Having spent the last ten months working on a handful of digital magazine projects, I understand the feeling of fear that builds as you discuss growing your audience on different devices, different platforms, different screen sizes. There are a lot of additional factors beyond this that affect the quality of your publication to new readers.
It might be frightening because your team doesn’t have the skills in-house to build for a new phone OS. It might make you nervous because you know there’s no money to design and create another version. It could be scary because your team is small and in the fast-paced world of publishing, they’re already completely overloaded.
But there’s no denying the audiences and the ecosystems of the existing app stores. You have to go where your customers are, right?
The answer, as always, is, “It depends.”
I was thrilled to see the positive responses the Financial Times received a few weeks ago when they announced their wonderful new web app. The team behind the FT have mentioned many benefits of their web app, including better relationships with their customers, easier and instantaneous updates, and the ability to do more since they’re only building for one platform versus many. They have a great, short Q&A on the technical how & why of their new web app here: http://aboutus.ft.com/2011/06/07/ft-web-app-technical-qa/
WHAT ABOUT VISIBILITY?
Perhaps the Financial Times is able to do this since they already have a large customer base with more than 224,000 paying online subscribers and digital revenue growth last year of 47%. After only a week of being live, over 100,000 people had accessed the new web app. If you’re a new or small publication, would the same thing work? Or do new companies need the visibility of the App Store to succeed?
WHAT ABOUT PERFORMANCE?
HOW DOES IT STACK UP?
It’s slick. Really slick. Even launching the app feels native. Although you can see ads and images download and appear a bit more slowly than text, as you would on a regular browser depending on your connection speed, the entire thing is very responsive.
The first time the web app launches, it asks you to permit it increased storage so it can cache and store offline content. It explains it very clearly and nothing seemed awkward or confusing.
The registration process is very straightforward and fast, and registering allows you to access more articles than the casual viewer. Without registering, some of the articles are little more than a line or two.
Articles allow changing of type-size as well as sending the article link via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. All three of these things, however, drop you into a new Safari instance instead of using an overlay, which is a little annoying. However, leaving the app & coming back takes you back to the article you were on, just like native iOS fast-app switching.
After a bit of reading or possibly a network interruption (I’m not entirely clear what triggered it), I received a nice overlay letting me know how to set up offline reading so I can presumably let the web app sync & then read the content offline.
The streamed videos were quite nice as they create a nice light box effect which you can enhance by expanding the video to full screen.
The advertisements remind me of print magazines. They show up occasionally and allow you to close them or turn the page when you’re finished.
After I finished taking a look at the web app, I launched the native app and thought it was funny to see a message box letting me know I could use their new web app instead. I find very little difference between the two versions. The images, ads and videos load slightly faster initially on the native app, but as I mentioned above, perhaps this will become a non-issue when iOS 5 comes around to boost web app speed.
This web app is a huge success and having come from an established publication like the Financial Times, it helps to pave the way for other media channels to avoid the app stores if they want to. Web apps today may not have all the bells and whistles that native apps can have, but they can certainly deliver a world class title in an intuitive and well-designed way.
For small and new publishers who are scared of Apple’s 30% cut of their already-very-tight margins, it’s a great relief to know there are options available.