What iOS 11 means for news publishers and readers

Image via Apple

Apple’s new iOS 11 operating system, set for release today, will lead to several changes in how readers consume news, be it through podcasts, Apple News, or the Web. It also brings tweaks to privacy and advertising guidelines that have implications for the news business.

Publishers have good reason to watch closely: There were more than 85.8 million iPhones in use in the US as of December 2016, and their owners are using the devices to consume news. Apple accounts for more than 40 percent of the US smartphone operating systems. And Apple News, the news aggregator built into iOS, is the nation’s top app for news.

Here’s a look at some of the changes for iPhone and iPad and what they mean for the news business:

 

The change: A new feature will make it harder for advertisers to track users

Apple is implementing a feature in Safari called “intelligent tracking prevention” that prevents advertisers from collecting certain types of data used to track readers and target advertisements. Currently, if you buy something on the web (or even if you’re just shopping for something), the purchase follows you across all sites.

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Last week, six advertising trade associations protested the new feature, suggesting Apple’s standards will  “sabotage the economic model for the internet.” In response, Google has created a new cookie, “Google Analytics cookie,” that attempts to comply with the intelligent tracking prevention guidelines provided by Apple, but at the same time give their clients the data they are accustomed to collecting.

The media impact: Apple’s bold move could weaken the digital advertising business, which could result in less revenue for media companies. Safari, after all, has more than 50 percent of the US browser market.

 

The change: Users will need to log in to sites on each app

As part of Apple’s efforts to prevent tracking of user activity, iOS 11 will require users to enter their user name and password to each site on individual apps. In the prior version, cookies in Safari were shared across applications. With iOS 11, for example, if a user logs in to The Washington Post from the Twitter app, they will have to log in to the website again from the Facebook app. Once a user logs in to a site once from an app, they won’t have to repeat the process for that app.

The media impact: The web should get slightly less creepy as cookies sitting within one app won’t be visible to other apps. On the other hand, this may hinder the digital advertising business that relies heavily on cookies to present personalised ads to customers programmatically.

 

The change: Readers will have the option of setting “reader mode” to default

In Safari, users will be able to change their settings to open all links in “reader mode,” or set certain sites to default to “reader mode.” Reader mode strips the content of all ads, graphics, and other distracting elements. All that will remain is text, allowing for a nicer reading experience

The media impact: Defaulting to this mode can be bad news for publishers as it means they can’t customize what the reader is looking at, get analytics into the views or time spent on the page, or generate advertising revenue. And, unlike ad blockers, publishers are unable to check whether a user’s device is running in reader mode. That said, news sites still will be able to measure pageviews and read time, and set cookies.

 

The change: Autoplay control now available on desktop

Last year, Apple allowed videos and GIFs to autoplay on mobile devices as long as the audio was muted as a blanket rule, but there were no similar changes on MacOS, the operating system for desktops. This year, Apple has added preferences to Safari on desktop to allow users to stop videos from autoplaying.

The media impact: Most publishers and platforms have embraced autoplay video, which has the added benefit of boosting view counts. However with this change (and a similar change coming to desktop Chrome in January 2018), news consumers will no longer get startled by sudden (autoplay) audio on websites. The same optional setting (do not autoplay by default) present on desktop Mac isn’t available on iOS 11 as a preference.

 

The change: iOS 11 will share the original link

When users share a link using the built-in iOS “share” functionality, iOS 11 will transform the link to its canonical version—the version that exists on the publisher’s website. This means that if a user shares a Google AMP link, iOS 11 will convert it into a link to the website itself. (Links will not change if they are copied and pasted directly instead of using Apple’s sharing tool.) It will also clear out all the clutter after the end of the link, so that links will no longer contain UTM tags, which are tags appended to the end of a URL to indicate the source or other tracking information, or affiliate tags.

Not only does this ensure that users gets redirected to the publisher’s website, but it also ensures that users can verify sites sent to them (instead of seeing a generic “google.com”), and it also protects them from dodgy sites that leverage the AMP URL to gain users’ trust.

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The media impact: While this change shouldn’t impact final analytics numbers for publishers, the number of direct links they see are likely to increase due to the UTM reference being stripped out of the URLs. Likewise the number of social referrals counted by analytics will likely decrease. And affiliates who rely on referrals will no longer benefit from second- or third-hand shares.

 

The change: Apple News is becoming smarter

While Apple has doubled down on preventing user-tracking, there is one exception to the rule, and that’s in Apple News. If users search for a location in Safari, Apple News will show related news material. If users search for Reykjavik in Safari, for instance, then Apple News will show news about Iceland.

“Top Stories” in Apple News will be personalized based on the topics and news channels the users have selected.  And, on the Apple Watch, with the new Siri watch face, users get the latest headlines, based on “time of day, daily routines and pertinent data.”

Apple News is also joining the much-maligned pivot to video, with a curated “Featured Videos” section in the Today view.

 

The change: Analytics are coming to podcasts

The podcast industry is facing a shakeup with iOS 11 with in-episode analytics in Apple Podcasts. Currently, the only number that podcasts and advertisers receive is aggregate downloads. Later this year, Apple Podcasts will give podcasters a greater insight into podcast listening, including parts of the podcast skipped, how episodes have performed compared to one another, and how many episodes were played.

Apple Podcasts will also now support seasons of shows as well as serial shows. This means that for certain podcasts, listeners will be able to add an entire season to their libraries, and if it’s serial, then the show will play from the beginning instead of playing the latest show first.

The media impact: This will be a big step forward for podcast advertisers as, for the first time, they’ll get insight into whether listeners are skipping over ads as well as the cumulative reach of these ads. This data, from a user’s perspective, will be anonymized, and will not be used for programmatic ads.

 

The change: Apple introduces “the largest augmented reality platform in the world”

ARKit, a development framework that allows developers to create compelling augmented reality experiences, is also part of iOS 11. Augmented reality, per Apple’s definition, is “creating the illusion that virtual objects are placed in a physical world. It’s using your iPhone or iPad as a lens into the virtual world based on what your camera sees.”

ARKit is compatible with hundreds of millions of devices (all iOS devices launched released in fall 2015 and later), and is available to over 15 million registered Apple developers worldwide. Apple is calling it the “largest augmented reality platform in the world.”

The media impact: So far, there has been minimal usage of augmented reality by news organizations. The New Yorker’s cover story in May 2016 and the Post’s allowing people to explore “innovative buildings” are two recent examples. However, iOS device owners should expect to see more immersive storytelling coming from newsrooms in the current months due to the scale of the platform. The hope here is that augmented reality is used for more than advertisements, and in fact allows newsrooms to be creative and innovative.

Let’s see what newsrooms do!

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Priyanjana Bengani is a senior research fellow at Columbia Journalism School's Tow Center for Digital Journalism.