Last week Apple announced a new music service, new operating systems and a handful of other underwhelming updates. But they made one announcement that may be big news for media outlets and advertisers.
Apple is ditching its Newsstand app and replacing it with a new Flipboard-style news reader, which has been imaginatively named "News". It'll be free, and will initially feature content from a host of media entities like ESPN, Condé Nast and the New York Times. It'll be available in the US, UK and Australia with the new mobile operating system, which will come out in the autumn.
News will deliver stories based on users' interests and preferred publications. Apple is promising it'll deliver a reading experience built for mobile devices and based on the demo shown at it's unveiling, they look to have delivered on that promise. Text and images swoosh and glide, things animate in a pleasing manner. There are in-line photo mosaics, sideshows, animations, and infographics. There are bells and whistles.
Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, publishers will be delighted to hear that the app will keep their brands' own look and feel. When you're reading an article from the Financial Times, it'll look and feel like FT. But publishers will be even more delighted to hear that they'll get to keep all the advertising revenue they can generate on the app. Apple will get a cut of the earnings by selling any unsold inventory. Publishers can also earn revenue from ads sold by iAd that appear in Apple-curated topic feeds, like as Fashion or Technology.
It all sounds great. But it also sounds strangely familiar. Perhaps it's because this sort of curation is nothing new. Apps like Flipboard, Zite and Google Play Newsstand have been at this sort of thing or ages. Or maybe it seems familiar because Facebook launched something almost identical last month.
Facebook Instant Articles are an in-Facebook container for publishers' articles, with added interactivity and minimum interruption. Like the name implies they are instant; or close to it. There's no waiting around for content to load. Like Apple, Facebook is allowing publishers to run their own ads on Instant Articles, and letting them keep 100pc of the revenue. Like Apple, publishers that can't fill their own ad spots can include Facebook ads and get to keep most of the revenue. Deja vu, anyone?
But in some ways Apple's News has the edge on Facebook's Instant Articles. Firstly, Apple's product will be hard-baked into its updated operating system. This new OS will have a new application program interface that will allow content from News to be served and surfaced in different ways, depending on users' preferences. At its unveiling, Apple showed a new search screen that featured automatically populated news stories from CNN and the Huffington Post. It was unclear why these stories were arrived on that personalised screen, but what is clear is that there's increased potential for getting news and articles in front of Apple's users.
Apple's second advantage is that it may also be introducing ad blocking software for its Safari browser, and maybe even other apps. This is another element of it's new mobile operating system. Content blockers affect what content is loaded while using an app, and could be used to prevent websites' ads from popping up. So just as Apple offers media outlets a new way to make money on a shiny new platform, they'll be making the part of the web they don't control less commercially appealing. Tim Cook giveth, and Tim Cook taketh away.
So why are Apple and Facebook creating identical solutions for media on mobile? And one that seems pretty generous to boot? Some commentators believe both companies want to become publishers themselves. But I don't buy it. It's far more likely that they want to offer content to users on their own native platforms, either operating system or in app to keep them there for longer, and monetise their habitual behaviour. But there's a more interesting question: why aren't the publishers creating platforms like News and Instant Articles themselves?
Well, in many instances they are. Or at least they're trying. Every news outlet worth its salt has a news app and a mobile adaptive site. But the tech-titans have the edge over legacy media outlets in three crucial ways. Firstly, they have massive user bases, and relationships with advertisers and publishers that make this sort of innovation commercially viable. Secondly, they have the engineering muscle to create unputdownable products.
And finally, they have no emotional ties to paper - the operating system of the newspaper industry for hundreds of years. This has allowed them to recognise the rise of mobile devices as a ubiquitous channel for delivering content, and to optimise how people receive, read and experience the news on that channel. When you've only got a few inches of screen to tell your story, the packaging really matters.