Choosing a news app for your iPhone

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Even Tintin is unsure about which news app to get for his iPhone

The appstore offers a lot of choice for news apps for iPhone, just about 10,000 at the time of this writing.

Helping you find the coolest apps is a business unto itself, AppAdvice offers such help, and there are many others…. so many in fact, that you’ll soon need an app finder app finder app to stay on top of it all…

In addition to the vast amount of choice, consumers are confused by the different kinds of news apps available and unclear on what would make one news app better than another….

According to Pew Research, news is becoming personalized, participatory and portable… I will use these three angles to compare news apps, and add a couple criteria of my own: awesomeness and total cost of ownership.

Personalization

Pew Research further states that 67% of Americans follow specific subjects that are of particular interest to them. Let’s tackle the personalization of news via sources, sections and content selection:

Sources

From a source diversity standpoint, two kinds of apps exist: publisher apps (single source) and aggregator apps, which aggregate content from multiple sources, typically in excess of 50.
Apps can support source personalization in one of the following ways:

  • No personalization : 
    • Single source apps, by definition, do not offer source personalization, eg BBC NewsNY Times, USA Today… Note that such publishers sometimes offer syndicated content, eg Ny Times often features GigaOm content…. however you should primarily expect to see content from the lead publisher when using such app.
    • Editorial aggregator apps rely on an editor to manually select content sources, eg Drudge report. All users get the same content, ie sources are not  personalized.
  • Manual personalization allows users to select content sources and provides a lot of control. The drawback of such approach is that users need to know where to fetch the news and configure these sources in the app.
    RSS reader apps belong in this category, eg Pulse News, Reeder
    Social magazine apps also belong in this category, as your social content comes from the people and publishers that you have explicitly “friended”. This class of app is best represented at the moment on the iPad with Flipboard.
    Some aggregator apps also allow users to apply filters to personalize sources, eg Fluent News ReaderinkWire
  • Automated personalization makes it possible for users to receive content from many sources automatically. This feat is typically achieved by first determining user content preferences, and then finding content sources that match these preferences. Examples of such apps include inkWiremy6sense.
    The primary benefit of this technique is that users need not know wherefrom to fetch news. The drawback of the technique is that it reduces the explicit control users may want to have over sources. Note that, this drawback can be mitigated if the app also supports source filtering.

News sections

News section customization is the most visible form of content personalization in a news app, and is widely supported among aggregator apps.
Being able to create sections about the things you care about is indeed a powerful feature… but not all sections are created equal… the kinds of section a news app will let you create is driven by technology:

  • Categories : placing content in a category such as “Technology” or “Sports” is an expected feature for a news app, and is reminiscent of traditional newspapers.
    Most news apps support this functionality,
  • Feeds : RSS readers, such as Pulse NewsReeder, and social magazines, such as Flipboard for the iPad, place content in feed buckets, which often represent the web address where the content is fetched.
  • Keyword searches : some apps allow you to place persistent keyword searches, and turn them into sections. This can work well for specialized search terms, eg “Chinese currency”, however breaks down for potentially ambiguous terms, such as “Apple”…
    Fluent News ReaderinkWire support this method.
  • Semantic tags : Probably the most powerful form of section customization is based on semantic tags. Semantic classification disambiguates search terms such as “Apple”, and allows you to create a section containing news about Apple, the business, without getting news about Apple, the fruit…
    Apps that have implemented this functionality include inkWire for the iPhone and zite for the iPad.

Your unique stream of news

So, you’ve personalized your content sources and created some cool news sections, how can you personalize the content that will be inserted in your news sections?
Apps that take into account your personal content preferences to serve a stream of news that is unique to you belong to a very select few, and can currently be counted with one hand: they include inkWiremy6sense for the iPhone and zite for the iPad.

The technology barrier to achieve this kind of personalization successfully is quite high, which probably explains why very few companies support it.

These apps make use of two primary methods to personalize your news:

  • Explicit filtering is a manual form of content personalization where users apply explicit filters to the content by rating articles, publishers or semantic tags, eg one can request more news about “Google”, or explicitly block news about “Anthony Weiner”…
  • Implicit recommendation is an automated form of content personalization where your reading habits are monitored, and used to recommend more content.

Participation

Now that we have looked at personalization, let’s tackle our next angle: participation.
Again according to Pew Research, 72% of american news-following adults enjoy talking with friends and family about what’s happening in the world.

