An oversight in iOS Newsstand: No free subscriptions

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The team behind TRVL, an iPad-exclusive digital travel magazine, was very excited about the prospect of Apple’s Newsstand; after all, recent numbers show that some publishers are seeing their products reach as many as 268 percent more subscribers because of it. But there’s a problem: TRVL has been and wanted to remain free, but Newsstand requires publishers to offer a paid subscription in order to be included.

TRVL got around the problem by offering a paid $0.99 per month subscription while also allowing users to download each individual issue for free. Its portion of the subscription revenue, after Apple takes its standard cut, will be donated to charity, which is a smart and generous way to get around this odd restriction. But I still think Apple is missing a beat in making paid subscriptions a required element of Newsstand titles.

Workarounds and why limits make sense

Restricting Newsstand to paid subscriptions is, admittedly, a good way of making sure that established, quality content from mainstream publishers remains highly visible in a section of the App Store where it doesn’t have to compete with the tide of free apps that might dampen discoverability. Newsstand’s store is still a relatively exclusive affair; after months of pre-release testing and nearly a month of public availability, it still only has 448 titles in total on the iPad.

Newsstand becomes an exclusive club

Keeping Newsstand free of free subscriptions, however, makes it harder for startups without the clout of major publishers, like TRVL, to make their presence known. If given the option of paying for a subscription for an established title like Wired versus paying for one that’s virtually unheard of — but an iPad exclusive trying to get started on the platform — most will opt for the incumbent.

In that way, Newsstand manages to undermine the underdog by making itself the go-to destination for periodical publications on the iPad, and then employing a system that favors established success over risk-taking newcomers.

A carrot for old media, but what about new?

I can see how Newsstand’s design appeals to publishers trying to get subscribers to follow them to digital, and it likely provides Apple much more leverage in getting premium publishers on board with in-app subscriptions. And Apple clearly wins by requiring paid subscriptions, since it gets a cut of each subscription. But to ignore the possibility that alternative revenue models (ad-based, for example, or publications funded by non-profits for the purposes of raising awareness) could succeed on Newsstand is to invest in the past of media, not the future.

Making free subs an option for Newsstand buyers would make it possible for new and innovative publications just starting out to compete on a more equal footing with the biggest players, which is exactly how the App Store has managed to bring us such amazing apps, like Angry Birds or Instagram. It could also provide an option for publishers who want to promote their full product with a small, free, recurring sampling. A free subscription of just a few select articles from something like the Atlantic might be a good conversion tool for customers on the fence about paying for the whole thing.

The cost and the benefits of free

Apple’s decision to keep Newsstand closed to completely free subscriptions has a way of keeping that section of the App Store relatively free of the wild west vibe that can often overwhelm in the rest of the store. But that also means that coming across unexpected gems won’t be as frequent an occurrence as it is with iOS software in general. I, for one, would like to see that change.

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