Does anyone else sense that a bit of reality has set into the tablet publishing debate since the advent of the iPad? Several publishers and contributors, Rupert Murdoch among them, quite literally hailed the Apple gadget as the “saviour” of the broken (breaking?) newspaper publishing model.

Sure, there’s a lot of healthy growth from tablets, but it hasn’t really worked out like that so far has it? Usage does not equal money. Yet.

Two good recent contributions to this debate are worth investigating, the first from Marco Arment, the man behind the excellent read-it-later service Instapaper. There is the problem of free:

Almost everyone, when presented with a paid-up-front app, will first seek a free alternative. (Usually, they’ll find one.1) Many people with iPhones and iPads full of apps have never bought a single paid-up-front one

This is an immovable object staring the news and entertainment industry in the face. Only 16 percent of people in the UK get news on a weekly basis via tablets (according to Reuters research) and of those very few pay for content.

That same Reuters study found that five percent of Britons pay for digital news every week. 

Reuters Digital News report 2013 - have you paid for digital news in the last year?

So with such reluctance, it does make sense to offer people a little something for nothing before they get their credit cards out. Many magazine apps have already made the shift to free container apps and often some form of freemium access or trialling. 

Discussing the market opportunity for his new project, Overcast, Arment says the death knell is sounding for paid-for apps:

I’m sure of one thing, though: the market for paid-up-front apps appealing to mass consumers is gone. If you have paid apps in the store, you’ve probably seen the writing on the wall for a while.

That model made sense when there were fewer apps available, but now that there are plenty of free and good-enough versions of almost anything, it’s a different game. Apps targeting niche markets can still find enough paying customers to stay alive if they’remuch better than any free alternatives, but the number of apps in that situation is always shrinking.

iOS Newsstand questions

Secondly, Marko Karppinen of tablet publishing platform Richie says that since the introduction of Apple’s iOS7 he’s actively recommending that his clients don’t put products onto Apple’s Newsstand store.

iOS7 was the biggest and fastest download ever, according to Apple, with 200 million upgrades in two days. But Karppinen, whose clients include Sanoma and Bonnier, says that many of the assumed benefits of Newsstand are in fact available to ALL iOS apps these days.

People assume, he says – and I have heard this said too – that background content downloads and auto-renewal of subscriptions are specific Newsstand features, whereas thery’re available for any app.

So Karppinen has no time any more for Newsstand, particularly the way it hides titles away from other apps:

In 2012, John Gruber said that Newsstand is a place where apps go to be forgotten. Today the Newsstand app is much worse. The folder-like design in iOS 5 and iOS 6 has been replaced with an opaque app icon

The end result is so horrible that it’s hard to avoid thinking it was done maliciously: if someone was tasked with hiding away a set of unwanted apps, they would be likely to come back with a design that was something very much like the iOS 7 Newsstand

And his closing is chilling: you can choose to be in Newsstand, but you can’t later choose for your app to leave it.