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HTML5 pioneer The Financial Times: 'It’s not like we hate Apple'

by Doug Drinkwater

May 16 2012

The Financial Times' HTML5 app has been downloaded two million times
The Financial Times' HTML5 app has been downloaded two million times

London, England – Described by one speaker as the ‘page boy of HTML5’, The Financial Times took to the World e-Reading Congress in London yesterday to explain why it ditched iOS for HTML5 apps, and how this move has affected its digital readership.

The FT’s Mary Beth Christie, the online product managing director, held a talk poignantly titled ‘Beyond the App Stores’, and began by detailing that the FT's web app has seen over two million downloads since it launched in June of 2011. The publisher has since canned its iOS version as recently as two weeks ago.

Christie showed a chart which demonstrated just how quick HTML5 adoption has risen, with the HTML5 app seemingly attracting around the same number of users as the iOS version only a few months after launch. Christie said that 40% of the app users have now saved it to their home screen on their tablet, and went onto later reveal that 15% of FT subscribers use the web app on a regular basis.

As with other presentations at the event, Christie reiterated that most tablet users are reading early in the morning (around 7-8am), just after they finish work (5-6pm) and as they go to bed (10-11pm), while this usage is also said to be stretching across the weekend, a trend which never really existed for those reading FT on a desktop, according to Christie.

Why the FT moved away from Apple

By all accounts, the FT’s iPad app was highly regarded by many, including Apple, but the publisher started moving away from its iOS foundation, largely because it disagreed with the 30% revenue charged by Apple as well as the firm’s demand to hold onto customer data. That said, Christie interestingly pinpointed the growth of Android tablets as another reason for moving away, because the FT wanted to ‘serve content across all devices’.

The FT exec explained that it hired development firm Assanka (now FT Labs after the publisher recently acquired the firm) in the summer of 2010 to look at a proof of concept for a HTML5 app, but then decided to go down this route on a permanent basis when Apple changed its App Store business model to take more revenue and customer details. “That’s when we went to plan B”, said Christie, who said that having a direct route to its audience was the primary concern, although the decision was also eased by not having to pay the 30% fee.

Despite this, the FT exec was generous towards Apple, and admitted that no animosity had built up between the two firms. “It’s not like we hate Apple, it’s just that our business models jived there."

The FT wants to build a HTML5 community, but admits it’s still a challenging landscape

“There are still lots of hurdles to HTML5 app development. You go on Apple and you have instructions, whereas developing HTML5 is a bit like a loose Lego piece”, said Christie.

“You’ve got to have smart people, who like challenges, but there are pros and cons. The cons are that there are a huge number of devices to test, no existing testing framework, and you can’t take advantage of some of the in-built features of native apps. But then you’re giving the same tools and technologies to developers, there’s portable code for many devices and it doesn’t require much upkeep."

“We don’t think it’s an either or situation, you can do both [native and HTML5], but the more talented people that get into the industry the more mainstream HTML5 becomes.”

Despite the great success, FT has some issues with HTML5 on Android

For all its success, the FT exec hinted at there being some issues in trying to stabilize the FT app experience across devices, certainly across those which run Android, which as we know comes in a number of different sizes and flavors.

“Android is not stable as a platform for HTML5, which is staggering given their [Google’s] experience. We have found that we can’t make the app generic across all Android devices.”

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