To App or Not to App?

There’s an app for that -- or maybe not. A small but growing number of companies are skipping or abandoning apps, and the reasons why are something that every developer ought to consider when deciding how to best reach their target audiences.

Media companies such as the Financial Times and the Columbia Daily Tribune are among the biggest proponents of Web services, which use a smartphone’s or tablet’s browser -- along with HTML5 -- to provide an app-like experience. Also known as “Web apps,” this architecture strips off browser controls -- including the address bar and navigation buttons -- and enables app features such as branded splash screens.

Some media companies prefer Web services because they don’t have to share subscription revenue and customer information with a third party such as Apple. That’s one reason why Web services are worth considering by developers that want tight control over their customer base.

Web services are also worth being considered by anyone who wants to develop for media companies and other mass-market organizations. There’s certainly plenty of potential business: Missouri School of Journalism professor Mike Jenner recently conducted a study that found that 59 percent of daily newspapers that don’t have a phone app plan to launch one this year, while 48 percent plan to add a tablet app. Jenner recently spoke with us about where Web services fit into those plans.

The Financial Times is one of the best-known examples of a newspaper eschewing apps in favor of an app-like Web services offering. What are the main reasons for making that decision? Do they want to avoid both OS-related market fragmentation and the sharing of royalties with Apple?

Mike Jenner: There are several important reasons many newspaper publishers are favoring app-like Web services over apps. The 30 percent revenue share with Apple is probably the biggest factor. Also, many publishers are turned off by the idea of tying up a lot of staff time and talent replicating apps for different platforms. And if you’re a publisher with a paid content model and products for the Web and mobile devices, it’s a lot easier and a better customer experience (as far as collecting payment and controlling access) to simply handle the subscription from within the sites.

What are you hearing from newspapers about Web services? Does there seem to be a trend toward that platform, or does the majority seem committed to apps?

M.J.: A lot of publishers would prefer to simply produce mobile-optimized Web sites for the reasons I mentioned. But one of the most important things the App Store or the Android Market provides is an easy way to find the product.

What do newspapers perceive as the biggest drawbacks or limitations of Web services? Are they concerned about their limitations, such as the inability to use GPS or gyroscope?

M.J.: Web services are often slower to load. Overall, I think convenience is the biggest concern, more so than an inability to use the GPS or gyroscope functions.

Q: What can non-media companies learn from newspapers’ experiences with apps and Web services?

M.J.: That the quality of the experience really matters. The apps and sites that are going to succeed are the ones that are fast, well-designed, easy to navigate and functional. Even though everyone is still figuring these new platforms out, it’s important for newspapers to get in the game and create ways to reach readers the way they want to consume the news.


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