POINT-OF-VIEW: There’s an app for that or not?

The introduction of the iPad and its new possibilities inspired and re-jolted most publishers with new possibilities to enrich their current publications and conquer new readers. Some major players soon developed magazine apps but with very little success and at a very high cost. As more and more publishers are looking for alternative possibilities, we examine what went wrong.

Although heralded as the next big thing for publishing since the Gutenberg press, the initial abundance of native magazine apps is quickly decreasing. The well-know case of the Financial Times, who abandoned the iTunes store and released a mobile  web-based app instead, was just a first step. Now, The Huffington post abandons its iPad version after only 5 editions and  The Daily (Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper) underwent serious staff cuts. In Holland, early adoptors such as Autoweek, Veronica Magazine and Viva have stopped their native apps as well and developed alternatives. And Technology Review‘s Jason Pontin very clearly explains in his article Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps’ why even they have given up on their native app.

What went wrong?

There is a variety of reasons why native apps (i.e. apps that are developed for the iPad and sold via the iTunes store) have lost their appeal for publishers. First and foremost, there is the cost of selling publications through the iTunes store, but technical challenges also play an important role.

The 30% rule

At the start of magazine apps, publishers were not too happy with the 30% commission Apple demanded for all single-copy sales through the iTunes store. However, as they were used to pay at least as much to newsstand distributors, it was still acceptable. But, after waiting for a subscription-based solution for too long a time – the Newsstand which was launched earlier this year – they were appalled that even then they had to pay the 30% commission as subscriptions are and have always been their major source of (editorial) income. It was at this point that FT.com finally decided to remove its app from the iTunes store.

Unfamiliar technology

Although most publishers have a web-team in-house, the development of native apps turned out to be all about Objective C and not about HTML5, CSS and JavaScript. As a result, the development needed to be outsourced. A costly and time-consuming solution for most.

The walled garden

Another big disadvantage of native apps is that the links, which readers expect, only open within the app itself. Which is contrary to readers’ experience with hyperlinks that bring them from one topic to another without any constraints.

Too little and too many possibilities

Publishers soon realised that it would take quite a designing effort to translate their publication to the iPad as they had to develop both a landscape and portrait version of their magazine.

Furthermore, the native apps could not be read on any other device than the iPad. As a result, publishers sometimes developed up to 6 different versions of their publication, i.e.:

1. A print version
2. A landscape version for the native app
3. A portrait version for the native app
4. An app for other tablets
5. A web-browser version
6. A mobile version

Needless to say that the time and effort spent to achieve this was not worth its while. Which is why more and more publishers are looking at web-based apps to continue the development and availability of digital publications. More on that in our next post!