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.
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:
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 News, NY 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 Reader, inkWire
- 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 inkWire, my6sense.
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 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 News, Reeder, 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 Reader, inkWire 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 inkWire, my6sense 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.
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.
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 inkWire, Pulse 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.
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 News, CNN, inkWire, NY 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.
Using the criteria just learned, let’s review the top iPhone news apps.
Data set from AppAnnie ranked listings:
- Publisher apps: BBC News, CNN, The Economist, FOX News, msnbc.com, New York Post, NY Times, USA Today
- Aggregator apps: Drudge Report, inkWire, Pulse News, Reeder, Yahoo!