No future in apps? Not so fast
Technology Review's Jason Pontin got some buzz on Monday with a refreshingly candid post about his publication's decision to embrace HTML5 and, eventually, kill its apps after a $124,000 investment in app development generated only 353 iPad subscriptions. He concludes:
"The paid, expensively developed publishers' app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead."
As with all absolutes, Pontin's concluding statement exaggerates the reality of the app market for publishers. There is plenty of potential in apps for media companies. I guess you can parse his words to conclude that he's just talking about a specific slice of the app market - "paid, expensive, extravagant digital replicas" - but he's still painting with a pretty broad brush.
Pontin is right about one key point: Publishers that view the app market as a way to extend their existing print models are in for a rude awakening. Delivering and monetizing content through apps requires some fresh thinking, not lipstick on a pig. But it will take time - and lots of experimentation - before the right model emerges.
We're already seeing some promising innovation in both app design and business models.
- Next Issue Media's digital newsstand offers a flat monthly subscription plan for unlimited access to 30-plus consumer publications. Nieman's Ken Doctor called the kiosk concept "transformative."
- Publishers Press is developing The Magazine Channel, an app that will aggregate licensed content from a variety of the company's print customers in special-interest categories such as landscaping, travel, hunting/fishing and healthcare. The TMC app will enable users to build personalized collections of articles within each interest category.
- Tech publisher IDG has extended its marketing services offerings into custom app development, as a way to monetize higher-value, custom media opportunities.
The HTML5 vs. native app argument is intriguing - but there is room for both models, particularly with the mobile publishing market still forming. Publishers can find efficient ways to make either investment work. Some, such as TabTimes, believe HTML5 offers a better way to distribute content across multiple platforms and devices. Others, such as Source Interlink Media, have found that digital replicas provide a relatively seamless entry into the tablet space for a broad portfolio of niche titles.
Many publishers have jumped quickly into apps because they are desperately seeking to decrease their reliance on print revenues, particularly in the B2B sector. Folio's annual B2B survey found that print revenues continue to make up approximately half of publishers' revenues (even more for smaller publishers), with the share of digital media revenues stagnating in the mid-teens.
Replicas are not the long-term savior to publishers' digital media strategies. Traditional packaging, subscription and advertising models are certainly not the answer for mobile users who want to tap, swipe and scroll their way through content and seamlessly connect back to the web.
But to declare a market dead before it's had a chance to develop is shortsighted. Ironically, throwing up your hands and declaring "we won't play there" underscores the main challenge many print publishers face: Breaking free from a traditional - and outdated - mindset.