Nearly 30 million tablets, mostly iPads, have been sold since last spring. This means that no matter what your publication’s size or focus, some of your readers use tablets. Those readers are more affluent and spend more time reading content than the general public, so the effect on both traffic and revenue is usually magnified. The numbers are even larger in the smartphone market. Just as readers began migrating in the 1990s from print to online, they are migrating now from desktop and laptop computers to touchscreen-enabled mobile devices.
With that migration has come an interest in content apps. According to a University of Missouri study, 62 percent of U.S. newspapers with circulations above 25,000 now offer iOS or Android apps. Business Insider surveyed its readers in 2010 and again this year about their usage habits with various devices. Those readers reported less time spent using desktops and laptops in 2011, and more time spent using iPads.
Tablets are not bad at Web browsing, but there’s usually a sense that you’re using an interface that wasn’t designed for your device. Links are too small. Pop-up navigation can require patience and a delicate touch. By contrast, apps have navigation that was designed for touchscreens from the start. To reach the next page, just swipe your finger across the screen. Navigation is bigger and easier to tap.
So, as the market moves from desktop to mobile, does that mean your publication should shift resources from the Web to apps?
The answer, for now, is a bit more complicated than yes or no. The reason is HTML5, which can format your existing website into a tablet-friendly layout, with swiping and simplified navigation. The promise of HTML5 is that you can run one site and present it in appropriate ways to readers regardless of which device they are using. But is it ready for prime time?
“The browser will ultimately win,” said USA Today mobile product manager Emil Morrow, “whether it’s HTML5 remains to be seen.”
Pros and Cons
Here’s why you might use HTML5 instead of building a native app:
HTML5 is generally cheaper than building an app and will allow you to unify your efforts onto a single platform. Readers benefit because they don’t need to locate the app in the App Store and enter their password to install the app just to find your content. But perhaps most importantly, HTML5 eliminates the 30 percent fee that publishers must pay Apple for every subscription sale made from within their iOS apps.
Another benefit of optimizing your current website for tablet-based browsers is that you don’t need to hire the new staff necessary to build an app. Brendan Cleary is project manager for Atom Apps, a New York-based mobile development company. “If you have a website and a Web developer, you’re ready to go,” Cleary said. “You don’t need one iOS developer and one Android developer to launch on both platforms.”
Many users still go directly to websites, even on tablets, rather than launching apps. “Even publishers with well-designed and relatively popular apps often see that they receive much more traffic via their website than via their apps,” said Quinten Farmer, vice president of operations at OnSwipe, a company that offers nearly turnkey HTML5 launches to publishers (see below).
There’s one key reason publishers may choose to build a native app instead: flexibility. An HTML5 site that covers Android devices would need to account for multiple screen resolutions, which means optimizing layouts and ads for some devices but not others. You can avoid this problem by making your HTML5 site specific to one device, such as the iPad, but then you still need an Android app, or you leave out the growing Android user base.
“Screen resolution and size differences are going to be an impediment,” Cleary said. “With HTML5 and ad standards, it is likely that you are not delivering the best ad experience to all phones and tablets.”
Native apps are also more flexible in how they interact with the device’s hardware and other functions. For instance, native apps can control more system memory, meaning they can load more content for offline viewing. They can also easily interact with the device’s GPS, calendar, and camera; these features won’t matter for many news sites, but they might be the piece that differentiates you from competitors — for example, you could use the GPS to deliver readers hyperlocal news.
But then again, saving that 30 percent fee is certainly appealing.
Making the Choice
One of my consulting clients is launching a niche news startup. He recently had to choose between building native apps and building an HTML5 site. My advice to him was to go native for now, and see how the HTML5 ecosystem develops. That advice was specific to his needs — a fairly sophisticated and precisely designed presentation of news in his niche, in which the tablet experience is the main way readers will get to know the brand, and in which Android is also important.
But there are reasons you might make the other choice, based on your specific needs. An important consideration is who manages the relationship with your readers.
David Anthony is co-founder of Bondi Digital, which helps magazines publish digital collections from their existing archives. Clients include Rolling Stone and Playboy. With this type of product, maintaining brand control is especially important, and subscriber fees may be significant — both reasons to be open to alternatives to apps, in which someone else (usually Apple) is the gateway between you and your readers, and you pay a percentage off the top of your subscription sales.
“Magazines traditionally look to build direct long-term relationships with subscribers that often last many years,” Anthony said. “Going through our HTML5 Web app allows the magazine publisher to continue to directly build and manage its relationships with its reader base.” And saves them that 30 percent fee.
