For news, HTML5 and RSS may triumph over tablet apps, for both form and economic reasons, says Jason Pontin, editor in chief of Technology Review.

It wasn’t simple, it turned out, to adapt print publications to apps. A large part of the problem was the ratio of the tablets: they possessed both a “portrait” (vertical) and “landscape” (horizontal) view, depending on how the user held the device. Then, too, the screens of smart phones were much smaller than those of tablets. Absurdly, many publishers ended up producing six different versions of their editorial product: a print publication, a conventional digital replica for Web browsers and proprietary software, a digital replica for landscape viewing on tablets, something that was not quite a digital replica for portrait viewing on tablets, a kind of hack for smart phones, and ordinary HTML pages for their websites. Software development of apps was much harder than publishers had anticipated, because they had hired Web developers who knew technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Publishers were astonished to learn that iPad apps were real, if small, applications, mostly written in a language called Objective C, which no one in their WebDev departments knew. Publishers reacted by outsourcing app development, which was expensive, time-consuming, and unbudgeted.

But the real problem with apps was more profound. 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. 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.

A recent Nielsen study reported that while 33 percent of tablet and smart-phone users had downloaded news apps in the previous 30 days, just 19 percent of users had paid for any of them. The paid, expensively developed publishers’ app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead.  [...]

Here, the recent history of the Financial Times is instructive. Last June, the company pulled its iPad and iPhone app from iTunes and launched a new version of its website written in HTML5, which can optimize the site for the device a reader is using and provide many features and functions that are applike. For a few months, the FT continued to support the app, but on May 1 the paper chose to kill it altogether.

And Technology Review? We sold 353 subscriptions through the iPad. We never discovered how to avoid the necessity of designing both landscape and portrait versions of the magazine for the app. We wasted $124,000 on outsourced software development. We fought amongst ourselves, and people left the company. There was untold expense of spirit. I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital.

Last fall, we moved all the editorial in our apps, including the magazine, into a simple RSS feed in a river of news. We dumped the digital replica. Now we’re redesigning Technologyreview.com, which we made entirely free for use, and we’ll follow the Financial Times in using HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we’ll kill our apps, too.

Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps | Jason Pontin | May 7, 2012 | Technology Review at http://www.technologyreview.com/business/40319/.
Why Publishers Don't Like Apps - Technology Review

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