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Financial Times trades App Store for Web app

Apple's rules on in-app purchases have claimed a prominent victim: The Financial Times's iOS apps--one for the iPhone and one for the iPad--were removed from the store this week, after the publication declined to make the changes required by Apple's terms.

As they currently stand, App Store rules allow publications to provide subscriber-only services through their iOS apps--however, those apps cannot provide an external link for purchasing a subscription unless they also provide a way to buy it through Apple's in-app purchase system. (These same rules recently necessitated the removal of external store links from e-reader apps.)

Those in-app purchases give Apple a 30-percent cut of the revenue, as well as mandate that it--and not the publication--gets ownership of the subscriber data. Users can choose to provide their personal information to the publisher as well, but it's strictly on an opt-in basis.

For many publishers, the latter has been the bigger sticking point by far. Publications have traditionally made much of their livelihood by collecting information about their subscribers and using it to not only target their content, but also to aid in selling ads, by providing demographic data to advertisers.

While the pushback against Apple's rules was vocal at first, many publishers have since acquiesced to Apple's terms. Industry stalwarts like Time, Hearst, Hachette, and Condé Nast have all made several of their prominent periodicals available on the App Store. Some have opted to forego any subscription links, while others have provided both external and in-app options for purchase.

Looking to Web-ward

The Financial Times has chosen a separate path altogether. In recent months, it's been directing its subscribers to an iOS-specific, HTML5-based Web app that it's developed. The Web app provides an iOS-like interface, with the ability to tap on articles to view them, adjust text sizes, and even share content via email, Twitter, and Facebook. The publication is also making video content available in its app, and it even prompts users to place a shortcut on their Home screen; that allows the app to run full-screen without Safari's interface. And, of course, content can be locked down to just subscribers and registered users.

There's nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, it's totally in keeping with Apple's stated two-pronged strategy for mobile software: the curated aisles of the App Store versus the open wilds of the Web. With a Web app, the Financial Times has complete control of its content and features--no defaulting to Apple. In this regard, the Financial Times isn't alone. Amazon, for example, recently launched Cloud Reader, a Web-based interface for reading Kindle books, and others, including online video purveyor Vudu, have followed suit.

However, the Web route isn't without its risks. As good as HTML5 has gotten, it sill can't match all the whiz-bang capabilities of iOS's native apps--for instance, it can't integrate as closely with other apps and data on the device. Plus, the lack of Financial Times apps may disappoint users who go searching for them on the App Store. While existing users of the apps will likely be able to continue reading through the native apps for the moment, there will no doubt come a point when the apps' technology falls behind the times.

And, of course, there's iOS 5.

Stand and deliver

Subscriptions are about to become a much more visible part of Apple's mobile strategy when the company releases the newest version of its mobile OS this fall. At June's Worldwide Developers Conference, the company showed off a forthcoming feature called Newsstand, which collects all your periodicals into one convenient location on iOS's Home screen. It works in concert with a special section of the App Store, where Apple will bring together publications for purchase.

It's a big push behind publications, and one that's probably been a while in the making. Before the release of the original iPad, rumors circulated that Apple intended to use its tablet to "save" the publishing industry. While iBooks and the iBookstore launched along with the original iPad, periodicals were seemingly left out in the cold--at least, until now.

The increased visibility of publications in iOS 5 is a good enough reason for many publishers to shake Apple's hand and agree to its terms. The App Store has been a pretty good proposition for developers, with Apple paying out more than $2.5 billion to its partners, and publications are part of that. The benefits are clear: the store provides them with a popular mobile platform that has significant advantages over competing distribution channels, like Amazon's Kindle--full-color, for one, and a touch interface, for another. Not to mention, of course, the huge installed base of iOS users, and their proclivity for buying apps left and right.

None of this seems to worry the Financial Times at present; the company says it has around 229,000 digital subscribers, and it told paidContent that it has had 550,000 users on its Web app (which, it's worth noting, was free for a few weeks at launch). Given that the paper has been around for more than a century and is one of the most respected publications in its field, it's likely to take something more severe than the lack of an iOS app to bring it to its knees.

Of course, not all publications are in such a stable position. For many, growth on the digital front is the strongest bulwark against declining print subscriptions and ad revenue. Many have no choice but to take Apple's terms and make the best of them.


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