When you update your iPhone or iPad to iOS 9, Apple’s latest mobile software update, you’ll see a new app on your home screen called News.
It replaces Newsstand, Apple’s attempt — which was widely disliked — to provide digital subscriptions of popular magazines through the App Store.
“News is beautiful content from the world’s greatest sources, personalised for you,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software, said during the unveiling of News back in June.
But Apple’s vision for how we’ll read news on its devices needs some work.
I’ve been using the News app on iOS 9 for a couple of months already, and while I’ve only checked it periodically, I’ve quickly gotten a sense of where the app excels and where it falls short.
News does a good job of displaying stories from around the web in a beautiful format, but the app itself has several shortcomings that add up to a less than ideal experience.
First, the good part: Apple has created a good looking layout for reading that many big publishers, including Wired, Vox, and Business Insider support. The websites (the app calls then “Channels”) that have adopted Apple’s reading format are a pleasure to browse and read.
Publishers like Wired are even debuting articles exclusively on Apple News first. A Wired profile of the famous architect Bjarke Ingels became available to read in the News app before people can read it online. The article, which came out on Apple News on September 18, has big images and graphics that are tailored for the iPhone and iPad. You won’t be able to read it on Wired’s website until September 22.
I expect that other websites will try putting exclusive content in Apple News, but I’m sceptical that the tactic will make people want to use the app.
My main criticism of Apple News is that it does a terrible job of telling you which stories are important. Like Apple Music, the “For You” section of the app surfaces articles it thinks you will like based on your reading habits. But the way these stories are presented feels completely random. Some stories have bigger images than others and take up more of the screen, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind why.
Not every news story is of equal importance. A breaking news story about an earthquake in Nepal deserves more attention than a two-day old story on New York Fashion Week. It’s essential for Apple to get this editorial aspect of news delivery right if it wants the News app to succeed.
By contrast, one of my favourite apps for finding news is Nuzzel. It scans my Twitter feed and shows me the links that are tweeted the most by people I follow. I know that each story is being talked about by people whose opinions I care about, and is thus important.
Apple is hiring human editors to help run its News app, so maybe it will get better at picking the most important stories for me in the future.
Another qualm I have with Apple News is that it won’t let me customise the order of the publishers I’ve added to my tab of favourites. It would make sense for me to be able to drag publisher tiles around like apps on my home screen and make folders (I would like a folder just for tech news, for example), but right now that isn’t possible.
Articles you save to read later in the News app are available offline, but the rest of the app (including the marquee “For You” section) is not. I’d like to be able to download and browse everything in the app while I commute to work on the subway, where I don’t have service. I imagine that I’m not alone in hoping that the app gets better for offline reading.
Apple News only works in the US right now, even though Apple said earlier this year that it would debut in the United Kingdom and Australia as well.
People may very well end up using Apple News because of how it handles ads. Popup ads and giant banners that overtake huge parts of the screen are so prevalent on websites these days that iOS 9 users are flocking to download a new crop of apps that block ads.
In the News apps, you can read several articles without seeing a single ad. The few ads I’ve seen in the app are subtle, small banners that don’t distract from the reading experience.
It remains to be seen how much publishers and news organisations will embrace this approach to advertising.
I want to like Apple News. The app has a reading experience that feels designed for mobile, and it’s already attracted the internet’s biggest publishers.
But unless Apple can address its multiple problems, I’ll continue getting my news elsewhere.
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