Last week, the FT ended its six year spat with Apple and put a native app back inside iTunes. So is that the end of web apps, and a victory for Apple? Not at all, says Tim Green…
Six years ago, the FT fell out with Apple. Its app was pulled from iTunes, and the FT pledged its future to HTML5 web apps instead.
“We have launched a new, faster, more complete app for the iPad and iPhone which is available via your browser rather than from an app store,” it said.
“We’re encouraging our readers to switch immediately. Make sure you don’t miss out on these updates.”
It seemed like the beginning of a new phase for the so-called web app. After all, at the same time, Facebook was also re-directing its resources away from native and towards HTML5.
Well, now we know different. By September 2012, Mark Zuckerberg was saying “the biggest mistake we’ve made as a company is betting on HTML5 over native.” And earlier this week, the FT was back in the app store.
So is that it? Has Apple won? Predictably, it’s not that simple.
To understand what’s going on with the FT, let’s re-wind to 2011. Back then, Apple had just launched the iPad and was keen to establish the tablet as a brave new publishing medium.
It found an eager audience among newspaper and magazine groups. They were anxious to unearth an alternative to free ad-funded online content, which was failing to make up for lost print revenue.
Perhaps a paid-for digital edition would provide it? After all, people would pay for apps, and the content could be richer – with video and interactive elements.
Of course, Apple wanted this too. Not least because its revenue model dictated that it would keep 30 per cent of the cover price. More than that, it would also control any in-app purchases, and retain 30 per cent of those payments too. Oh, and it would keep all the subscriber data.
“The FT is in a different, almost unique, position to other publishers. Its financial content is valuable and unique. It’s not like sports news. You can’t just click away and find it somewhere else for free.”
Well, some publishers didn’t mind this. They figured they already paid intermediaries in the print world, so this was nothing new. Also, the iPad would bring them loads of new subscribers.
But the FT saw things otherwise. It was in a different, almost unique, position to other publishers. The FT’s financial content is valuable and unique. It’s not like sports news. You can’t just click away and find it somewhere else for free.
As a consequence, the FT already had a successful paywall with well-heeled and willing subscribers (it now has 650,000). It didn’t need Apple’s help. And it didn’t want Apple taking 30 per cent of its income. Instead, its free native app offered a link to the FT website where people could subscribe. Obviously, Apple got none of this money.
So the FT withdrew its app/was ejected. From 2011, all FT subscribers would access their exclusive content inside a web app instead.
Until this week. Now, there’s a new FT native app available for iPhone and iPad.
Again, is this a cave-in? Well, no. The move is nothing to do with business models. The new iOS app is only be accessible to existing FT subscribers. As such, there’s no option to purchase subscriptions from within it. You have to go to the website first. Apple still won’t get any money from the FT.
So why the switch? It’s all to do with user engagement. Simply, the FT thinks the richer experience inside native apps might keep people subscribed for longer. Also, native apps makes ads better.
“We know that an engaged reader results in a larger lifetime value,” said Cait O’Riordan, the FT’s chief product and information officer. “We want to know if a native app can help drive that engagement number.”
“But here’s another thing. In the six years the FT has been absent from the app store, Apple’s publishing ambitions have changed immensely.”
But here’s another thing. In the six years the FT has been absent from the app store, Apple’s publishing ambitions have changed immensely.
Apple had launched Newsstand in an effort to become a kind of online magazine shop. But that didn’t work out. Readers simply didn’t want digital editions.
By 2015, it had killed Newsstand and replaced it with the much simpler Apple News. This aggregated articles from other sources. Apple still got to be the arbiter of a person’s reading habits, but it spelled the end of paid-for digital editions.
So the FT is back, but it hasn’t changed Apple’s rules. Meanwhile Apple has lost interest in the market that the FT was protecting anyway.
And anyway, these days the issue is less how to make money from news than how to tell if it’s real or not.