Farewell, App Store? Netizine Turns Magazines Into Social Networks, Runs On HTML5

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As e-book publishers and Apple face an antitrust lawsuit over pricing, magazine publishers are now looking into an alternative solution to the digital pricing dilemma: being able to extricate themselves from Apple’s grip entirely. A startup called Netizine, makers of a new, tablet-ready social magazine platform for publishers is currently in talks with seven of the ten top global publishers, we’re told, including three of the top five in the U.S.

And what is Netizine offering? Only a fully functional, HTML5-based tablet application that turns digital magazines into social networks…networks that run outside the App Store, that is.

Magazine publishers’ efforts, to date, have been a mixed bag. Some are OK, while others have been pretty awful,  basically turning their content into slow and heavy apps that take up more than their fair share of the iPad’s disk space. Their early failure on this front has left room for startups like Flipboard and Zite to innovate and build new ways to consume news in a “magazine-like” interface.

Enter Netizine.

The company, now in closed beta with an early launch scheduled for summer 2012, is an entirely new take on how magazines can operate in the new digital, tablet-focused computing age. And it’s all about social.

Netizine CEO Jonathan Harris, a self-described “print guy,” the former GM of a large publishing business (Africa’s Media24), explains that today’s “social magazine apps” are not really social.

“I’m a big consumer of Flipboard, but I do not define that as a social magazine.” he says. “The reason it’s labeled a ‘social magazine’ is because when it started, it aggregated my social feeds and turned that into a magazine experience.”

“But social is broadly limited [in Flipboard] to a page-to-many experience – i.e. share the page, tweet the page – which is pretty much a commodity these days, and a fairly standard experience across the board.”

With Netizine, however, publishers have the tools to build an entire social network within their magazine, in order to allow readers to socialize around content. It’s a more in-depth an experience that something like the community solutions designed for websites – like Disqus, Badgeville, or Livefyre, for example, which are mainly focused on commenting, user profiles, and reputation management.

Netizine builds an entire network, with a robust feature set that includes not just profiles and commenting, but also tools to share, bookmark, favorite, and rate articles, plus live chat, one-to-one instant messaging, groups (similar to LinkedIn), both the ability to friend other readers as well as the ability to follow them (one-way friendships), support for check-ins (!), integrations of the publishers’ and advertisers’ social presences from Facebook and Twitter, support for reader blogs, and more.

Publishers can pick and choose which of the tools they want included, of course, and they’re all customizable. And while for readers, the additions may just be seen as fun new ways to interact, for publishers, it’s all about building up the demographic profiles of their audience, which can then be sold to advertisers. (Sound familiar?)

One example of how this would work: magazine ads may show readers a “check-in” option (with optional sync to Foursquare) in exchange for some sort of deal, discount or coupon. Readers, wanting the deal, then do so, providing the publisher with details as to where they are located and what they were reading at the time.

The numerous social features aren’t provided solely to allow readers a new way to socialize around the magazine’s content or for better analytics, though – they also make it possible for the magazines to introduce new ways to navigate through content.

Instead of trying to reproduce the print magazine in digital format, with Netizine, the solution is to use social metrics as a way to present a magazine’s articles. For example, readers can dive into the “most commented,” section first, or the “most bookmarked,” “most shared,” or “highest rated.”

But the entry of Netizine raises the question: what of Next Issue Media, the magazine industry’s joint venture to build a “Hulu for magazines,” (involving Conde Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., and Time Inc.)? Some of those players are also looking at Netizine, it seems.

Explains Harris, “these guys are cognizant of what happened to the music industry, which is the creation of the dominant intermediary – more money being in music today, but not the music companies making it – so what they’re doing is toeing the water,” he says.  “[Next Issue] is a really good first attempt…I think they’re experimenting. And for us, it’s the best news we could ever hear of, because it gives us channel we didn’t have a couple of weeks ago.”

The new platform, which is built with HTML5 and CSS3 for responsive design (meaning screen size doesn’t matter), can be used in two ways by publishers. For those behind on the HTML5 “trend” (sadly, that’s many), Netizine can convert their PDFs to HTML5 for them, wrap the social layer around the content, and return to them, in a couple of hours, their brand wrapped in social. Alternately, publishers can choose to take their own HTML pages and use Netizine as more of a white label service. Regardless of which option they take, however, Netizine hosts the content, giving the publisher a URL.

Netizine plans to take its cut off as a “small percentage” off the magazine’s app’s subscription price, which, not surprisingly, will be lower than Apple’s.

It remains to be seen which publishers end up launching on Netizine later this summer, of course. But Harris says he believes this is the future. “Our bet is that the social magazine space is the next big space, and the native, enriched app was a stepping stone.”

In other words, it’s a big bet that magazine publishers will pull out of the iTunes App Store, and move to the web instead, lest they risk splitting their audience into the countable, social group and the native-based, less social demographic. While publishers may be willing to take this shot, whether users will follow them – especially when there are other great apps for browsing news and features (like Flipboard!) - definitely remains to be seen.

Netizine is currently self-funded. Interested parties can sign up here.

Below, more of the first screenshots from the company’s product: