Do You Trust the App Store With the Future of Print?

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Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch have begun battling it out to create a superior subscription-based magazine in the iPad iPublishing 3.0 race, but Apple's [AAPL] recent move to ban an iOS magazine dedicated to the competing Android smartphone OS shows that Apple's app store approvals team could begin an age of censorship...

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

On the surface the moves by Murdoch and Branson to field new iPad titles are interesting. Both have committed extensive resources to the project, and initial feedback suggests both have a lot going for them, though Branson's is described as a little "buggy".

Fun or fad?

We have to consider if the evolution of 'walled-garden' iPublishing will prove to be more than a fad, particularly as iOS device sales explode.

It is worth remarking that the iBookstore hasn't been such a huge success. People who use it like it, but limited range means most navigate to the more well-stocked Kindle store.

Virgin's new Project Magazine is available to download from the App Store. The fee gives you one months worth of updating content -- significant as it means Apple is now moving to offer subscription support, something publishers had demanded.

Virgin declares its publication to be, "A revolutionary multimedia magazine built specially for your iPad - packed with international culture, entertainment, design, business and travel. And nuclear weapons. Oh, and Jeff Bridges."

Murdoch's iPad title will be based in New York, already has a team of 100 journalists and will be called The Daily.

It is now widely expected to make its debut at an Apple event on December 9. An event which may also see the release of a new iOS update which supports in-app-based subscription payments.

There is some optimism that Apple may have a few other tricks up its sleeve for the release, but that seems less likely -- after all, an alliance between the world's most powerful media magnate and Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, is news in itself.

The battle for the future of publishing

In any case, this is an attempt to create the digital newstand for the next digitally-native generation.

"Murdoch believes the iPad is going to be a "game changer" and he has seen projections that there will be 40 million iPads in circulation by the end of 2011. A source said: "He envisions a world in which every family has a iPad in the home and it becomes the device from which they get their news and information. If only 5% of those 40 million subscribe to the Daily, that's already two million customers." (Edward Helmore, The Guardian).

There's opportunity here -- opportunity which extends beyond the ambitions of the already wealthy and powerful media tycoons of today. Small publishers are beginning to consider how they can launch magazines for the iPad generation.

Take a look at TRVL. This is a free app. It offers users a selection of travel-related articles which they can choose to download -- basically you don't spend money to get what you're given, you get a free app which lets you select the content you most want.

The big deal? TRVL is published by writers and photographers -- which means the same people who provide the content men like Murdoch or Branson live off are also beginning to deliver their content direct to audiences. This is interesting as in the iPad age all things are equal -- except for the marketing.

And the influence.

My big fear for the App Store as the new digital news front is the enigmatic, sometimes opaque, and frequently politically naive manner in which the App Store disapprovals team approves or rejects Apps.

This is disturbing because as Apple sets out to define the future of iPad/tablet publishing, it is also moving to set the agenda for how this will work.

I'd hate the App Store team to begin to allow/disallow titles on anything other than clearly explained and expressed pre-known guidelines.

I can live without porn in the magazine store, but I would quite like satire. Would popular UK magazine, Private Eye, make it past Apple's censors? I'd be deeply concerned if it didn't.

Negating niche

Apple must also make vast improvements in its App Store navigation process. There's apps hidden deep inside the system which rarely get found -- and not all of these are bad apps. I want to be able to dig deep inside the piles of apps using just a couple of clicks.

I may be looking for a specific app which perhaps appeals only to a small number of people. The current set-up of the App Store discovery process actually discourages the evolution of niche markets almost as much as the democratic accessibility of app creation serves to encourage niches.

When applied to magazine and newspaper publishing, I need all the available titles to be as easy to navigate as they are when I visit my high street magazine retailer.

I don't want a hierarchical list, with best-sellers appearing on the front page. That kind of discovery means independent and specialist interest titles will not gain the maximum potential from Apple's new iPad publishing age.

Apple censors must grow up

Finally, I cannot accept Apple's decision to ban a title because it doesn't like the content. I'm talking specifically about the company's recent move to ban an iOS magazine about Android from the App Store.

There's two levels of bad here:

  • First, it sets a precedent meaning Android invigilators can in future use this as justification to ban Apple-related titles from that platform.
  • Second, it is childish. Why can't I read a magazine about Android on my iOS device? It isn't up to Apple do decide what I cannot read, simply because it is about a competing product. It makes the company look petty.

Also take a look at the company's recent move to ban the app released in support of a top-selling (if humorous) book, 'The Snuggie Sutra'.

Think about Shakespeare. His plays sometimes trod close to the political line. Some of his characters were a little risque. If his plays had to make it through Apple censors, would he be the 'immortal bard' today? Even further back, would Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' make it through the po-faced world of App Store disapproval?

The bottom line?

When I purchase an Apple product I am not giving the company my consent to censor content. I know I can find publications Apple doesn't approve of elsewhere, but that isn't the point. Why does this multi-billion dollar corporation believe it has the right -- or the expertise -- to make such judgements?

After all, the future of content will be an incredibly poor place if the contents of content are censored by teams unable to distinguish satire from character assassination.

Thanks for reading. Agree or disagree, I'd like to keep you around, so please feel free to keep up with this blog, follow me on Twitter or RSS.

This story, "Do You Trust the App Store With the Future of Print?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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