Interview: Financial Times’ Grimshaw: ‘App Stores Are Not A Panacea’

Anything an iOS app can do, the web can do better, Rob Grimshaw, The Financial Times‘ online managing director, told paidContent:UK, after launching a HTML5 tablet and mobile “app” Tuesday ahead of the imminent deadline for publishers to comply with Apple’s revised app terms.

“We started off not knowing what could be achieved (in HTML),” Grimshaw said. “But, one by one, we found that all the things that could be done in a native app actually could be done in a HTML5 app – and we haven’t had to compromise on anything, though we were expecting to.

“We’ve benefited from our exposure in the app store – Apple were very good, they promoted our app quite heavily and we were very grateful. But app stores are not a panacea. There are something like 250,000 apps on Apple’s App Store, 150,000 on Google’s – these are turning into pretty crowded environments. The search and discovery tools are not that great and there are limited ways to market your app.

“So, whilst we will lose some exposure through not being in the App Store, we will also gain the opportunity to do a whole bunch of things that, previously, we weren’t able to do.”

With just a few weeks to go before the June 30 deadline, the FT‘s move looks a little designed to show Apple what publishers can do without depending on it. But there was also practical impetus behind the development…

“It’s not just Apple versus FT – there is more to it than that. We started to look at HTML middle of last year when we realised how complicated it would be to develop applications for all these different platforms.

“This was something we had in mind anyway. It happened that Apple made it commercially important as well. We’ve accelerated what we were doing, but it isn’t just about Apple.

“The worst situation would have been to reach June 30 and find Apple and the FT can’t agree and readers are left without access to their content. We felt we had to make sure there was an alternative, no matter what happened with Apple.

“We’ve got a very firm foundation to build on and can very quickly turn around great mobile products for our reader. It was worth taking time to get that stuff right.”

“We continue to talk with Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). We had discussions today, we have more planned next week, and we still hope to reach an agreement, but we are getting quite close to the wire so I haven’t bet my house on it.”

Some publishers like Time (NYSE: TWX) Inc have accommodated the new terms by granting in-app access to existing magazine subscribers but not taking new subscriptions inside their apps – a veritable no-win for all sides.

But, for the FT, Grimshaw says: “Some of the contortions that other publishers are going through in order to comply don’t feel right to us. We want to be consistent across channels and offer our readers a consistent experience in terms of how they access and buy the subscription product. We shouldn’t have to go through contortions.

“If I was a publisher starting from scratch with paid content, I had no pre-existing relationship with readers and no history of selling subscriptions, then iTunes probably looks very attractive; it shortcuts a very big problem — how do you take payments from people? — and also offers the ability of having a direct relationship with some of them. We come from a position of having a previous business which we’ve built successfully for the past couple of years, with 224,000 digital subscribers.

“We’ve evolved that model by having a direct relationship with the reader. We feel it isn’t broken so don’t fix it. We’re also very conscious of what we might lose if we enter in to agreements that compromise us.

“We won’t be stepping off the iPad — we might not be on iTunes. Over half our traffic on iPad comes through the browser anyway; that doesn’t get talked about much in the media. We won’t be slow to show people the FT in an app form.”

Grimshaw said the HTML5 app now makes it easy for The Financial Times to quickly repackage the core as apps for multiple new platforms, like Android Honeycomb, which would only require a light wrapper app around the web content. He is more enthusiastic about putting a such a tablet app in to Android Marketplace because, there, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) would take only five percent. That’s still five percent more than were the FT to take new subscribers from the open web, but an acceptable cut.