As a stage 3 addict of news and infotainment and as a frequent complainer of apps that provide such content, you can be sure that my ears were tuned for any mention of changes related to News — Apple's news aggregator first introduced with iOS 9 — while listening to this year's WWDC keynote. To quickly summarize my current status: I use News a lot, and I love the sources the app allows you to collect content from, which in my case consists mostly of channels with a few topics sprinkled in here and there for good measure (in News-speak a channel is a defined source, i.e. Reuters, versus a topic like "Science"). But don't confuse "using it a lot" with "loving it a lot" — to date there's been no correlation between the two, largely stemming from how News curates its "For You" suggestions: too much chaff, not enough wheat.
My annoyance is two-fold. First, I don't find News to be particularly adroit at learning what I'd like to read based on my prior reading history, and second, it seems to willfully disregard the guidance I've steadfastly given it, via extensive and consistent efforts to like or dislike the articles selected for me. I may have eclectic reading tastes, but how many dislikes must it take for News to understand I have absolutely zero interest in sports?
By comparison, Flipboard and Google Play Newsstand seem to have figured out this curation stuff a long time ago — I may not read every article, but at least I understand why they're being presented to me given the sources the two apps can pull from. With Flipboard in particular, it's a trivial task to "fine-tune" your article selections even further via options to dislike an entire article or just specific tags associated with the article ("gossip" or "graffiti" for example), in addition to being able to outright mute a specific source (also available in News via a "mute channel" extension in the share sheet). More importantly, taking such actions in Flipboard actually have a tangible effect on future curation — the logical and comforting outcome I feel is missing with News.
"Why not just use Flipboard and Newsstand then?" Well I do, but both can be problematic if you wish to define your own sources — that's the News advantage in a nutshell — a treasure trove of content, if only it had the algorithms behind it to curate it, or at minimum, provided the tools needed to prod lazy algos in the right direction ("not interested in sports," "more like this," "less like this," etc.).
Back to WWDC16, and Eddy Cue has exited the stage after some disappointingly brief updates on what's new with Apple News:
- News now has 60 million monthly active users.
- News has an all new design and new icon.
- "For You" is now broken into curated sections like "Science," "Technology," etc, plus sections for trending articles and featured stories.
- Users can now subscribe to magazines and websites from within News.
- News now provides breaking news notifications.
And that's it. You can see how I might be a bit disappointed, after all, what I wanted were some improvements in News' ability to curate and/or tools to help me refine News selections, and instead all I got were super-bold fonts and the temperature (see screenshot below)? Nevertheless I withheld judgment, grabbed the iOS 10 developer beta, and spent the past two weeks with News to see just how fantastic this "fantastic new design" (in the words of Craig Federighi) really is.
Throughout iOS 10 you'll find bolder, more legible font weights — indeed, Apple is even promoting iOS 10 as "Big. Bold. Beautiful," but in their refresh of News (and the similarly styled Music redesign), Apple seemed intent on pushing its San Francisco font to its absolute aesthetic/comedic limit. No doubt you'll have already noticed the bigger, heavier headline and section titles in the screens above, now paired to excerpt typography set in a lighter but still large font size with more leading than iOS 9's News. The result is a distinctly more visually dynamic, spacious, and readable experience, but is this visual re-think an aesthetic improvement?
A little bit yes, but mostly more like no. When compared to the utilitarian and nearly un-designed approach taken with iOS 9's News, the new News is visually more satisfying, but that is setting the bar comically low. Of course it looks better, design wise there was no place to go but up, so yes — now the bar is a hair higher. For me News (and by extension Music) have the unfortunate resemblance to something a Microsoft intern may have suggested for the Windows Phone 8 UI before being summarily fired and escorted off the Redmond campus — there's no sophistication, no elegance, no visual joy, and critically — no Apple-ness here. Not helping matters in the slightest: that icon. I don't know what that "N" is or where that font comes from, but the sooner it leaves this galaxy, the better.
Okay, so News is aesthetically...challenged, but it is a nicer read, right? Well, mostly yes. I am sort of liking the auto-sorting into more digestible sections, it sort of counters the app's expanse in visual size (i.e. expect to scroll more, especially on the iPhone SE) and allows one to bypass a suite of stories if you're mentally just not prepared for say..."Brexit" at the moment. A visual eyesore, yet an improved reading experience (at least on the iPhone 6s/6s Plus) — it may not make sense, but there it is.
Then there's of the matter of the actual article curation. I'm still getting a good deal of cruft, but maybe, just maybe, it's slightly better — or maybe it just appears to be better due to the smaller section breakdowns, I'm not sure, but while swiping through my "For You" headlines right now, there are exactly zero stories about Sports. That's progress I suppose, as are the separate "like" and "dislike" heart buttons now anchoring the footer of individual articles (previously News articles had just one heart adjusted by one tap (like) or two taps (dislike)), but I'm still left wishing News shipped with more filtering tools, a settings menu to actively help the app along, or even just a hint that all these hearts and broken hearts weren't just being saved to a file named "do-not-care.txt" on an Apple News server somewhere.
And that's the new News — a slight improvement over its predecessor to be sure, but one unlikely to move the needle very far for the ambivalent. Now to be fair, best I can tell — I'm distinctly in the minority with my feelings on News — most of my Tweeps and Slack friends already using News seem to quite like the refresh, and it's likely readers will to. And it's not as if there are a lot of superior or even comparable options in this space to turn to. As it turns out — providing a lot of content for free isn't a great long-term business model, and thus many of News' previous or would-be competitors have either folded, or been acquired by a competing service with a similar business model and similar long-term prospects. Now of course there is still room for further improvement to News before iOS 10 is publicly released this fall, and as is, News is still a very cool (and free) resource, but as with my departure from Apple Music to Spotify, I'd be more than happy to jump ship entirely if one of its competitors gets the bowl of porridge (content and curation) just right. I'll keep my fingers crossed, but for the moment at least — iOS 10's new Apple News is as close as it gets.