HTML5 trumps native iPad apps for some publishers
Apple boasts that it now has 200,000 native iPad apps in the iTunes App Store, but not everyone's jumping on the bandwagon. For a variety of technical and business reasons, some publishers are bypassing the app store for HTML5-based Web app versions of their digital publications.
TabTimes, a startup B2B publication that covers the tablet industry, is the latest to opt for an iPad-optimized Web app built in HTML5 over a native iOS app. When the publication launched last fall, the plan was to go native. But the strategy changed as TabTimes realized the complexity of creating not just a native app, but the infrastructure to support it.
"Having a CMS that serves content into multiple platforms requires some heavy lifting," said George Jones, TabTimes' editor in chief. A solution that renders web content into an HTML5 Web app seemed like a more efficient solution for the startup. Working with Pressly, a Toronto-based HTML5 developer, TabTimes got the app out the door in four weeks, Jones said.
The shift in strategy was influenced in part by TabTimes' own coverage of the evolving tablet industry.
"As we started to write more about app developers that were embracing HTML5, we realized this was a good way to practice what we were writing about," said Jones.
Publishers such as FT.com and Playboy and Rolling Stone are among those that are opting for HTML5 as a way to get their digital content on the iPad and other tablets. FT's Web app has been the most prominent example since FT decided last year to shift its native iPad app to HTML5. Launched last June, the FT Web App has more than 1.7 million users, according to FT, and mobile is now driving 15 percent of subscriptions and 20 percent of traffic to FT.com. FT subsequently stopped development of its native app.
In a recent post, usability expert Jakob Nielsen said native apps currently have the edge over mobile web, but this will change in the future as the cost-benefit tradeoffs evolve:
"The expense of mobile apps will increase because there will be more platforms to develop for. At a minimum, you'll have to support Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Furthermore, many of these platforms will likely fork into multiple subplatforms that require different apps for a decent user experience."
Nielsen cited Amazon.com's Kindle Fire as an example of how the Android user experience is already fragmenting. "It's only realistic to expect even further UI diversity in the future," he wrote. "This will make it extremely expensive to ship mobile apps."
In contrast, Nielsen added, the cross-platform capabilities of mobile sites will require fewer designs.
"High-end sites will need 3 mobile designs to target phones, mid-sized tablets (like Kindle Fire), and big tablets. Using ideas like responsive design will let you adapt each of these site versions to a range of screen sizes and capabilities."
At the same time, emerging technologies such as HTML 5 "will substantially improve mobile site capabilities," he wrote.
Dan Skinner, FT.com's head of design, told the W3C that "the Web app and native experiences are very similar." He said that while it was "tricky to achieve precisely the same quality," the development team has matched 80-90% of the user experience of a native app with its HTML5-based web offering.
At TabTimes, Jones said sacrificing some of the functionality enabled by a native iPad app was worth the trade-off to deliver a magazine-style app quickly to its expanding audience.
"The time-to-market savings and cross-platform benefits can't be understated," he said. "We know a large number of readers are coming to us via tablets. There's no reason they shouldn't be able to see a magazine version of TabTimes."
Jones said a native iPad app is still in the plans, along with optimized Web apps for the Kindle Fire and other emerging tablets.