From finding the right content to creating a business model, publishers have many decisions to make about if and when creating an app could be a good investment — not the least of which is deciding where to develop it and choosing the right partners. Publishers that do only internal development are taking on a big risk; publishers that completely outsource could be missing a huge competitive advantage to foster mobile skills.
At one extreme, a publisher develops an app completely in-house using internal software. At the other extreme, the publisher outsources to a vendor to develop and maintain the app. Like the number of apps, the number of app platforms has exploded, giving publishers more choices when selecting vendors.
Publishers selecting an app platform have many attributes to consider (beyond just price). The type of content and the amount of customization are some of the biggest drivers. Here's a basic list of questions to consider when selecting a vendor:
How much internal development do you want to do? Do you want a vendor to consult and/or manage the mobile workflow for you?
Do you want mobile and/or native apps? Do you want HTML5-based design?
Which platforms and devices are you developing for?
What kind of content do you want to offer (e.g. publication replica, branded news feed or functional app)?
Do you want to connect mobile content to your existing CMS?
Do you want to have an advertising platform/network and/or subscription capabilities?
What kind of rich media capabilities will you need?
Popular vendors such as Nxtbook, Texterity and Handmark offer app development with varying levels of ongoing maintenance — and suitable for different types of content. ALM, publisher of The American Lawyer, is launching its first app using Texterity, which already produces the digital editions of the magazine, said Jill Windwer, vice president of digital products and Law.com at ALM.
Working with a provider is convenient because it allows the staff to use an Adobe InDesign-based workflow they are used to in order to replicate the print magazine, Windwer noted. It also allows them to potentially pull in an RSS
feed of headlines to add a daily component.
These solutions might be a good fit for more replica-based apps, but publishers have to look further for other types of apps. ALM, for instance, will be coming out with utiliarian apps like a courthouse guide and attorney finder, which they plan to build relying less on external vendors.
The rise of the mobile CMS
Software is evolving for publishers who want software to create an app internally. For example, the tablet market has opened up a new content venue for long-time CMS providers such as WoodWing
. “It was kind of a natural fit for us to help publish content to the iPad and different tablet devices,” said Shawn Duffy, managing director of WoodWing USA, in an interview earlier this year.
MediaSpectrum recently launched the Adrenalin platform
for tablets, used mostly by newspaper companies. “For us this was just another output,” said Jay Cody, vice president of marketing at the company. Publishers can choose to offer a print replica or a news reader for the iPad. The robust solution can handle content, ads and subscriptions.
Like other vendors, MediaSpectrum offers a varied level of customization versus streamlined use. For some publishers “creating or tailoring the design or output and selling for another channel is a little more body-intensive than they actually want,” Cody said. A larger publisher might want to create specialized apps, while a smaller publisher will just want to deliver a replica of the print product with some additional content.
WoodWing's Digital Magazine Tools
has received a lot of press for powering iPad apps for more than 100 publishers including Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated app. Better known for working with big publishers, WoodWing also works with start-ups (like indie publisher TRVL
) through its partners.
WoodWing develops the content management workflow systems, based on Adobe's tools, for publishers to use in-house. Publishers can hire engineers to develop their reader experience on the iPad, “or they can utilize tools that we develop to basically empower the people that they currently have on site — their designers, their editors — to do it themselves,” Duffy said.
Publishers who don't want to use a solution to manage workflow themselves can outsource mobile operations to the vendor. Thumb Media Group offers a MOZINE platform
, an all-in-one mobile app publishing solution for publishers, most recently used by Inc
Like other vendors, the solution is based on a monthly fee to facilitate app maintenance. “We know that publishers’ resources are very very stressed and they have their hands full,” ThumbMedia CEO Mike Cartabiano said in an interview at the platform's launch earlier this year. “They don’t need a group coming in and offering a mobile media channel and then asking the publisher to do extra work in a medium that is very difficult to understand and manage.”
Simpler app solutions?
Condé Nast Digital President Sarah Chubb said at a conference recently that the publisher's apps have been profitable in relatively small numbers “but paid for themselves.” But the non-Condé Nasts of the world might shy from the investment risk of developing an app, which is why we're seeing alternative strategies like browser-based digital editions
David Link, co-CEO of The Wonderfactory
, which created the Sports Illustrated app for the iPad, said one struggle for publishers is the lack of affordable solutions to create apps for various devices. “There's not a perfect solution,” he said, speaking at a conference this fall. “There's only a few companies out there and it's expensive and it's going to take some time.”
Link's comments came shortly before the announcement
of a cross-platform publishing solution from The Wonderfactory and Texterity, aimed at niche publishers who want to develop an app while containing costs. “We think everyone else will want a more cost effective solution that doesn’t require a license, hiring new people and up front charges,” Martin Hensel, founder and president of Texterity, said in the announcement.
The new solution represents a trend toward more app tools for publishers of all sizes. For instance, in the local news market, DoApp
's Mobile Local News platform is an easy solution for publishers. The platform's more than 200 local publishers (mostly TV stations) include print publishers such as the Detroit Free Press
DoApp CEO Wade Beavers calls the service “customizable and quick to market.” It probably doesn't fit the needs of many publishers, but it might suit publishers looking for a local news feed that can be launched in less than 30 days. Publishers manage all feeds through a single back-end that automatically builds for different smartphone platforms with custom branding and localized features such as traffic. Publishers can sell ads directly or fill ads through the platforms ad network.
Completely DIY app development
Though using a vendor is a good starting place for some, other publishers would rather take matters into their own hands. Greenspun Media Group
decided to create the iPhone app for Las Vegas Weekly
completely in-house (spread among a five-person development team). The app is loaded with information about what to do in Las Vegas, which takes more customization the publisher decided would be better to do itself, said Rob Curley, senior editor of digital for Greenspun Media Group.
The decision was also an effort to solidify their focus on mobile. "We didn't outsource this at all, it was all built in-house and because of that we learned a whole bunch of stuff we won't do next time,” Curley said. “This is a skill set that we want to make sure we have internally.”
The team mocked up the app in photoshop and built APIs into the CMS to capture content for the app. The internal undertaking doesn't make sense for every publisher, but it's worked so far for Las Vegas Weekly: Thanks to advertisers on the Strip, the app is set to exceed revenue projections, Curley said.
While most publishers aren't ambitiously shunning vendors altogether, developing more in-house could gradually become more of the norm, according to Kate Byrne, vice president of the technology properties at Future US, Inc
. Byrne oversaw development of the Mac|Life app
, which used both internal and external development, via the B3 Publication System
. Mac|Life launched a free version earlier this year and a paid version
Byrne said it already makes sense for publishers to do some app development completely in-house. For instance, Future US' Maximum Tech publication launched
a sponsored app for this week's CES, using an external developer. But in the future Byrne plans to use simple app-making tools to create “one-off” apps themselves.
Eventually, more publishers could create digital magazine replicas and branded, content-driven apps
internally rather than using outside vendors. “In two to three years I think most publishing houses will be able to do that themselves too,” she said.
However, Byrne noted there are several things publishers are still watching, such as the Android tablet market and HTML5. Many industry commenters believe apps are a bridge
back to the (HTML5-based) mobile Web.
Regardless of the route any publisher takes, it's a gamble to create an app strategy and invest in the platform to create it. BrandWeek
recently called apps a “money pit;” publishers are pouring money into mobile apps without necessarily an immediate return. Of course, it could be a bigger gamble for publishers not
to invest in mobile