In iOS 7, the final straw for Newsstand

  • 15 October 2013

With the introduction of iOS 7, we’ve decided to no longer recommend Newsstand to our Maggio publisher clients. We recommend publishing non-Newsstand iOS apps instead.

Before I dive deeper into why our recommendation has changed, bear with me as I quickly go through what Newsstand actually is. It is very common in our industry to have misconceptions about Newsstand. Even people who are absolutely certain that they know all about Newsstand often don’t.

Newsstand is a section of the App Store intended for periodicals. You need to publish at least quarterly to qualify. Newsstand apps are “real” apps just like their non-Newsstand counterparts. The difference is that the publisher has decided to list them within the Newsstand section of the store.

Apps in the Newsstand section get seven unique behaviors:

  • The app will be listed in the Newsstand section of the App Store. This is in addition to another section of the publisher’s choosing. For regular apps, a publisher would choose a primary section and a secondary section. Newsstand apps get Newsstand as the primary section and one regular (secondary) section.

  • Once downloaded, Newsstand publications are hidden away within the Newstand app. We’ll get back to this.

  • Both in the App Store and on device, a Newsstand app will be represented by a cover instead of an icon. Unfortunately, this use of covers is purely skeuomorphic in nature: the covers are much too small to actually work. They simply don’t do much to attract reader attention. The upside, if there is one, is that you don’t have to design an app icon.

  • Publishers can update the screenshots of Newsstand apps without submitting a new binary. This functionality has been disabled for non-Newsstand apps to combat fraud, but Newsstand publishers are still free to update the screenshots of their apps.

  • Newsstand app descriptions can be driven by an Atom feed, so that the description and cover of the latest issue is automatically displayed in the app description.

  • Newsstand apps can, once a day, perform automatic background downloads of content. This greatly improves the reading experience as readers no longer had to wait for the latest issue to download, but in iOS 7, automatic background downloads are available to non-Newsstand apps as well.

  • In-app subscriptions in Newsstand apps can include free trial periods. Note that Apple’s implementation of free trials is more like a money-back guarantee. The subscriber will need to jump through all the hoops of a real paid subscription, with password entry and multiple “Are you sure” alerts. The only difference is that if they cancel the subscription within the free trial period, they will not be charged.

That’s it. Those seven things are the only differences between Newsstand apps and apps outside the Newsstand section. It’s worth noting what’s not on the list. Many people think that automatically renewing in-app subscriptions are a Newsstand feature. They’re not. Any app can offer auto-renewing subscriptions.

Back to our decision to recommend publishers skip Newsstand in favor of regular apps, presented outside the Newsstand section.

It’s all about this bit:

Once downloaded, Newsstand publications are hidden away within the Newstand app.

This has always been a downside of Newsstand for publishers, but with iOS 5 and iOS 6, most publishers begrudgingly agreed to the bargain. Apple pushed Newsstand in their marketing, after all; perhaps that rising tide would lift all boats. The automatic downloads were genuinely useful. The free trials seemed like the way to go.

The segregation of Newsstand apps into the Newsstand folder wasn’t ever a positive aspect of Newsstand, but we were optimistic and thought that perhaps readers would form new habits around it. As an industry, we decided to give it a go. Apart from some early successes, attributable to a first-mover advantage, that was a mistake.

In 2012, John Gruber said that Newsstand is a place where apps go to be forgotten. Today the Newsstand app is much worse. The folder-like design in iOS 5 and iOS 6 has been replaced with an opaque app icon. The end result is so horrible that it’s hard to avoid thinking it was done maliciously: if someone was tasked with hiding away a set of unwanted apps, they would be likely to come back with a design that was something very much like the iOS 7 Newsstand.

For years, I’ve argued that choosing Newsstand is the best thing—the right thing—to do when publishing periodical content within the Apple ecosystem. But with the redesigned app, and with automatic content downloads no longer a being a Newsstand exclusive, the balance has finally shifted.

We think publishers should skip Newsstand and publish their iOS apps as regular non-Newsstand apps instead.