The New York Times' offering the engine behind its own iPad app proves it thinks the future of news publishing is on tablets. The code is called the Press Engine, and it could, just possibly, turn into a powerful tool for transforming the newspaper business.
The Press Engine exists because other publishers, like the Dallas Morning News, approached the New York paper and requested access to the code it used to build its iPad and iPhone apps--so taken were they by the design. The Times' app is certainly very polished, but it's hardly a paragon of high-tech, so maybe these other interested parties were attracted by the way the app preserves the look and feel of the physical newspaper--a move which accentuates the importance of the print edition versus showier Web-based editions.
But the Times isn't just embracing the idea of sharing all of the Times' special parts of Press Engine for the good of the newspaper publishing business as a whole. It's taking the details of the apps away, leaving behind what Christine Topalian, a director of the Times' News Services division told AdAge was the "for lack of a better word, the DNA of them and the functionality of them," so that other papers can add their own fonts or branding back in. It's also selling the engine, rather than giving it away. Other publishers pay a one-time license fee, and then a monthly maintenance fee to keep the code fresh, bug free, and (presumably) to take advantages of any more sophisticated tweaks the Times adds to it in time.
Will it turn into a big earner for the Times, though? Probably not--there aren't enough interested parties (whatever the size of the initial fee, and unless each monthly chunk of cash is pretty sizable). It'll turn into a nice reservoir of subscriptions, though--something we know the newspaper business likes. And it potentially lets the Times do one big thing: Control how mobile-app newspapers look and feel. By popularizing Press Engine, the Times gets to decide how the core bits of other newspaper Web apps will perform, and thus it could subtly influence the next generation of digital newspapers. It could even, under the right circumstances, let the Times do for general news e-publishing what Bloomberg did for business publishing. And this sort of control, no matter how feint, over the future of newsprint is almost worth more than any paywall subscriptions the Times itself will earn.
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