Test Driving Apple’s New News App

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Apple iOS users can now read this blog in the new Apple News app. Well, as soon as they can get the new Apple News app.

The new Apple News app is part of the upcoming release of iOS 9, the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system. Although it’s not coming out until the fall, it has been available to software developers for a while. And today, it was released to people who asked to participate in the public beta testing program.

I am ostensibly an Apple developer — iBeginner, I hardly knew ye! — but I hadn’t been installing the earliest iOS 9 beta releases. Living on the bleeding edge is fun, but the last couple of big upgrades were too rocky even for me. But with this morning’s release of the third beta update in the public beta channel, I decided to take the leap. So did my youngest, Alex, a hardcore Apple fan (even moreso than me, if you can believe that).

Unfortunately, the Apple News app wouldn’t even launch for him on his iPhone 5 (and he dutifully filed a bug report). But I was able to check it out on my iPhone 6 Plus. Upon launch, you’re invited to select at least three news sources, or channels, that you like. I picked a dozen.

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Of course, you’re also able to search, and a search for “Hawaii” brought up several Hawaii-related topics as well as a number of Hawaii-related channels. Topics are general areas of interest, whereas channels are specific publishers. You can add topics to your favorites, just like you add channels.

I was able to submit Hawaii Blog as a channel through Apple’s News Publisher program. Big-name publishers are obviously getting more hands-on help, but for everyone else, it basically involves submitting an RSS feed, a logo, and some basic information.

apple-news-for-youIn other words, the Apple News app is basically a feed reader (a la Feedly or the late, lamented Google Reader), but rather than being wide open (but often clumsy to set up), Apple News includes channels that are submitted to its library, similar to the way podcasts are made available in iTunes.

The “Favorites” view of Apple News, with its grid of news source icons, may be the easiest to use, but the Apple magic is supposed to happen in the “For You” tab, where you see a mixed feed of individual stories from various sources selected via Apple’s secret sauce. A secret sauce that somehow learns what you like to read, without learning anything identifiable about who you are.

“News conveniently collects all the stories you want to read, from top news sources, based on topics you’re most interested in — so you no longer need to move from app to app to stay informed,” Apple says, and that’s definitely something that I’m interested in… if it works.

My “For You” feed looks like a pretty generic rundown of headlines. Then again, we only just met tonight.

I still enjoyed browsing around, and there are some nice touches. You can ‘heart’ a story, which is apparently how you tell Apple News what you like, and you can ‘bookmark’ it, adding it to your ‘Saved’ list. And when you’re in an individual article, you can of course share the link via social networks, messaging, email, and the like.

Interestingly, the link that gets shared is redirected through Apple. In other words, sharing a link from the great tech blog Tekspotting from the Apple News app actually posts a link like this:

https://news.apple.com/AEpkXR9HoOZyn7YJCTdK3xA

Which then instantly redirects to the original article on the Tekspotting site. This obviously gives Apple some useful analytics. The question is whether publishers will have access to it.

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When you scroll to the bottom of an article in Apple News, you are given the opportunity to “Read Full Story.” Swiping up one more time pulls in the actual content from the news source (at least if that source has a mobile-friendly display). At least when a user takes this action, it should register as a visitor on the web.

It’s also an interesting choice because I can see some users expecting that action at the bottom of an article to just take them to the next article in the “For You” or channel feed. Instead, you have to swipe right back out of the article to return to the stream.

A final observation? Apple News is definitely doing some kind of contextual analysis of the news displayed in the app. I noticed even when browsing articles from this blog, each article was labeled with a single main topic. My post about Buddhist otoba was tagged with “Religion,” the write-up of Blue Planet Energy Solutions with “Sustainable Energy,” and the Armchair Adventurer article with “Board Games.”

These aren’t tags or categories that I’ve specified or set anywhere, and I’m not entirely sure they’re all accurate. But this is definitely part of the secret sauce Apple is using to build a preference profile of users.

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If and when you have access to the Apple News app, I hope you’ll list this blog as a favorite (and Tekspotting, too!). I’m not sure there’ll be any substantive readership of Hawaii Blog in this app compared to mainstream outlets, but the topic tagging gives me hope there may be some “long-tail” attention for the more unusual things I write about.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that people will use the Apple News app at all.  But heck, I set up this blog as a news source for the Amazon Kindle way back in 2009, and to this day I get a $0.60 credit every month, suggesting that someone out there still finds value in consuming niche news on their ebook reader.

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