I got an e-mail from the Financial Times yesterday, announcing their new "FT App". That sounded unusual; after all, the FT has had an iPad/iPhone app for some time. I took a look, and found the whole world of mobile publishing waiting for me in microcosm. It's not open source, but I see the same yearning after freedom driving choices here.
What's happened is that the FT has scrapped their native Apple app for the iPad and iPhone, and replaced it with a purpose-built HTML 5 web site that can be installed on the iPad home screen as an app. The result looks and feels just like the old native app. It doesn't work on older devices like the first-generation iPod Touch (the redirect to m.ft.com amusingly says "slow device"), but on the iPad it's pretty slick.
Notably, it works offline too. They've used one of the new capabilities of HTML5 to store data for offline use, so you can take your device and read the FT on the train. Despite being a web page, the new web app seems at least as good as the old native app and possibly better. HTML 5 clearly isn't sufficiently write-once-run-anywhere though - they're leaving both their mobile site and the Android app in place. Still, with Adobe dropping their commitment to keep Air cross platform, HTML 5 looks like a good technology choice.
Escaping The App Trap
Why would they do this? Why go to all the time and expense of re-implementing a perfectly acceptable iPad app as HTML 5? The most obvious reasons flow directly from Apple's attempts to rule the app market with a rod of iron.
First, in order to gain admission to Apple's App Store, developers have to use Apple's tools to develop strictly-policed platform-specific code. No publisher wants to be tied to a platform like that, so using a more platform-neutral technology like HTML 5 is an obvious move. There's an FT app for Android too, and they clearly have an eye on the future Blackberry app market, so switching to HTML 5 allows them to minimise their future development costs.
Second, and probably more important, Apple insists on a punitive commission for publishing through its App Store, even on subscriptions to content. The newspaper business already has enough trouble breaking even without parasitic business rules like this, so moving out of the App Store has clear apparent benefits in terms of retaining the whole sum paid in subscriptions and the customer data that goes with them.
There are risks - the App Store is a hugely effective sales channel, and the FT will lose all visibility in there as well as in the new NewsStand feature of the next release of iOS. But the benefits of "owning" the customer relationship and information rather being Apple's sharecropper may well outweigh that disadvantage for a publication like the FT.
After all, the Apple store comes with serious costs and risks. There's the enormous 30% commission taken out of everything. There are the delays to releasing new features while they get checked over slowly by an unaccountable "thought police". Most ominously, there's the risk at any moment that normal publishing in the UK may be deemed "immoral" by some invisible, unaccountable and prudish blue-pencil in California and blocked indefinitely on a whim.
Another interesting aspect is the naming. Despite the fact Apple is firing lawsuits in all directions to try to establish ownership of "app" as a trademark, the FT has called this an "app" and has named the place you get it app.ft.com - another gauntlet thrown down to Apple. While this seems uncontroversial to most of us who have been calling installable programs "apps" for years, it's clearly part of the message from Pearson Publishing (owners of the FT) to Apple that they've gone too far in their attempts to control the market around iOS.
The business model at the FT stays the same through all this. The new app continues the approach they have been taking of using a fairly sophisticated paywall around news stories. To read anything at all you need to be logged in. Once you're logged in, you are able to read a limited number of stories - ten per month - without paying for a subscription, unless you're willing to go to a fair amount of effort to circumvent the paywall using some of the well-documented hacks that have emerged.
So there's the mobile publishing world in microcosm. The FT shows us that publishers are very wary of Apple's attempts to seize control of the market. It shows us HTML 5 may well be a path around the control point, although it still isn't a truly platform-independent solution. It shows us that the publishers believe there's enough money to be made to make investments and risks worthwhile. The question is who will be next to join them.