HTML5 pioneer and business news publisher The Financial Times talks about the future of web apps, its preference for Windows 8 over iOS and the challenges facing publishers in today’s digital world.
It is fair to say that the Financial Times has been a forward thinker when it comes to taking publishing to digital and mobile platforms.The FT saw its digital subscriptions exceed print circulations for the first time in July, while its HTML5 web app (controversially launched to replace the FT's iOS app) grew to two million users in May. As of today, the app has over three million users.
FT readers seem to have been just as enthusiastic; 25% of traffic to FT.com now comes from mobile, while smartphones and tablets also account for an impressive 15% of new subscriptions to FT.com.
In a recent interview with TabTimes, FT's managing director Rob Grimshaw said that HTML5 is inching ever closer to winning the war against native apps.
“People are increasingly creating hybrid apps, for which most the code is written in HTML5 with a light native wrapper for app store packaging or to use some native functionality on the device," he said.
“From that perspective, HTML5 appears to have won. There’s a general agreement in the developer community that HTML5 is more flexible for porting features from device to device, or rolling out new features.”
Not that the FT director is too busy celebrating to see any problems with the app. Grimshaw admits that FT initially struggled with refresh rates when the app's browser was solely built by the Android team (the browser is reportedly now being worked on by both the Android and Chrome team), and reveals the firm is still a 'couple of months' away from introducing Flipboard-esque swipe article control to articles on the web app.
“Most publishers don’t get much out of the App Store”
The FT's success with HTML5 brings us to the inevitable topic of the publisher's decision to move away from iTunes. Grimshaw admits now that the move was “very bold” at the time, but maintains it was the right thing to do.
“The commercial environment is a real challenge for publishers on tablets, especially as a number of major players are trying to own the relationship with the customer," he said.
“We have no problem with having an app in any given app store, but if we are not able to maintain that direct relationship with our customer then we just won’t go there. It underpins out ability to sell high yield ads and is crucial to managing our subscription business.”
Indeed, Grimshaw goes further by suggesting most globally recognized publishers ‘don’t get much out' of the app stores,' and advises the industry to be more confident when negotiating terms with vendors.
“Apple is hard-headed and pragmatic and if they believe they can take 30%, they will. The onus is on publishers to shape their own fortunes.
“These publishers often have a fantastic brand and heritage, with great content. I don’t think any of the major brands need to be on the Android or Apple stores for people to know they exist. They should certainly be more confident, more ballsy if the app store commercial terms don’t suit them.”
“Publishers don’t get a transformational benefit from it [the app store]. I can’t think of the last publisher that said ‘we’re saved’ thanks to the app store.”
After ditching iTunes, FT is embracing Windows 8 and Android
Given the FT’s history with iOS, it is perhaps surprising then to consider the FT has been one of the first publishers to embrace Microsoft’s Windows Store, with the group having finished work on its Windows 8 app in May.
So, why the decision to go with Microsoft after the concerns FT had with Apple and its own App Store? For Grimshaw, the answer is simple; the FT will be holding on to reader data and won't be charged for the privilege.
“Our app will be available through the Windows Store but we’re selling our subscriptions using our own payment platform. If you make the investment in your own platform, you’re not forced to pay for someone else’s.
Grimshaw indicated it was easier to work with Google than Apple.
“We’re quite happy having native app on Android. The commercial terms are fine and historically we’ve had a good relationship with Google," he said. "They seem to listen.”
“Mobile could become the main access channel for news”
The Financial Times sees smartphones and tablets as very much part of its future, but reckons mobile traffic is purely complimentary, now now at least.
“So far we’ve seen that mobile growth is incremental, as traffic on the desktop is still going up. It seems that people are accessing mobile in situations where they never could before, and are swapping between devices during the day.
(Graphic: Tablet visits to FT.com surge above the smartphone and desktop in the evening)
“But that will change in time and mobile will become the main access channel for news, even if it does take a year or two to feed through," he added.
“Look at China and Brazil; people are coming to the Internet for the first time through mobile and that trend may eventually transmit to the desktop space and developed world. The desktop could be an endangered species in a relatively short space of time.”
It’s to no surprise then that the FT is gearing up for a mobile world, with the group ‘in discussion’ with various news aggregators over expanding its content and also trying to solve some issues with digital advertising.
“I am very enthusiastic about the potential of mobile, and that’s where we’re trying to orientate our investment and thinking," said Grimshaw. "Our numbers support our cause and I think it is very clear the direction mobile is going."