Google has consolidated its Currents and Magazines apps for Android into a single place. Today, Google Magazines will transform into a new app called Google Play Newsstand, which combines subscriptions to newspapers and magazines with content from blogs, RSS feeds, and other sources. Newsstand is the first app in which you can subscribe to newspapers through Google Play, years after Apple and Amazon signed similar deals. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Los Angeles Times are among the titles available for purchase at launch; it’s a small but important step toward making Android’s ecosystem more complete.
A new take on getting your news from mobile devices
Newsstand represents a new take on how people should get their news from mobile devices. At first, publishers generally created standalone apps for their newspapers and magazines. But those often struggled to gain attention in crowded app stores. The second wave of apps, led by Flipboard, tried to consolidate those publications into a single place — but left out paid subscriptions, which excluded some high-profile publications.
Google’s take on the newsreader includes both paid subscriptions and Flipboard-like newsreader content, laid out in Google's now-familiar card view. Open Newsstand and the first screen you’ll see is "Read Now," which brings together breaking news, trending articles from publications you subscribe to, and other items that Newsstand thinks you will enjoy based on your reading history. "It’s a nice, highly designed feed that is tailored for you and your personal interests," says Scott Dougall, director of product management for Newsstand. "The more you use it, the better it gets. Even on day one, it’s super relevant."
Google machine learning can be found throughout the app
Evidence of Google’s machine learning can be found throughout the app. Each article gets automatically tagged with a single subject — like "skiing," say or "Android" — and tapping on the tag will open a feed of recent articles on that subject. You can subscribe to tags with a single tap, and everything you’ve subscribed to can be found in a tab within the app called "My News."
Newsstand shares a name and some features with Apple’s Newsstand, a feature in iOS that gathers publications together in an eponymous folder and updates their content automatically in the background. Apple’s Newsstand has been criticized as "a place where apps go to be forgotten," and some developers who work with publishers are discouraging them from putting their apps there. One reason: Apple’s Newsstand content is all hidden behind its icon, making it easy to skip over. The contents of Google Play Newsstand can be similarly opaque.
Dougall says the company chose to use the Newsstand name because it’s the easiest way to describe what the app provides. "It needs to be self-evident to people," he says. "At the end of the day, we didn’t want to invent something cute." And if a user had a bad experience with Apple’s Newsstand in the past, Google’s product team ultimately felt comfortable that those feelings wouldn’t transfer over to their app.
Google Play Newsstand’s bigger problem may be the one faced by all newsreaders: taking the firehose of web content and making it into something that is not just manageable but enjoyable. There's something daunting about an app that refreshes itself constantly with hundreds of unread articles, all vying for your attention. It doesn’t help that most newsreader designs transform everything into an undifferentiated blur of content — the typical Google Play Newsstand story appears as a simple Google card, with a headline and a single attached image.
Apps like Newsstand can feel weirdly antisocial
Google says it gives publishers a high degree of control over how their articles are presented. Magazines can upload full-featured digital editions that retain the look and feel of their print counterparts. Some even go beyond the print version — The New Yorker, for example, includes audio recordings of authors reading their stories and poems. But getting to those digital editions requires a few taps inside Newsstand, and it’s hard not to feel that the content plays second fiddle to the scaffolding around it. Publications are designed to elicit emotion through their content and design; reducing them to black text on a white tablet screen sacrifices some of that power.
The company won’t say how many people actively used Magazines or Currents. Currents won’t disappear from devices today, but it will start directing you to Newsstand when you open it, and will port over everything you’ve subscribed to. Currents for iOS will remain available while Google works on a version of Newsstand for Apple devices.
Given competitive pressures, Google had every reason to rebuild its newsreader in a way that incorporates paid subscriptions. But it remains unclear how many readers ultimately want to get their news through apps like these. At a time when more people are getting news through Facebook and Twitter, apps like Newsstand can feel weirdly antisocial, stripping away the conversation around shared links in favor of algorithmic recommendations. Given the success of apps like Flipboard, it seems clear that there is an audience for a magazine-style approach to news discovery. But it might be a smaller one than Google hopes.