Publishers go back to the browser

From the day it was first introduced, it was hard to miss the appeal that Apple’s iPad would have to traditional publishers. Held in portrait orientation, it’s 9.5 by 7.5-inch screen had roughly the same dimensions of an “A-size” magazine; held in portrait it mimicked a broadsheet newspaper.

Better yet, content on the new tablets could be served up as self-contained apps, where it could not be disaggregated and where the functionality and user experience – including the juxtaposition of advertising and editorial content — were entirely under the control of the app developer. Circulation auditors even promised to include digital replicas inside apps toward a publication’s “rate base,” the basic metric of circulation that publishers and advertisers had relied on for decades to set advertising rates.

Together, apps and iPad seemed to offer the promise of a return to a simpler, pre-digital age, where publishers could again deliver content as a discrete, unique product, modeled on newspapers and magazines, and for which they could charge readers for single-copy sales or subscriptions – the triumph of form over function.

A funny thing happened on the way back to the future, however. Digital news consumers, it turns out, value function over form. And for all the technical wizardry of the iPad and other mobile devices, content inside an app is less functional than the same content in a web browser.

A recent study by Nielsen reported that, while one-third of tablet and smartphone users had downloaded a news app within the past 30 days only 19 percent had paid for one, suggesting app users are little more inclined to pay for news content than are ordinary web users.

Wired magazine, which once famously declared the web to be “dead,” done in by apps, has sold only about 33,000 subscriptions to its app editions, representing just 4 percent of its total subscribers. Wired content is still far-more widely read on the web than in any of its apps. Some publishers, most conspicuously the Financial Times, have recently abandoned apps altogether  and once again embraced the browser.

Some of the publishers’ disenchantment with apps has stemmed from pricing disputes with Apple and other mobile platform providers, who demand a hefty cut of all sales. Some is also due to the unexpectedly high costs of developing multiple, bespoke apps as mobile devices and platforms proliferate.

As Technology Review editor-in-chief Jason Pontin noted in a widely discussed blog post last week, however, much of the problem with apps comes down to their limited functionality.

“When people read news and features on electronic media, they expect stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web, but stories in apps didn’t really link,” he wrote. “The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, ‘walled gardens,’ and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens. For readers, none of that beauty overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.”

Difficult as it is for many publishers to accept, content has little intrinsic value on digital platforms, no matter how beautifully presented. It’s the user’s ability to do stuff with digital content that gives it value. That includes the ability to follow links to related content, to share it, comment on it, curate it – in short, to engage with it. That’s as true of news content as it is of music, TV or any other type of content.

For all the visual and tactile appeal of native apps and the devices they run on, the browser is a more natural platform for engaging with digital content because it connects content to every other part of the web and to other applications.

To many content owners, of course, that truth could seem hopelessly counter-intuitive. To them, it is the very connectedness of the web that has “robbed” their content of value, whereas apps offer a way to restore and protect it. But as the experiences of the Financial Times and Technology Review make clear, some publishers are rediscovering the value of function over form.


Question of the week

Should publishers abandon native apps?