Apollo, a new news app for the iPad, aims to offer "the world's first fully personalized newspaper," loosely based on the music platform Pandora, which suggests to users new music that it thinks they will like, based on their preferences. After its release on Friday by Hawthorne Labs, Apollo quickly jumped to number 11 in the Apple iPad store, according to co-founder Evan Reas. It is priced at $4.99 (or €3.99).
Quoted by TechCrunch and others as saying that the app aimed to "deliver the final blow to the newspaper industry," Reas stressed to the EW that he did not in fact intend to destroy news providers, but simply that he believed that print newspapers were becoming less relevant to younger people, and that digital news was the future. "What I was trying to express is that the traditional newspaper (and system that surrounds print news) is dying," he wrote on his blog.
In fact, Reas did not want Apollo to be seen as a threat to the news industry. "We believe that we are a friend to traditional news sources, helping them get new views from a new medium," he said, adding that "we think it is mutually beneficial for us and the content sources."
Apollo aims to help readers discover new content that they will like, based both on their expressed preferences - they can like or dislike specific articles, and favourite sources - and on which articles they read, how much time they spend on each, and what 'similar' users like.
The news is separated into different category groups, which are displayed as boxes along the bottom. Each of these has a choice of several different subcategories, which were chosen following extensive user testing, Reas said. The categories are intended to prompt users to read different types of news, and maybe to discourage them from only reading about the topics with which they are already familiar. One of the arguments against personalized news is that it takes away the element of serendipity, the chance to discover something totally new, but Reas said that the categories and the fact that Apollo is continuously bringing in new sources and articles will retain an element of this.
Apollo selects news from thousands of sources, both established news sources and blogs, using their public RSS feeds to link to content within the app. No content is licensed, and as the RSS feeds are public this should not be a problem. Another iPad news reader however, Pulse, had problems immediately after its launch when the New York Times objected to the use of its content within the app. Pulse essentially offers nicely-presented RSS feeds, allowing readers to choose their sources. One possibly important difference between the two though in terms of copyright is that Apollo only offers a title and small snippet of an article before the reader clicks through to the page of the news outlet, while Pulse reproduces the whole text of the article that is available via the RSS feed.
For now, Hawthorne Labs' single stream of income is from app purchases: there is no advertising within Apollo. "In the longer term, we are considering other options like offering premium services to readers," Reas said.
He has faith in the iPad's potential as a news reading device: "I think the iPad will be how most people get their news in the future," but hopes to create Apollo apps for the iPhone, Android and a web browser too. "We are thinking about a lot of new ideas, especially around social, recommendations and personalization of content in our goal to be the daily destination for people to discover their content."
Many news publishers have been hoping that the iPad and similar devices will represent a significant revenue stream, at a time when they are determined to make money out of digital news distribution. The hope is that consumers will be prepared to pay to subscribe to specific news apps on the iPad, even if they are not prepared to pay to subscribe online. Much of this expectation seems to have been created by the fact that people are prepared to pay for news apps on the iPhone and other smart phones.
Something to note, however, is that most customers are far more likely to pay a one-off fee to download an app rather than pay regularly for a subscription. And with applications like Apollo or Pulse, which offer news from multiple sources in a relatively readable format for a one-off payment, news outlets are going to have to up their game if they want to persuade a high number of readers that they are worth paying for. Plus, it is significantly easier to read news in a web browser on the iPad compared to a smartphone due to the far larger screen size, reducing the need for an app at all.
Reviews of news apps have been middling so far, as Alan Mutter noted in May and with which present ratings concur, but the potential for innovation in the way news is presented is huge. And subscription-based apps have been selling, with the Times counting 12,500 subscribers, and it was reported in early June that the Wall Street Journal already had 10,000 iPad subscribers. As a comparison, the BBC's free app has been downloaded more than a million times.
The iPad and other similar devices will remain niche, elite products for at least the immediate future, but those who do buy them are likely to be prepared to spend some money on apps if they are offered something interesting enough. Will consumers prefer the personalised aggregation of news offered by Apollo, or will they choose a premium experience from their favourite newspaper? Or both?