News apps can help you discuss the news with your friends with the following features:

  • Sharing : This basic social feature is widely supported by news apps, it enables you to send an article to your favorite social network for your friends to see
  • Following : some iPhone apps, including inkWire and Pulse News, allow you to find out what your friends are reading and sharing, and read it for yourself.
  • Discussing : once you’ve read an article shared by your friends, or your friends have commented on an article you have shared, the next logical step is to exchange comments about it. inkWire and Pulse News offer this functionality.
  • Posting : in an exciting new development, some publisher apps, including BBC News and CNN, have started to offer users an ability to submit content in the form of text and/or images, so they can be reviewed by editorial staff, and be potentially used to create news stories.

Portable News

As we’re covering news apps for the iPhone, you’d expect that your news is by definition portable… there are however some important features worth watching for:

  • Mobile formatting : While it is getting increasingly common, not all websites offer a mobile version of their content… Some apps, such as inkWirePulse News and Reeder, convert content from all of their supported sources into a mobile format. Evidently, this feature only applies to aggregator apps.
  • Offline access : being able to read your news when you’re offline is another important feature. It is supported by the majority of top news apps.

Awesomeness

It is subjective and there isn’t much scientific data to support it, but we all know it :
a great app makes you feel cool.

In the news app department, leaders of the cool are arguably Pulse News for the iPhone and Flipboard.for the iPad.
Serious contenders on the iPhone include BBC NewsCNNinkWireNY Times and Reeder.

Total cost of ownership

In a previous post “App cost doesn’t matter“, I demonstrated that, after amortizing any applicable app cost over an expected app lifetime of 18 months, data makes up for the majority of your mobile news consumption costs

Using a modest assumption of 2 daily uses over 30 days, where each use consists of opening 3 news sections and reading 2 articles per section, I came up with the following total cost of ownership tables for top 10 publisher and aggregator apps:

On the publisher app front, BBC and Fox News offer the cheapest total cost of ownership at $0.51/month, while NY Times offers the most expensive at $8.34/month:

On the aggregator app side, the disparity is even greater: Reeder offers the least total cost of ownership at $1.96/mo. and Pulse towers above all competition with an average monthly TCO of $24.75/mo, which is most spectacular and unexpected for a free app.

Conclusion: Top news app roundup

Using the criteria just learned, let’s review the top iPhone news apps.
Data set from AppAnnie ranked listings:

App cost doesn’t matter

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What does it cost to consume news on your iPhone?
Does the cost of a news app really matter? … counter intuitively, the answer is: not really.

What does matter, from a cost of ownership standpoint, is your app’s data consumption, and its publisher coverage.

If you are using 3 news publisher apps twice daily, you are spending about $8 per month, just on the data for these apps…
How can you save? Read on…

Data set

Let’s focus on the top 10 paid and free news apps (source: AppAnnie):

  1. Publishers: BBC, CNN, Economist, Fox News, MSNBC, New York Post, NY Times, USA Today
  2. Aggregators: Drudge, inkWire, Pulse, Reeder, Yahoo

App costs

Most news apps in this data set are free, paid app prices range from $1.99 to $4.99.

Averaging it out, we get $0.25 per publisher app (note: excluding content subscription costs) and $1.99 per aggregator app.

So as to compare apples to apples with the monthly data plan costs, let’s amortize these app costs over a period of 18 months (estimated app/phone life), which gives the following table:

App Cost Monthly amortized cost
$0.99 $0.06
$1.99 $0.11
$2.99 $0.17
$3.99 $0.22
$4.99 $0.28

Data/bandwidth consumption

To make a comparison possible between the different apps, I tested all apps as follows:

  • opened the app with a 3G connection
  • let it sync fully
  • opened 3 sections
  • scrolled through each entire section’s content listing
  • read 2 articles per section

Based on this use case, I came up with an average data bandwidth consumed per use of 2.1MB, for both publisher and aggregator apps (see complete data set).
(note: Pulse stood out in a big way in the tests… their data consumption is about 10 times the average of the other apps… and most apps in the test support offline mode, so support for that feature cannot explain the overage… Pulse was not included in the average figures).

I am assuming 2 uses per day for 30 days, which seems realistic.
This gives an average total monthly data consumption of ~126MB/app

The cost of Data

I considered all data plans available for the iPhone, and assumed a 4GB effective available bandwidth each for unlimited plans (Verizon) and for hotspot services.

Provider Data Plan Name Effective Bandwidth (MB) Monthly Cost Monthly Cost / MB
Average $0.0214
AT&T 200 MB 200 $15.00 $0.0750
AT&T 2 GB 2,000 $25.00 $0.0125
AT&T 4GB + Hotspot 8,000 $45.00 $0.0056
Verizon Unlimited 4,000 $29.99 $0.0075
Verizon Unlimited + Hotspot 8,000 $49.99 $0.0062

This brings the average news app’s data cost to $2.69/month
($0.0214 average x 126 MB).

