Can the FT help publishers quit their Apple addiction?

Financial Times HTML5 app
Ever since the iPhone and iPad (s aapl) arrived, publishers have spent millions building dedicated software to try to cash in on the app boom. Everyone who was anyone — from the Wall Street Journal (s nws) to Wired — just had to have an app — even though the business reasons weren’t that great.
Now, however, one of the biggest names in the news industry has decided it has spent enough time bowing to Steve Jobs — and thrown down the gauntlet.
The Financial Times, the newspaper beloved by the business community, has taken a direct shot at Apple by launching its own web-based reading app, which it hopes can bypass the need to work with iTunes.
The app — which uses techniques offered by HTML5 to produce a rich reading experience — is available now to FT subscribers. They can simply visit and enjoy. And what it has done looks good, as you can see in the promo video.

The FT isn’t making any bones about why it is doing this. The timing — coming just hours after Apple announced the launch of Newsstand, the company’s attempt to bring more magazine and newspaper outlets under its wing — is surely no coincidence. Publishers have long been irritated at Apple’s ownership of the customer relationship, as Mathew pointed out yesterday, and the FT has been one of the most strident critics of that situation.
Indeed, on its app page, the FT admits quite clearly that it wants the HTML5 app to become a long-term replacement for its iOS equivalent — urging users to switch away from the existing platform:

We’re encouraging our readers to switch immediately to the new FT web app, as many new features and sections will be added over the coming weeks. Make sure you don’t miss out on these updates.

But even if, as it seems, the publication was acting out of anger towards Steve Jobs and his staff, breaking away from Apple is an important strategic move in the long run. Information companies are locked in a David and Goliath struggle against the technology industry, but yet they seem to capitulate at every opportunity. While the momentum is clearly with the likes of Apple and Google (the FT’s parent company, Pearson (s PSO), is the world’s largest publisher — yet its $15.14 billion market cap is dwarfed by Apple’s current value of $311.43 billion) the truth is that defending their corner may be the only way for publishers to stop being crushed completely.
It is not only about a philosophical battle, however. In fact, opting to route around the technology companies has a significant number of other real-world advantages over native apps.
For a start, it’s independent of anybody. This is important because it ends the possibility of content being blocked on spurious grounds, something writer and citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor has been banging the drum about for some time. In effect, nobody owns the presses apart from the publisher. That also means updates — such as more types of content, technical tweaks, new features — can happen instantly, rather than require approval (as is the case with Apple).
It also allows publishers to stop worrying so much about specific devices. The hardware market is very broad, and only the craziest outfit would try to satisfy all device users simultaneously — yet, in the past, many publishers have done exactly that. However, even when the market is narrower and publishers only have to worry about a handful of download stores, they are still pulled in many different directions. Do you produce native apps for each of the different platforms, or focus on a couple? Do you try to satisfy your users on less-popular platforms like webOS (s hpq) or Windows Phone (s msft)?
In fact, HTML5 offers creators an even easier option, since most high-end mobile browsing actually uses the same engine: WebKit. Using that as its basis, publishers can produce a single service that’s rich and highly readable on an iPhone, iPad, Android device (s goog), BlackBerry (s rimm), Palm, Nokia S60 (s nok). Even the Kindle uses WebKit. This makes Web compatibility easier than going through all those different download stores, each with their own requirements and demands.
This, in turn, allows publishers to take advantage of new developments as they happen, rather than rush to keep up with the secretive production cycles of the big technology firms. Who would prefer to work with native apps whose capabilities are dictated by companies when you can use HTML, where standards and development are open and well-documented? It can make apps as dynamic as the web itself — the sort of move that means publishers can say goodbye to huge, cumbersome, static magazine downloads.
On top of all of this, of course, you also have financial considerations. No worrying about how much the technology platform is going to take from your business. No more costly support of dying platforms. And much less separation between mobile and Web development. All good news for publishers with a bottom line.
Quite how this all plays out in the long run is no clearer today than before. Ultimately, the FT’s app may be just a tiny shot in the arm for publishers. But it’s an important step forward, and one that other publishers and outlets should sit up and take notice.