Apple introduced Newsstand in iOS5 as a single location for users to gather all their magazine and newspaper app subscriptions. From the users’ perspective, it’s a type of folder where all their news/magazine periodicals (that support Newsstand) are located.

There is also a link to the Newsstand section of the App store where a user can discover new publications.

If you are publishing a news app, you have the option to add it to Newsstand. Before you do, however, you should consider the advantages and disadvantages.

What is the difference between a Newsstand app and a regular app?

Subscriptions

  • Newsstand app: The app needs to have at least one iTunes auto-renewable subscription to qualify.

  • Regular app: The app can choose from any of the iTunes subscription types, including auto-renewable subscriptions. You can also choose not to offer iTunes subscriptions at all. You are, however, not allowed to provide an external purchase link within your app.

Icon

  • Newsstand app: The current issue cover is displayed in the App Store and as the app icon in Newsstand. A description of the current issue is displayed on the App Store.

  • Regular app: The app icon is like every other app icon in the App store. The app icon and the description in the App Store do not change based on the current issue.

Screenshots

  • Newsstand app: App screenshots can be updated without submitting a new app.

  • Regular app: App store screenshots cannot be updated without first submitting a new binary with screenshots for Apple’s approval. This restriction was introduced in January 2013 to combat fake screenshots being uploaded after apps had been approved by Apple.

App store category

  • Newsstand app: Newsstand Apps are automatically part of the Newsstand category (secondary category) in the App store. They can also choose to be listed in one other category (primary category).

  • Regular app: The app can choose to be part of any two categories (primary and secondary categories).

Newsstand

  • Newsstand app: An app that enables Newsstand cannot disable it in the future.

  • Regular app: It is possible at any time to update the app and add it to Newsstand.

Background downloads

  • Newsstand app: Newsstand apps can receive a Newsstand push message once a day, in which a full issue is automatically downloaded to the user’s device. This will work even if your app is suspended or terminated.

  • Regular app: As of iOS7, apps outside of Newsstand have two similar options available to them.
    1. Background fetch: The app can regularly check to see if there is new content available and fetch small amounts of content automatically in the background, so the content in the app is up-to-date when the user opens the app. This won’t work for large issues.

    2. Using push notifications to initiate a download: It is possible to send a background push message to the app to trigger the app to download content in the background.

Neither of these methods will work, however, if the user has force-quit (terminated) the app.

App location

  • Newsstand app: Your publication/app is located within the Newsstand app. There is an App Store link within Newsstand that links to the Newsstand section of the App Store from which users can discover new publications. You cannot delete the Newsstand app, and you must use the home button to exit it unlike all other folders that contain multiple apps.

  • Regular app: The user decides where the app is located. They can choose to either place it on the homescreen, within a folder, or as one of the four fixed icons on the bottom of the home screen.

Free Subscriptions

  • Newsstand app: Free subscriptions are only available in Newstand apps. It’s a way of adding free content to Newsstand.

  • Regular app: The free subscription in-app purchase product is not available outside of Newsstand. The app can, however, easily offer free content without offering the free subscription product.

Free trials

Both Newsstand apps and regular apps can offer free trials with the auto-renewable subscription product type. After the trial period is over, users will be automatically charged unless they have turned auto-renewal off.

Our experience at Verdens Gang

Newsstand was first released in October 2011. The VG+ publication supported Newsstand from the start, and our initial experience was quite positive. We had an increase in subscribers that we mainly attribute to inclusion in Newsstand.

This surge in subscribers I think can be attributed both to Apple’s promotion of Newsstand and our app on Newsstand. Since then, however, the reasons for remaining a part of Newsstand have diminished.

Here are some of the issues we have with Newsstand

  1. Newsstand icon and screen real estate are less than ideal: Apple updated the Newsstand icon in iOS7 (released September 2013). The original icon displayed small thumbnails of the publications available within Newsstand; the latest Newsstand icon displays colourful generic publication covers on the icon (news, art, travel, sports).