Publisher vs Aggregator

Given the fact that an aggregator app gives you access to multiple news sources (typically in excess of 50),. one could argue that you are actually saving when using such app, ie coz you do not need to open multiple publisher apps to access similar content.

According to Pew, 51% of mobile news consumers use 6 or more news sources on a monthly basis…

However, opening 6 news apps sequentially twice a day doesn’t sound like a plausible scenario…
For this discussion’s sake, I will posit that an aggregator app would be the cost equivalent of 3 publisher apps (feedback on that assumption most welcome).

Conclusions: News App Total Cost of Ownership

  • App cost, when amortized over 18 months, makes up for $0.11/month on average for aggregator apps, and is not significant (even at $4.99, the cost of the app accounts for less than 10% of the total cost of ownership)
  • Data costs amount to about $2.73 /aggregator app/month, or $7.94 /month for 3 publishger apps. It makes up for the majority (90%+) of your news consumption costs. As a result you should pick apps that use bandwidth efficiently, eg use progressive content fetching and compression
  • Using aggregator apps is the most effective way to save, potentially reducing your total cost of ownership by 64 % (from 3 publisher apps to one aggregator app), taking it from $7.98/month/3 publisher apps to $2.84/month/1 aggregator app.
The data used for this post may be downloaded here: news-app-tco.xlsx

Our inkWire journey

I couldn’t think of a better way to start a technology blog than with a non-technology post… (haha)

We’re about a week away from going live in the Appstore, and what a journey it’s been for us to get there!
This tiny app that you’ll be holding in your palm is our work of art.
Delivering this piece of art has taken love, sweat and blood from our team of 3 doers.
We rolled up our sleeves and WE DID IT! (been watching too much Dora with my twins)

I think there are a few unusual factors about our story:

  • All 3 of us are dads, couple of us with toddlers (I have twin girls, Shuhao a boy) and one of us with two teenagers (Michael).
  • Our work has been self funded
  • We all worked on it while having a full time job: meaning that we really had to deal with 3 jobs at the same time: being Dads, our full time jobs and inkWire.

It’s not without a little smile that i read the news we keep getting about prodigy university students starting a business… I think it is truly great to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship at a young age… but from an effort difficulty standpoint, try being a dad, dealing with a full time job and working on your startup… and you’ll be down for the nightshift on a more or less regular basis.
If this sounds all too familiar to you, you are my hero!

One might ask: Why? Why do it?
Speaking for myself, my answer is: I have this urge, this need to create stuff, objects of art for people to enjoy… I also have this longing for having the freedom to do it, not having a manager telling you what to do… and then, a will to beat the odds… a very american feeling (I am a naturalized US citizen from Belgium).
I’ll never forget this look I got from a partner at a major silicon valley VC firm when I told him my wife was expecting twin girls… he said: good luck with that! … as if having children meant that you couldn’t make it as an entrepreneur…

Sure, my priorities have changed after becoming a dad.
They have shifted from “make enough $$ so i don’t need to worry about it, can work on what i want and can buy some cool toys” to “help my girls grow into smart, healthy and happy young ladies with a college education” … but I’ll add to that: “and have fun at it” … and doing the job that you feel proud of doing is a big part of that. If you have the entrepreneur’s fire in the belly, it doesn’t go away with kids… you’ll just get a few more gray hair while you’re trying to figure out how to keep the whole family fed and safe as you work on your venture…

Our journey has been long.

I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, I knew it since i was 15 years old…
I just had no idea what to do at that age… it took me 20 years to figure it out.. I guess you could say i’m slow… but once i get there I persevere…
and persevere we did!

It was back in 2003 that the idea for inkWire germinated…. while gazing at my computer screen and daydreaming while on my corporate job … it dawned on me: there is so much information out there, constantly being created… most of what I will probably never become even aware it existed… wouldn’t it be cool if there was a little helper out there, who could figure out what i care about, go find the content that matches these interests and automatically deliver it to me?
Sure, news personalization had been tried and tried and so had push delivery (remember pointcast?), but none of it, i thought, with this particular angle….

And so was born … project “Tintin” (I am a big Herge fan, not unexpected for a Belgian national).
Now, having an idea is great indeed, but execution is what it’s all about (I am so with Zuckerberg on that one)… you need a team …
Finding that team wasn’t easy… it took me another five years (and an employer change) to find it… (back to the “I’m schlow” theme, haha)
Michael and Shuhao are the best team i’ve ever worked with, can you imagine working together on something that makes no money for over 2 years? It takes a lot of perseverance, passion and trust to keep going…

… and two years later, here we are…
Our piece of art is ready for a first exposure, and we sincerely hope you will enjoy it.

This being said, we will keep working on our other master art pieces: Lelani (3), Zoe (3), Lucas (3), Will (11) and Kayleigh (13).