Publishers must focus on the open Web, not Android, to gain upper hand with Apple

The launch of the Motorola Xoom tablet last month has rekindled hopes that Android tablets may take a bite out of Apple’s dominance of mobile publishing. But for media companies, "Apple vs. Android" is a false choice.

Yes, publishers should be concerned with Apple’s 90 percent share of the tablet market, its arcane app approval policies, and its high-cost, restrictive iTunes subscription program. They should look for alternatives. But Android isn’t the solution.

The competition from Google’s new digital newsstand and the Motorola Xoom — or any other tablet, no matter how popular — won't help publishers get the upper hand with Apple. Building a strategy centered on the open, mobile Web will.

The problem with framing the debate as iPad vs. Xoom or Apple vs. Google is that either way, publishers lose.

Yes, Google offers better terms in its digital newsstand, and it has shown less interest in applying content-based reviews to apps developed for its Android smart phones. And yes, its credo is “Do no evil.” But this is a $189 billion company that is the focus of Rupert Murdoch’s ire for “stealing content." In short, it is a business designed not to save journalism, but rather to maximize its own profits. It has that in common with Apple.

Publishers need to work with Apple and Google when appropriate, especially on smart phone apps. But when developing a tablet strategy, publishers should ask, “Do the features we want require a native app?” The answer will often be no.

Even if the answer is yes, publishers must focus on strategies that support a sustainable business model independent of Apple or Google's whims. That is necessarily going to involve learning some HTML5.

As has been noted frequently in the past year, the iPad has a good Web browser. So does the Xoom. In the not-too-distant future, Android tablets promise even to support Adobe Flash.

In November, a Business Insider survey of 500 iPad users found that Web browsing was the most common use of the device. Among people who used their iPads to get news, 37 percent primarily used the built-in Safari browser vs. 34 percent who used a native app. This indicates that the Web is holding its own against apps.

Developing for a browser has a few obvious advantages:

  • Web developers already know or can learn HTML5.
  • A tablet-focused website is easily adaptable to numerous different devices.
  • No approvals are required from Apple to launch a site or add features to it.
  • If a publication has a pay wall around a mobile site, Apple does not collect 30 percent of sales.

What are the disadvantages of the mobile Web? There are actually fewer every day.

Native apps, generally speaking, have access to tablet-specific features that a mobile website cannot access. In the past this included location and gyroscope/accelerometer inputs. However, the gap between native app and mobile Web features is closing rapidly. And for the average news organization, augmented reality that relies on GPS, the compass and the accelerometer is not a top priority.

Another concern: Apple has more than 200 million credit cards on file, and its one-touch purchase and subscription feature makes it as easy to buy a newspaper or magazine as it is to download the latest Lady Gaga single.

But publications with paid-content strategies will want to avoid Apple’s in-app payment system anyway. Publishers should be striving to add value for their subscriptions by bundling access to print, smart phone and tablet products. Apple makes such bundling with in-app subscriptions difficult enough that publications are better off with a mobile site that ties into a Web e-commerce system.

Of course, an app store is a great way for readers to discover your content. The iTunes Store is a massive marketplace, with 65,000 apps designed for the iPad alone. Readers who cannot find an app in the iTunes store may assume a publication is not available on mobile; the same concern holds true for the Android Market.

This is a significant concern for publishers. But for each user, it's a problem only once. And media organizations, especially those in smaller markets, can address it with local marketing in the community.

Finally, consider the economics of scale for a tablet app. For regional or national publishers, the potential audience and pool of advertisers mean that a native app is more likely worth the investment. (The 30 percent royalty and lack of customer information is still irksome.) But the cost of developing an app for the iPad, Xoom, HP TouchPad, BlackBerry PlayBook and others mean native apps are out of reach for news outlets in smaller market.

That's OK. Build one quality, touch-screen-friendly mobile website, and spend the rest of the budget creating content and marketing for the site.


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