Anthony doesn’t think the choice between HTML5 websites or native apps is all or nothing, but rather that it depends on the content and business model of the product: “Maybe the larger question is: Do the two approaches co-exist?”
You also might gravitate toward HTML5 if you see the tablet market as a sideline for your brand, for now, and want a quick and easy way to launch a solid product there. The more specific and customized an experience you want, the more native apps make sense.
And finally, how you feel about Android’s position in the market is a factor. Not even OnSwipe’s HTML5 sites are guaranteed to work properly on any platform other than iPad.
So, as a question within a question, how much should you care about Android? I think there’s value in showing that you’re not wedded to one platform. This can be a big factor for some brands. For example, if you run a site that impartially covers tech companies, it may be embarrassing to have only an iPad app and not an Android app.
But it’s also true that the iPad dominates not only tablet sales, but tablet Web use statistics. Whether the modest increase in potential audience that you get from having an Android version is worth the additional development considerations is a question that your brand has to decide for itself.
The tablet market is a fast-changing one, but at press time, serious rivals for the iPad were still hard to find. A number of Android tablets stack up well in specs, but none is in the same ballpark when it comes to sales and usage. Every non-Apple tablet on the market, combined, accounts for less than one out of 20 tablet pageviews, with iPads providing the other 19.
Sales of the HP TouchPad were so weak that it was killed just weeks after launching to great fanfare. Sales of the BlackBerry PlayBook have also been slow.
If you focus your attention and resources on only the iPad, you would not be alone in that choice. The Associated Press, for example, is planning a feature called iCircular that will bring coupons and other ad features to mobile devices. It is being built natively for iOS but will be offered in one-size-fits-all HTML5 for Android and other platforms.
And What About …
I had a question in the back of my mind as I researched this article, and you may have the same question. And that is, is my regular website good enough? The tablet is supposed to be good at Web browsing, isn’t it? So maybe we should just give users the same experience that they’d see on a desktop or laptop.
I asked each of the experts I consulted that question, and almost all of them said no. USA Today’s Morrow’s opinion is representative: “Users expect the experience to be optimized for the device.”
However, it’s worth pointing out that for some products, a simple, old-fashioned website may be fine. APNews.com, for instance, has a standard Web interface that works well for not only smartphones, but more basic-feature phones. Alerts, scores, weather reports — all can be presented without sophisticated layouts or user interfaces.
In the 1990s, forward-thinking media companies began to decouple their production process from the end product; they recognized that reporters weren’t writing stories for the paper; they were writing stories for the paper and the Web. Whatever technology choices you make today — apps, HTML5, old-fashioned Web, or something else — the hard work of decoupling the “what” from the “how” has already happened in most cases. So the good news is you can explore the costs and benefits of these options without needing to fundamentally redefine your company’s mission. They are all different methods of achieving the same thing: a connection with your audience that brings value to you and to your readers.
OnSwipe Aims to Make HTML5 Easy
What if I told you that you can have a tablet-optimized HTML5 site a half hour from the time you read this article? Speed and ease of use are exactly what OnSwipe promises.
The New York-based startup allows publishers to sign up for free; its business model is based on an advertising revenue share. Once you sign up, OnSwipe renders an HTML5 version of your existing site to visitors who are using tablets, complete with page swiping, and a look and feel that appears customized for your tablet.
To see OnSwipe in action, launch your tablet's Web browser and visit Slate.com, Forbes.com, or any of the thousands of other sites that have signed up for OnSwipe. Or, visit a personal WordPress site; the blogging giant uses OnSwipe for its tablet users.
"The interest in our platform has come from an incredibly diverse range of pulications," said Quinten Farmer, OnSwipe's vice president of operations. Partners range from big companies such as Hearst to individual bloggers, many of whom value the freedom it gives them from app stores and their revenue splits.
"Our goal is to do the 'heavy lifting' of building and delivering this seamless experience, so that publishers can focus on what the do best," Farmer said.
So, who should (and shouldn't) sign up? In my opinion, an HTML5 site developed by OnSwipe is best used as a sideline to your existing website. You can customize how your content is displayed, but it's harder to customize functionality. Also, OnSwipe is guaranteed to work only with the iPad. Farmer points out that the iPad represents about 98 percent of U.S. tablet Web traffic. "As these numbers shift and a potential iPad competitor begins to emerge, we will re-evaluate our device support plans accordingly," Farmer said.
If you are planning a tablet-specific experience, you will have the most flexibility in presentation and features with a native app. You could also build your own customized HTML5 experience. These options will cost more and take longer, which is the price you pay for having it your way.
Keith Jordan is managing director of Upstream Digital Media, a consulting business that focuses on digital products for media companies. Visit UpstreamDigitalMedia.com