September 16, 2010, 7:45 AM — Back in July I gave the New York Times on iPad (via Barnes & Noble's Nook app) a test drive and the experience really left something to be desired. Because the content came via an e-reader app, all the design of the physical paper was stripped away, leaving page after page of text without the visual cues that help you to absorb it.
Remember when tablets were going to save newspapers? That certainly hasn't happened yet.
The problem, or at least one of them, has been the subscription model. Or more specifically, the lack of a subscription model. Apple hasn't done anything to help facilitate periodical publishers selling subscriptions (see Wired on iPad gets another update, but magazine subs still MIA for some background on the issues), and in fact has seemed intent on doing whatever it can to block subscriptions.
It isn't that content publishers can't produce a nicely laid-out daily edition that makes best use of a device's screen real estate. The Wall Street Journal is one paper that worked around Apple's system and manages to offer a sub, and the paper's content in its iPad app looks first rate. Alternatively take a look at the New York Times' Android app to see proof that the digital delivery model can work. The problem comes down to business, not technology.
That may be changing. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Apple is almost ready to take the wraps off a new system to support subscriptions. The terms, if the leaks are accurate, sound less than ideal for publishers though. Apple will take 40% of advertising revenue, and 30% of subscription fees from participating publishers. In return, Apple will offer consumers the ability to opt-in to sharing their data with the publishers (newspaper publishers rely heavily on demographic data from subscribers in order to sell ads). The Mercury News said publishers were hoping to just pay Apple a set fee so that they could bundle digital and print editions together. I'm not a newspaper publisher – I wonder how the percentages Apple is demanding balance out against the cost of paying for printing and paper and delivering physical copies of the paper to homes and offices? I would think a bigger issue would be allowing subscribers to opt out of sharing their data, which really lessens their value to the publisher.
Apple isn't commenting on the speculation, so we don't know how soon this service can be announced.
In somewhat related news, Apple has released iOS 4.2 to developers. This is the version of iOS that will let iPads, iPhones and iPad Touches print to a WiFi-enabled or shared printer on a local network, via the new AirPrint service. At launch only HP printers will be supported, but other manufacturers are expected to jump on board soon after. Ars Technica has more details. It sounds like you'll be able to print articles from your digitally delivered newspaper before too long. (Though that kind of defeats the point, doesn't it?)