Apple introduces Newsstand today at iPhone event, available Oct. 12 with iOS 5

Apple is announcing the latest version of its phone and mobile operating system today, which among many upgrades includes a new Newsstand section for buying and organizing newspaper and magazine apps.

Although Apple previewed the feature at its developers conference in June, very little detail was available about how it would work and how news apps would have to change to comply. But Apple recently released new documentation for developers that sheds more light on exactly how the new home of news apps will function.

iOS 5, with Newsstand, will be released Oct. 12, Apple executives said Tuesday at an event announcing the new iPhone 4S (not iPhone 5 as previously thought). Here are the key details we now know about Newsstand.

Newsstand is opt-in. It’s up to each developer to decide whether to recategorize an app as a “Newsstand app.” Apps that do not participate will be unaffected, while the new Newsstand apps will be featured in a dedicated section in the app store, just like Games or Lifestyle.

Automatic background downloading of subscriptions. Newsstand apps can use a special type of push notification to tell a device a new issue is ready, and it can be downloaded “in the background.” So it’s there awaiting the user, like a newspaper on your doorstep or a magazine in your mailbox.

Apple is expected to introduce its Newsstand today, with an interface similar to iBooks, but designed for reading news.

Apple will only allow this background downloading once a day for each device, to prevent draining battery life. Newsstand apps will still download up-to-the-minute content when they are opened, but the user will need an active Internet connection and have to wait for that to load. Newsstand apps are the only apps to use background content downloads, so if a publisher decides not to participate in the Newsstand, his organization’s app will not benefit from background downloading.

Free apps can participate. While Newsstand is aimed at encouraging paid subscriptions and single-issue sales, apps that do not charge for content can participate. Free apps can still push a background issue download once a day, or update with the latest news when opened, as they do now.

Newsstand apps live inside the Newsstand. These news apps will no longer be among the dozens of app icons scattered across a user’s home screen. Instead, there will be one Newsstand icon on the home screen and the Newsstand’s virtual bookshelf will hold all the newspapers and magazines in one place, just as iBooks does.

This keeps all the publications together in a way that makes it easier for readers to browse them, but the downside is it places the news app two taps away from the user’s home screen instead of one, risking less exposure to people who don’t open Newsstand frequently.

Icons are now dynamic covers. Newsstand apps can replace the traditional square icon with one that looks more like a magazine cover or a newspaper front page. The icon can be rectangular, (up to a 2:1 horizontal ratio or 1:2 vertical), and can be automatically changed once a day to replicate the latest issue cover.

Now that we know more about what exactly Newsstand is, what does it mean for publishers? I have a few concerns.

First, Newsstand further locks publishers into using Apple’s iTunes payment system, in which Apple gets its 30 percent revenue share and owns the subscribers’ personal data.

Earlier this year Apple required publishers to use iTunes for any subscription or issue sold through an app. Now it is hoping to hook consumers on Newsstand as a centralized place to buy and store all their news content.

If that happens, it will be even harder for any individual publisher to break away. Resisting this, a group of eight French newspapers and magazines has banded together to boycott Newsstand and instead launch their own digital kiosk.

Each publisher will have to weigh whether Newsstand is the right place for their apps. Some may want to wait a while to see how it develops.

I also find the Newsstand model duplicative, rather than innovative. It replicates an old offline experience of visiting a street-corner stand to purchase daily or weekly bundles of news printed on pages.

It lacks a fresh approach to distribution or consumption of digital content. Sure, there is a little more convenience for the user, and a little more discoverability for the publisher — but nothing here is a game-changer.

What’s inside each app will continue to matter more than any of these changes. Quality writing, crisp design, effortless navigation and a platform-tailored experience will lead to success. Bad user experiences with content and designs taken unchanged from print will lead to less success, no matter what kind of virtual newsstand supports it.

Related: The 5 things journalists need to know about the iPhone 4S and iOS 5

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  • Anonymous

    It would vary depending on which magazine, Twan. If you have an account with the magazine company, you may be able to log into the app with your username and ID and have it recognize your subscription. But in other cases magazines sell separate subscriptions for iPhone and iPad, so you might have to subscribe twice.

  • Twan Bakker

    How can I get issues from a magazine bought on my iPhone onto my iPad? I see the magazine in the iPad’s Newsstand app, but I don not see on my iPad the issue I purchased on my iPhone

  • Anonymous

    Good question Tim. Anything that goes beyond recreating a print experience — daily/weekly bundles of news with a full-page cover photo. Pushing a print-conceived product into the iPhone/iPad platform is like listening to a radio broadcast on a television – sure, you can do it; but it fails to take advantage of everything the new medium has to offer.

    In fairness to Apple, I’m not sure there is a lot they can do to advance those fresh approaches. It’s up to the individual app makers to build a product that works in new ways suited to the device (Flipboard, for one good example).

  • Anonymous

    Newsstand is fine, Tom. I’m not saying it’s doing harm, I’m just saying it’s not accomplishing that much *unless* the apps and the content served through it also push themselves to adapt to the new platforms. The danger for publishers is that this makes it easy to just push through a PDF of your print publication each day and feel like you’ve done enough.

  • Jody Shackelford
  • Anonymous

    What fresh approach did you want to see?

  • Anonymous

    What “fresh approach” were you hoping to see?

  • Anonymous

    What “fresh approach” did you want to see?

  • Sakthivel P

    I use an app called Magzter for my fav Indian magazines (works on iOS and Android and also on the web at … I hope they get global mags soon and I’m sure they will… it’s easy to use and I hear it’s doesn’t need the publisher to create an app and then do anything but just upload their content (enhanced PDF?) to the Magzter website and BOOM, the magazine is available across devices! It’s a cool and FREE app.. check it out!

  • Matthew

    I’m just wondering why you’re already beating NewsStand up? It didn’t even come out yet, and you won’t know until the finished version is out. Apple wouldn’t waste time with this big new feature if it wasn’t a great thing for consumers. I wouldn’t bother to subscribe to a magazine or newspaper today. Maybe pick an issue up once in a while or something, but nothing more. Now with this coming out, I will most likely subscribe to a couple different magazines and newspapers. I’d wait to bag anything that isn’t out yet, just for your job and names sake.

  • Anonymous

    So much hype! Does anyone remember what John F Kennedy had to say about the iPhone 5 craze?


  • Anonymous

    I head podcasts were “a little more convenience for the user, and a little more discoverability for the publisher” too

    Non-innovative? Maybe your threshold for innovation is a bit too high. Newspapers and their industry of publishing is being brought kicking and whining into the digital age. And hopefully, finally some customers and their experiences are being put first, instead of clinging to old models of thought/advertising/selling/working.

    You get your subscription updated, on your phone/iPad, whilst you sleep. It’s just there when you awake. That is huge. And you know when it’s huge? When it becomes mainstream, it becomes de facto, expected. The “why wasn’t it like this before”. 

    Yes, there are other avenues than Apple. Fine. Get it via another app, or device. But the principle of being able to have a digital subscription, that auto updates its content easily is big. 70%? That’s a better deal for some. I hear 70% of a lot, is better than a higher percentage of something less.

    Apple’s way is sporadic game changing, with constant incremental improvements. Add up the changes that will come and have come, and you get game changing. Just look back at the 2007 keynote if you don’t think that’s true. We went from dumb phone, to smartphones that you’ll be able to talk to, that can do wireless presentations, show video and play games onto a HDTV, autoupdate content, sync wirelessly to the mothership digital content library…