobile devices and if a default app can do that in an attractive, easy to use way, hey why not.
Setting up and getting started
When you open up the app for the first time, you’re invited to select news publications and “channels” you’re interested in. This helps create a profile of recommended stories and a personalized newspaper.
The experience of the setup is similar to other apps such as Flipboard and the excellent Longform app.
Once you’ve gone through the first bits of the setup experience, you’re met with a number of different sections in the app.
The first is called “For You” and it is very similar ot the feature of the same name in Apple Music.
The idea is to give the user access to stories not just from publications you want to follow — but also news you’re likely interested in. As with Apple Music, the more you use the News app, the better these recommendations become.
Favorites put your publications in view
The second section is called “Favorites” and it includes the various news sources and categories you chose during the setup process. Think of this as a way to easily access your favorite news sources at any time.
What you see in each publication section largely depends on the publisher. Some publishers, such as the Condé Nast’s Wired have worked with Apple on optimizing their landing pages for the Apple News Format and have the landing page set up in sections, as it is on a website or in tablet apps.
Other publications — including Mashable — just have a selection of articles available that are presented in a flexible grid format.
At its best, these sections present a really beautiful, magazine-esque way to browse a news source. Part iPhone or iPad app, part mobile-optimized design, this view gives news organizations the opportunity to make really great phone and tablet content views that aren’t just replications of their mobile web efforts.
The open question will be whether or not news outlets will want to take the time to make their articles better formatted for this option.
Because this is beta software and because publishers are still optimizing how content is viewable in the News app, the timeliness each article is depends on the source. We expect this will change as the beta evolves.
Explore your options
The “Explore” tab focuses on discovering new publications and various interest channels. You can subscribe to an interest or publication or browse through an area for more types of publications,
A main channel such as “Technology” might be organized by topics, such as “cloud computing,” “wearable technology,” “open source software” and more.
You can also find publications inside each of those sections.
Search and Save
The “Search” and “Saved” tabs are exactly as you would expect. Search lets you look for specific publications, topics or stories. And “Saved” is where you can save articles for offline reading.
The offline reading feature is great, especially for users who frequently want to cue up reading material for the subway. Speaking as one of those users, this is one of the reasons I love apps such as Instapaper and Longform, and it’s great Apple took this into consideration.
The look and feel
At WWDC 2015, Apple made a big deal out of the look and feel it was giving to presenting articles in its News app.
It makes sense. The app — even in this beta stage — is beautiful.
Text flows cleanly and the app is intelligently laid out. I had a great reading experience whether I was looking at articles built specifically for the Apple News format or not.
There are basically two ways publishers can get their content into the News app. First, they can give Apple an RSS feed of their content.
Apple will then display the articles from RSS in its own formatted reader format. Depending on the parameters of the feed, readers may see complete articles or be directed to “click here to read the full article” after the RSS excerpt. That’s because some publishers (including Mashable) don’t publish full-text RSS feeds.
The good news is that if you do read one of those articles, clicking on the link opens up the full article within an in-app browser that’s both fast and fluid. In fact, you can often view the full webpage just by scrolling down.
The experience is solid. Obviously Apple would prefer news partners offer full RSS feeds, but I have to say, they are working well with publishers that don’t syndicate full feeds.
Publishers that want to sign up for the News app can do so here.
The second way of reading articles in the news app are via publishers that support the upcoming Apple News format. Apple hasn’t publicly released all the specifics of the format but its already working with some publishers in this beta to show off what the format can do.
Consider it iBooks for news. Content creators can craft really beautiful reading experiences with interactive elements that are, again, akin to something you would see in a magazine iPad app.
The latest issue of Wired features actress/producer/writer Rashida Jones. Wired used the Apple News format to show off some cool interactions and quotes in the article.
Similarly, New York Magazine’s Grub Street condensed its amazing cover story of the history of the hamburger into an amazing article using the Apple News Format. The use of embedded video and graphics is really fantastic.
The best part of all of this isn’t just that it looks great — although it does — it’s the speed; the app is incredibly fast. On an iPad Air 2, pages and articles seem to load instantly without lag. Even when going to a website to read a full article, the lag just isn’t there. Going between the same content in a web browser on my iPad Air 1 running iOS 8.4 and my 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina, versus the News app running on an iPad Air 2, I was struck by just how much faster the loading experience is.
We should note this isn’t exactly Apple’s first foray into the news aggregation business. In 2011, Apple introduced Newsstand as a way of holding magazine apps and subscriptions in one place.
The idea behind the app was that publishers could always deliver the latest edition of a publication to users. This was a great idea in theory, but in practice it had some issues.
For one, it buried publisher apps inside this weird folder. I subscribe to about 10 different magazines through iOS, in addition to The New York Times digital edition. With the exception of pop-up alerts telling me a new edition of Bloomberg Businessweek is available to read, I often lose track of when a new issue of a magazine is out. I’m not sure if making all the apps live separately will fix that problem, but it will certainly give publishers more visibility.
It’s also important to acknowledge that in the shift from Newsstand to News, Apple has gone from simply being a place that sells subscriptions to a news platform. Those platform aspirations are shared by Facebook and Flipboard, too.
Big opportunity, big risk
The News app is still very much in beta. In my tests, recommendations aren’t quite there and news publishers still need to figure out a strategy around this app. Publishers that choose to use the Apple News format have additional advertising options — and those types of ads could be lucrative, depending on how they are sold.
Fundamentally, I have two core questions about News. First, does the world need another news app/news platform? We already have Facebook trying to become the Windows of the Internet. Flipboard has been trying (and not really succeeding) to turn a great-looking app into a business over the last five years, and we’ve seen a lot of very good attempts at aggregating publishers into a beautiful reading experience launch and fail, or get acquired and disappear.
Does the world really need another attempt at creating the ultimate customized newspaper? Do users really want that or are they happy going to Facebook or their individual feeds?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I recognize why its important for Apple to have an alternative to simply sending the users of its platform to Facebook, but I don’t know if users are necessarily clamoring for something more.
But putting aside whether we really need another news app, the more important question might be: Will publishers support yet another news platform?
The truth is, the online publishing business is hard. Traffic often comes from third-parties (Facebook and Google) that the publisher cannot control and is now expected to live in more places than ever. As a writer, I write knowing most of my words are read on a small screen, but it’s increasingly important for the future of my business to also diversify into video and onto non-traditional platforms such as Vine, Snapchat and Periscope.
So many different publishing platforms and networks are already vying for content creators attentions. Medium, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Flipboard, Tumblr — not to mention traditional RSS — the big question I have is will creators dedicate the time to optimize content for Apple’s News app?
The big publishers — the Condé Nast and New York Times companies of the world are almost always willing to jump on board to try something new. The same goes for Time Inc. and Hearst. Given the breadth of the content already available, I have to assume Apple has worked with Condé Nast to integrate Apple News Format features into the CMS that runs its various publications. I’m sure something similar is in place at The New York Times and The Atlantic.
What is less clear is what Apple will do for smaller publishers. Publishers that may have lots of readers but don’t have huge product teams dedicated to a custom CMS. Will their be WordPress plugins for publishing in the Apple News Format? What will be required of authors to make sure their content looks good on this app?
These are questions that I’m sure will be answered in time — but to consumers of news and content creators — are of vital importance. For this app to succeed, Apple will have to do more than just get a few big names to sign up early. The real test is whether those brands stick around in a year and whether it is easy for the smaller content creators to get their stuff out there too.
If Apple can commit to approaching news with the same gusto it has approached Apple Music, this could become a platform worth watching.