Can the iPad save the magazine star? It might, if Portland, Oregon startup Urban Airship has anything to say about it.
For all their dreams of success in a medium that privileges big pictures, multi-media and a touch interface, publishers of periodical content have been frustrated by the lack of subscription sales options on Apple’s iPad. Urban Airship is a small startup that has begun to power iOS subscription to content for publishers including NewsWeek, the Atlantic and a major sports league. The company, which was founded with the help of a unique government unemployment program and online bacon sales (seriously), announced tonight that it has raised a second round of venture capital, $5.4 million from the Foundry Group, True Ventures and the Founders Co-op.
In the Spring of 2009, we wrote about Urban Airship’s just-launched push-notifications and in-app sales as a service – a service the company built by the seat of its pants when push notifications came to the iPhone much faster than anyone expected. The founders had been building their technology with funding from one special Oregon unemployment fund for people whose employers shut down without paying them (they were told to take their computers home in lieu of a last paycheck), another fund for unemployed people working full-time building their own companies and from revenue from Bacn, an online bacon shopping site and URL shortener. (They’ve since sold Bacn to a competing online bacon retailer.)
The team quickly put together an impressive roster of clients for their push notification as a service technology, most famously for Tapulous, the makers of popular iPhone rhythm games Tap Tap Revenge. Users of the game can challenge each other and the challenges are sent as push notifications, powered by Urban Airship.
Many of Urban Airship’s early customers were brought in by its high-energy CEO, Scott Kveton. Kveton has helped usher into the contemporary computing era technologies including OpenID, the Firefox web browser and the Linux kernel.
Now Urban Airship is doing subscriptions. And why not? Apple made a magical device that almost feels like a magazine of infinite variety you might find in a Harry Potter book, but there’s no ability to subscribe to serialized content on it.
One of the biggest complaints magazine publishers have about Apple’s policies is that they don’t allow the gathering of reader demographic information. That information has been essential in selling advertisements for print magazines.
Can Urban Airship solve that problem? Product Manager Jason Glaspey says no. “Apple doesn’t allow it, and we don’t get in the middle of that debate,” he says. “That’s not part of what we solve. We just solve the in-app purchasing, content delivery, and user-authentication. We really don’t want to say one way or the other on that because we don’t want to criticize Apple’s policies, nor say the publishers shouldn’t get it.”
That sounds like a tough position for Urban Airship to be in; but blind subscriptions on a wildly popular new platform are presumably better than no subscriptions at all.
With Urban Airship’s new subscription feature, “you buy a subscription for a specific amount of time, then you get all the updates during that period,” explains Product Manager Jason Glaspey. “We also use a unique identifier so you keep your subscription even if you change devices (within iOS). That can be both new content downloads (which we power) or simply unlocking gated content.”
“It is no easy feat to add in-app subscriptions that work within the Apple guidelines and practices,” writes Jessica Davis, Communications Director, on the company’s blog. “One of our engineering team members described the task as ‘Herculean,’ which is apt, given the amount of code required to make it work.”
The Future is Cross-Platform
Urban Airship is best known for its work on the iPhone, but its push notifications can be sent to Android and Blackberry phones as well.
Glaspey says the team is hard at work building out subscription options for Android and Blackberry, as well as keeping its eye on Windows Phone 7.
Just like the startup’s push notifications service made it easy for any app publisher to add the compelling user experience of push, at least in theory increasing user engagement with apps, the new subscription feature is aimed at unlocking the potential that the iPad has offered to publishers of magazines and other serialized content.
“It’s still up the the media to deliver content that matters in this new paradigm and in a format that’s worth paying for–all at a convenience and price point that subscribers respond to,” says Glaspey. “The battle isn’t over, but it may have gotten easier.”
And why stop at magazines?
“One of the big hurdles is that using an app for customer payments is pretty new – a lot of people who could use this haven’t yet imagined expanding their revenue this way,” Glaspey says.
“One of the things I’m working on a lot this Fall is visiting advertising agencies and doing speaking gigs at conferences talking about the opportunities of mobile: to try and expand the imagination of people beyond magazines and streaming content (the obvious use cases) while also reminding people that their marketing messages are already irrelevant. They need to provide value and not just make a mobile ‘micro-site.'”
A platform that makes it easy for mobile developers to add engagement-driving push notifications, in-app sales to make their development financially viable and now a subscription infrastructure to kill the unwieldy problem of downloading a new app for every issue of a periodical; that’s what Urban Airship has built so far. With a fresh infusion of cash, it will be interesting to see what they do with it, and what they come up with next.