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For traditional publishers, the Apple has been a blessing and a curse. On one hand, its iOS devices, including the iPad, have created hope and inspired thought about the future of publishing. On the other hand, it's clear that it is no savior.

It's not into charity either. Case in point: the 30% cut Apple demands from subscriptions sold in iOS apps. Begrudgingly, many publishers have agreed to this fee. But not all.

Take The Financial Times, for instance. Instead of paying tribute to Steve Jobs, the FT used HTML5 to build a mobile website that circumvents the App Store, and thus Apple's 30% commission.

It didn't have to sacrifice much in doing so. According to Rob Grimshaw, FT.com's managing director, "There isn't a single feature in the native app we haven't been able to replicate in the Web app." So why are other traditional publishers not doing the same thing? There are four primary reasons.

The FT brand is strong

One of the challenges in building a successful mobile website (as opposed to an app) is that your users have to remember that you exist. If they don't, and they don't add your website to their home screen, they'll likely forget about your website.

Since native apps are given a higher profile in the iOS interface, building a native app is highly desirable to those who don't have strong brands. The FT doesn't have that problem.

People pay for the FT

While many newspapers are still at square one (trying to figure out how to convince consumers to shell out for their content), the FT already has a solid base of paying customers.

Because its customers are paying, they're again more likely to visit the FT website on their iOS devices. After all, they want to get what they're paying for.

The FT is multichannel

Unlike many traditional publishers, the FT has successfully executed a multichannel strategy. That means that it isn't reliant on one channel (particularly a nascent one like mobile) and it can enter new channels more confidently than other publishers.

The FT is not desperate

At the end of the day, the FT's position means it doesn't have to play by Apple's rules. Will it lose sales by not doing so? Perhaps. But if strategically, the company doesn't believe that long-term control is worth sacrificing for  short-term gain, it has the luxury of doing its own thing.

Already, we're seeing that Apple is rethinking some of its rules around in-app subscriptions. The publishers that can hold out the longest may yet end up with a deal that makes the App Store more enticing.

The lesson in all this: traditional publishers operating from a position of strength have far more flexibility than their less fortunate counterparts.

Sure, there's some risk in a mobile strategy that avoids native apps. That's where most of the action has been, is, and likely will be for some time. But a 30% revenue share with Apple raises a significant barrier to financial success for publishers looking at iOS devices as potentially powerful distribution platforms. Ironically, that's just as true for the strongest publishers as it is for the weakest.

Patricio Robles

Published 11 June, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dermot Solon

In fairness, the FT's stated reason for switching to a web-based app was Apple's stance on sharing subscriber data, not necessarily the 30% in-app revenue cut (although doubtless this was also a factor).

What's fantastic is that the app demonstrates that HTML5, contrary to being a vaguely distant standard, seems to have reached a level where it can achieve most of the functionality required for apps. If others follow suit, which they are bound to, surely Apple will have to relax their App Store policies further.

over 5 years ago

Nico Koepke

Nico Koepke, CEO at KODIME LtdSmall Business

I was prompted this morning by the FT iPad APP to switch to the Mobile Site. It works ok, but it does not quite have the same usability/feel.

But of course when you take into account they can now much more easily re-purpose the ad inventory, add social media links (without forcing app download to follow the linked content) and of course an improvement of 30% on margin, seems a logical choice.

Whether this switch is for subscription type services only, or will affect one-off paid-for apps also remains to be seen.

The power of the appstore as a portal and quality assurance remains significant, it may not be that easy (except for leading brands such as FT) to convince consumers to start paying for access to a Mobile Site, HTML5 or not.

over 5 years ago

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Damien Wright

I'm really pleased to see that the FT have done their own thing and in particular used HTML 5 to do so. It's going to take more of the big players to carve a path and lead us out of Apple's demands. Will smaller organisations have the confidence or as mentioned in the article, the brand strength, to follow suit? I think it will be a while yet.

over 5 years ago

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Mehdi

GO FT!

Someone does need to stand up Apple! 30% commission is rediculous and then considering apples policy on keeping and selling all the data. Its a wonder the news publishers didn't get together and revolt earlier!

over 5 years ago

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Jason DaPonte

Smart move on the FT's part.

But let's remember the BBC (my former employer) created a web app for BBC iPlayer on mobile with the apps vs mobile web issue in mind years ago as did Playboy (to get around the no nudity policy in the Apple App Store): http://www.editorsweblog.org/web_20/2011/05/playboy_and_aside_the_wave_of_web_apps_g.php

over 5 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

I've long been a champion of "mobile web apps" vs. "native" apps for a number of reasons so applaud the FT's move. It isn't an 'either/or' decision, of course, it's just that too many people have piled into apps as the "next big thing" and then wonder why they don't turn out to be quite as effective as they'd hoped and they have to maintain them across multiple OSs, market them on the appstore etc. etc.

That said I agree with Nico that, at the moment, the mobile app experience on the FT, on 3G, is a bit too slow/clunky. On WiFi it's just about OK but you still can't rely on WiFi on the move / on the train etc.

Someone who should know suggested to me the FT had 'rushed it out' (the mobile app) and so I hope to see improvements in the user experience, particularly the speed/caching etc, in the coming weeks.

BTW, does anyone know stats on the following (we probably have them somewhere so I'm being lazy..):

1. How many people who download apps do so because they *browse* the appstore(s)? i.e. how many go to download an app because they've been prompted/directed to do so (e.g. from a link, an email, they already know the app etc.) versus those who just download apps because they happen to be listed high up in the store directories? I suspect that whilst most apps might be downloaded 'randomly' because they're on some 'top/popular' list these are also probably all free apps and 'low quality' customers. Much is made of the 'marketing' power of the appstore 'portal' but I strongly suspect all the real value is occurring where people already know what they want or follow an external link.

2. What's the decay/churn rate on the usage of apps depending on the page of your phone or tablet that they are on? So if you have to swipe to page 5 is there a big tail off in app usage for the apps there? What's the average number of apps that people actually use more than once a month? As with the early days of the web I suspect we'll find out that just because you've got an app in the appstore doesn't mean anyone will find it; and even if they download it, it doesn't meant they'll use it more than once.

over 5 years ago

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Simon West

As the mobile apps market moves from one dominant player to two, with Android growing in popularity, it seems likely that the demands of supporting multiple apps for different platforms will drive more people down this route.

Especially if another player (Microsoft???) gets a competitive offering in the market too...

I've heard comments recently that, as developers have recently produced Android versions of their iPhone apps, the Android versions of many apps are better than the iPhone version. Anyone else seen this?

over 5 years ago

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Andrew Rogoff, Founder at Resourceguruapp.com and StagsandHens.com

HTML5 makes much more sense than native apps. Who knows how the mobile device market will fragment over the next few years as Android takes off. God knows, even Microsoft might get their act together with Windows Mobile. Putting all your effort into one set of code that works across all devices has got to be the way to go.

over 5 years ago

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