Major publishers are starting to deliver content to the iPad outside Apple’s App Store, avoiding the company’s rules and restrictions that limit what they can do and how much they can earn.
Instead of building native apps in iOS, the proprietary operating system for the iPad and other Apple devices, the publishers are using HTML5, the latest version of the open-source HTML language used to build web pages.
This is a key flashpoint in the continued struggle for control of, and access to, users and their money on the iPad and other platforms. It’s also a battleground in the fight over whether to use open or closed standards in media and technology.
Going the Web App Route
The Financial Times, Amazon Kindle and Walmart’s Vudu video service are among the biggest to go the web-app route, and many other big publishers are looking hard at the HTML5 route as well.
Vudu launched Aug. 10 for the iPad without the typical app. The Netflix competitor lets consumers rent or buy movies they can stream on iPads, iPods, iPhones, computers and TVs at competitive prices.
Amazon the same day launched its cloud reader, allowing users to access their Kindle books with a similar interface through browsers on the iPad or computers.
The moves are no surprise. When an Apple app program for media began last February, publishers complained that the company was not only taking 30 percent of all revenue, but also keeping data on customers to itself.
While some big publishers spent six-figure sums to create apps they claimed to sell in great numbers, many bemoaned rules that also made it near impossible to integrate the app into subscription plans outside Apple’s realm.
People in media “are naive to think [Apple CEO] Steve Jobs is riding over the hill with the cavalry” to save their industry, New York Times media writer David Carr noted in the documentary “Page One” about the newspaper. “What he’s doing is driving Apple’s stock price.”
By going outside the App Store, the publishers achieve a number of aims. For one, they keep all the revenue for themselves.
They can control the display and marketing of their publications, rather than relying on the App Store’s decisions about what will be surfaced and how apps are categorized.
They also can use their own fulfillment systems and databases. The Financial Times, for example, can seamlessly give a subscriber access to content paid for in another platform and avoid any restrictions Apple might place.
Publishers can price and bundle content however they want, as well. Until recently, Apple refused to allow apps from a publisher that sold the same content anywhere else for a cheaper price.
And publishers can sell whatever they want from within the app.
The Kindle Cloud app, for example, is similar in look and feel to the native app with one understated but very important distinction: In the upper right corner of the Cloud version there’s a “Kindle Store” button that lets users easily buy more books.
Apple forbids buttons that allow sales of books from an outside service within an app.
Most important to some publishers — as IDG Chief Executive Bob Carrigan noted last spring — they can much more easily collect data on users’ behavior, employing tracking tools similar to what they use on any website. To collect data on users from within an app, publishers have to show them a pop-up screen that asks for permission.
Content purveyors also gain some technological and cost benefits from going the HTML5 route.
They can handle updates and improvements seamlessly via the web. Native apps require a user to proactively click into the App Store, enter a password, and download updates.
The publishers don’t have to worry as much about changes to Apple’s platform or rules. What happens, for example, if the next iPad requires new coding in iOS to work properly? That’s less likely to happen with more standardized and open web browsers on the tablets.
Publishers can also use less bandwidth and storage to get their content in the devices. Some iPad magazine apps require more than 10 percent of the iPad’s storage and use enough bandwidth to gobble a user’s entire monthly cellular data plan allotment.
And, web apps can be cheaper to create over the long haul because HTML developers are less expensive than iOS experts. Further, the web apps can more easily be refashioned for multiple platforms.
Kindle Cloud works similarly on a computer and an iPad. The FT has optimized its app for the iPad — which today has more than 90 percent of the tablet market — but promises to soon deliver a version for Android, Google’s competing platform.
Publishers also get a benefit that’s as much editorial as technical. By going the HTML5 route, they don’t have to rely on Apple to approve their app, or their content, as Mediafin’s Roland Legrand noted in a MediaShift story in June. This can be especially important for those with controversial or racy content, such as nudity or inflammatory speech, that may be accepted in some cultures but not the U.S.
There are some downsides to going the HTML5 route.
One is that HTML5 is a new and not completed standard, so not all browsers can handle pages built with its functionality. Older browsers don’t show the pages correctly at all. Less technically savvy users may not understand how to use them, which is why HTML5 publishers have included tutorials and explanatory buttons.
Also, because browsers can’t cache large amounts of data, publishers have to ask users for explicit permission to use storage space on their devices if they want to consume media offline.
There’s always the danger, too, that Apple, expected to have the majority of the tablet market for years to come, could try to defeat some HTML5 apps when users access them on iPads. However, that might risk the ire of users and such powerhouse players as the publishers above and vendors like Travelocity, which was said to be bullish on HTML5 at a recent mobile conference.
As more purveyors of content realize that iPad apps, alone, cannot sustain their businesses and HTML5 standards and solutions improve, we’ll see more of them consider trying the open standard as a way to show their wares.
An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.