    The original icon was bad enough, but at least it gave you an indication of the publications that were behind the icon. This is similar to the app folder concept. The latest Newsstand app icon blends in with other apps, and you have to open the Newsstand app before seeing the publications on the shelf.

    I think John Grubber said it best back in 2012: “Newsstand is a place where apps go to be forgotten.” This was even before Apple updated the Newsstand icon.

    If you consider screen real-estate, you want your app and your logo to be visible in the prime location, on the front screen, and visible each time the user starts his phone. If you choose to to be hidden behind the Newsstand icon, your logo and front cover are hidden.

    An app out of sight is an app out of mind.

    It’s not possible for a user to move her favourite publication out of Newsstand and into a more prominent accessible location. This places Newsstand apps at a considerable disadvantage to non-Newsstand apps. In the daily competition for those intermittent five minutes of time our users have to check their phone, apps outside of Newsstand are at a competitive advantage.

    The user habits we hoped our users would establish by using Newsstand haven’t materialised. It hasn’t become part of their routine to open the Newsstand app and then our app.

    The majority of traffic to our Newsstand app is through content promotion on our free and very popular Web site vg.no, through the smart app banner on our corresponding premium Web site pluss.vg.no, or from push messages to the app.

    Subscribers who use the app instead of the Web site tend to spend more time in the app per session and consume more articles than Web users. So getting our subscribers to use the app and establish these habits is something we have been working hard at.

  2. Newsstand functionality is now available outside of Newsstand. If you look through the list of differences above between regular apps and Newsstand apps, the features that once were only available in Newsstand are starting to appear outside of Newsstand.

    The background download functions introduced in iOS7 are almost the same as Newsstand push notifications. The major difference is the app must be running in the background (not killed) for background pushes to work outside of Newsstand.

    The Newsstand advantages like updatable screenshots and cover image on the icon have to be weighed against the disadvantages of being hidden behind the Newsstand app icon.

  3. Some news apps are on Newsstand and others are not. Some newspapers offering subscription-based content are not on Newsstand, so the original idea behind Newsstand as a single place for users to collect all their newspaper/magazine periodicals isn’t true.

    Many subscription-based news periodical apps are located outside of Newsstand. One of the reasons for this is the requirement of Newsstand apps to include at least one auto-renewable iTunes subscription. Publications not wishing to offer Apple subscriptions (and give Apple 30% of the profits) are not allowed on Newsstand.

    Free news apps, including our own VG app, are not on Newsstand since they don’t qualify as Newsstand apps (no auto-renewable subscriptions). News aggregators like flipboard, circa, 360News, pulse, zite, feedly, etc., are all located outside of Newsstand.

    I believe this makes the Newsstand concept very confusing for a user.

CONCLUSION

Apple has a number of features that help with app discoverability and with trying to establish user habits: smart app banners, push messages, and app linking (custom URL schemas) to name a few.

There are also a number of features coming in iOS8 that will help with app promotion, such as app bundles, video trailers, scrolling results in the App Store, app extensions and notification center widgets.

Apple has unfortunately left Newsstand untouched in iOS8.

If you are releasing a news or magazine app, you should seriously consider the pros and cons of Newsstand and whether it’s worth supporting for your publication. The few advantages Newsstand currently offers do not compensate for the fundamental problem of hiding your publication within the Newsstand app.

I do, however, believe Apple will address these issues at some point.

Here are some suggestions for improving Newsstand:

  • Remove the requirement for one auto-renewable iTunes subscriptions on Newsstand. This would allow apps that don’t offer iTunes subscriptions entry to Newsstand. This would help with the fragmentation issue of users having some news apps in Newsstand and some apps outside of Newsstand.

  • Users should be allowed to move their apps outside of Newsstand. Apps should also be allowed to display the issues front cover on the icon as is currently possible within Newsstand. This would give the users control of where they would like to place the apps.

  • Implement radical change to the Newsstand and app design concept. Allocate a space on the home screen to publications. Don’t hide publications behind an app.