Can the iPhone Help Save Magazines?

With bargain-basement subscription prices and free Web articles, magazines have spent the last decade acting like startups who care for nothing but eyes. But unlike Twitter, publishing companies need revenue—and not just from ads. Fortunately for them, the iPhone might become the next conduit for profit, thanks to a little-utilized feature in iPhone OS 3.0: subscription pricing.

The textbook case: the McSweeney's app, which sells for $5.99. Instead of giving away their app for free, ala The New York Times, and stuffing it with ads, McSweeney's has chosen to sell their app for a relatively steep price—but built in is a half-year subscription to iPhone-only content that readers can't get on the Web. Once six months is up, users are asked to re-up their subscription for $5 for another six months.

McSweeney'sThe genius here, according to Harvard's Neiman Journalism Lab, is the app's use of push notifications. Every time a new weekly iPhone-version goes to "print," a users iPhone is sent a push notification that, when opened, jumps to the app. The iPhone imprint, which McSweeney's is calling Small Chair, lets some content (like humor) stay accessible even after a subscription lapses, encouraging app owners to see what they're missing from the rest of the content, and re-subscribe.

The best part: it's relatively easy—even easier than the Neiman Lab suggests. "With push notifications, updates are handled by the app's developers, not Apple—which means companies need to invest in hardware and prepare for the scale issues that arise when registered devices and custom content need to be matched," the lab's article says. But several one-man developer operations have made clever use of push, not least of all Zachary West, the developer of Prowl, a notification app. Once the developer figures out how his severs can "talk" to Apple's push server with an appropriately-formatted message, the notification process is straight-forward.

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  • Russell Quinn

    Hey there,

    To clarify the final part of your article about subscriptions and Push Notifications being "hard":

    Sending Push Notifications certainly isn't that difficult to figure out (although the work required to handle the logic for incrementing badge numbers, rather than the message-based notifications that Prowl sends, is not proportional what the feature actually does, but that's another story...)

    The difference is that "old style" apps were set-and-forget. You upload to Apple, if you sell 10 or 10,000,000 you don't really need to worry. As soon as you require Push Notifications, or handling subscription logic and pushing content (none of that is done for you by In App Purchase nor Apple) then you need server systems and ones that scale inline with the demand for the app. My point was that this is a whole other area of technology and logistic management that *may* take out a lot of the one-man, bedroom coders to whom the iPhone really appealed to before.

    Russell (the McSweeney's app developer)