Google Play Newsstand: The way to unlock Android or just a new headache?

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Google Play Newsstand: The way to unlock Android or just a new headache?

With more than one billion devices activated so far, Android is the dominant global mobile platform. Yet for publishers it has offered a significantly less appealing commercial prospect than Apple's iOS.

With the launch of Google's new Play Newsstand last week, many publishers are asking whether that's all about to change. Will it?

The first thing to realise about Google Newsstand is that it isn't just a rip-off of Apple's content store of the same name. As Google news and magazines EMEA strategic partnerships head Madhav Chinnappa tells TheMediaBriefing, it's a more complex beast that wants to be the framework within which people consume news and magazine media:

"I don't mean this in a pejorative way, but Apple's Newsstand is a shelf for apps, ours is a little more sophisticated,"

"What we've done is thought about it from the overall approach, we have the store element, the purchase element, the consumption element, we have both the replica piece but also the feeds piece, and what we are trying to do is simplify things for publishers as well and say you don't have to go build an app."

Google Play Newsstand Read Now

Discovery, payments and data

The model Google has gone for is designed to emphasise discovery, a big issue for any digital magazine publisher not lucky enough to get picked for promotion by Apple.

"Generally people know what magazines they are interested in, they subscribe and they are kind of done, but there's a wealth of content you might not know about," says Chinnappa.

"The Read Now functionality pushes content to you and it will only get better as it learns what you are interested in and gets more signals and it will be a really useful user experience that will benefit publishers."

Newsstand also brings subscriptions from newspapers including the New York Times and The Financial Times into a native Android setting for the first time.

Google is planning to continue the work it did with Currents on incorporating premium advertising, but the ability to charge for online access is a big deal for paywalled newspapers. Google won't reveal what cut it is taking from publishers, but while at least some appear to be paying less than the 30 percent Apple demands, it isn't much less. 

An even bigger deal for these newspapers and magazine companies is ownership of customer data - something which Apple still isn't providing. 

A changeable partner

It sounds like a brave new world for mobile publishing, but is it a case of too much of the new? It was only a couple of months ago Google's Luca Forlin was telling the audience at the AOP conference about the evolution of Google Currents, itself less than two years old.

Publishers could be forgiven for wishing Google would just stick with one model - but they are going to wait in vain. Constant iteration and reinvention is what got Google where it is today.

"Culturally coming from the media background I had, I wanted to have the answer," says Chinnappa, who spent nine years at the BBC before joining Google.

"The thing I've learned coming to a technology company, is that the experimentation and iteration is fundamental."

That won't reassure anyone concerned that a sharp change in direction for Newsstand is just around the corner, but that approach underpins Google's ability to build high-quality products that people want to use. 

Google Newsstand Play Magazines buy

Propensity problems

There's one big question hanging over Newsstand that Google won't answer - how many people are paying for newspaper and magazine content on Android devices compared to iOS?

Chinnappa points me in the direction of a study from Business Insider which shows Android developers worldwide are earning 90 cents for every $1 made by their iOS counterparts.

Yet as the report itself points out the bulk of this revenue is from advertising, not paid sales, and few publishers have found selling mobile ads especially lucrative.

Apple has one huge advantage when it comes to paid sales. - it forces people who use its devices to set up an iTunes account linked to a credit card. That simple difference makes the leap from owning an Apple device and buying content on it significantly smaller than it is on Android. 

Chinnappa isn't able to say how many credit card details Google has collected, other than the number is "growing fast".

This is going to be the make or break issue for many publishers when it comes to Newsstand. Future CEO Mark Wood told TheMediaBriefing the Friday following the launch that his company had already seen huge growth in downloads of container apps, but converting those users to paying customers would be the real test.


Second fiddle to the user

There an even more fundamental issue here that goes beyond the relative qualities of Google and Apple's Newsstand. Both Apple and Google like making money from selling publisher content, but it's a 'nice to have', not a necessity. 

For both companies, publisher content is first and foremost a tool for keeping the customers who buy their products or use their services happy.

Publishers also want to maintain a good relationship with their customers. But whereas back in the days of print they chose to pay distributors to facilitate that relationship, they now have no choice but to rely on Apple and Google as intermediaries if they want to reach increasingly mobile audiences. 

It's a completely different relationship where the publisher is simply less important to the company carrying their content. Chinnappa says Google is interested in paid content, but the priorities are clear..

"At the heart of it, [Newsstand] is about getting great digital content out to the user," says Chinnappa. "The business model is secondary to that, but also important. If you can get users great content in great experiences and they are willing to pay for it, it's all good."

You can't fault Google or Apple for prioritising their end users. A lot of publishers could learn from the approach.

But it does mean that even the very promising improvements in Newsstand, and any future changes made by Google or Apple, won't be a perfect fit for what publishers want. It's a reality the publishing industry is still getting used to. 

Update: For the publisher view, I'd recommend Sarah Marshall's piece on Journalism.co.uk in which she's asked execs from Future and Condé Nast what they think about Google Play Newsstand.

Image via Flickr courtesy of nasaldemons used under a Creative Commons licence



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