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Summary:

Apple continues to sign up more publishers for its in-app subscription plans, the appeal of which is fairly obvious, but there also seems to be a growing wave of interest in doing an end-run around Apple and using the open web to offer a magazine experience.

Aside mag3x2

More and more magazine publishers are signing up with Apple to offer subscriptions through their iPad apps, including Conde Nast — which rolled out in-app subscriptions for Wired and GQ today — and Hearst. The appeal of that method is obvious: Apple handles the details, and publishers get to keep (most of) the money. But there also seems to be a growing wave of interest in doing an end-run around Apple and using HTML5 and the open web to offer a magazine experience. As other tablets emerge in the market, will more publishers decide to keep their options open and go with the web instead of Apple’s walled garden?

We’ve already seen some magazines experiment with web-based apps instead of the Apple version: Playboy was the most recent example — but its choice was likely dictated as much by the adult-rated content in the publication as it was by any commitment to the open web vs. the closed app economy. Fortune magazine has also announced an HTML5 web version of some of its content, although it is only a specifically targeted feature and not an entire magazine.

There have been other experiments as well, including a “Chrome” version of the New York Times’ web app, which effectively duplicates the user interface of the full app but inside a browser, and a beta feature The Huffington Post launched called NewsGlide that offers something similar for that site. And some publishers are also apparently interested in working with OnSwipe, a startup we profiled recently that offers an easy HTML5 platform incorporating touch interface elements and other features. Founder Jason Baptiste’s motto is that “Apps are bull****” when it comes to content.

Meanwhile, Jeff Sonderman at Poynter reports that a German design team has come up with a full HTML5-based magazine prototype called Aside, which offers an app-like experience in almost every way, but inside a user’s browser:

The Aside “app” has all the elements you would expect from a magazine app, including videos that play inside the content, fly-out menus, page-flipping animations, swipe effects and so on. Unlike many apps, the images can be zoomed as well — and the magazine doesn’t require a gigantic download that takes hours to complete, the way some apps such as Wired’s do. There is some lag in the Aside demo, but it is only a prototype after all, and it is almost indistinguishable from an iPad app in look and feel.

Whether any of these solutions will appeal to mainstream publishers remains to be seen, however. There’s no question that getting into bed with Apple has some fairly substantial benefits for content owners — for one thing, apps are a potential revenue generator, something many publishers are desperate for (although actual subscription numbers have proven to be fairly lackluster for most). And subscribers have also proven to be surprisingly willing to divulge useful marketing information about themselves via these apps, something that was a bone of contention when Apple first launched subscriptions.

All that said, however, a partnership with Apple can be a Faustian bargain for content owners. Not only does Apple get to keep 30 percent of the subscription revenue, which for some smaller publishers can mean the difference between life and death, but it also gets the ultimate say over what content can appear in an app and what can’t. The creators of the Aside prototype mention this specifically as a selling point of using the open web to publish: no one can tell you that your content is not suitable.

For now, the benefits of an Apple relationship arguably outweigh the downsides. But with Android and other platforms becoming a bigger proportion of the tablet and mobile market, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more publishers dipping their toes in the open web as a publishing platform, if only to hedge their bets.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Wesley Fryer

  1. Andrei Timoshenko Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    From a user perspective, I think web-integrated apps are best – that way, one can combine the strengths of native apps with the strengths of the open web. I do not think that it will be an either/or situation.

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    1. Hit the nail on the head. The web is good for things that constantly need updates, an app is like a movie, a book or magazine, a predetermined edited nugget. Yep, leverage the strengths of each. Some things should be web only, some should be relatively immutable apps and some should make use of both venues, seamlessly moving a user between them (or not depending on what was paid for).

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  2. I’ve been wondering about the ‘Walled Garden’ more this month. Twitter has done an amazing job with their latest improvements to their mobile app and at this stage when there’s so many apps on the App Store the discovery process is entirely a different game than it was a year or two ago. But of course like @Andrei mentioned it’s definitely not an either/ or situation. It’s just a choice.

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  3. To quote @Lessien’s tweets: “@mathewi’s post seems backward. Publishers embraced the web years ago, and now they’re retreating to apps to be saved. ”
    “And by “mainstream” you mean pubs like the New York Times, Washington Post, etc? How didn’t they embrace the web fully?”

    Me: The fact is the “open web” has been around for more than a decade and most publications have gotten a sum total of zero from it. How are things going to be any different now, especially since the customers most likely to spend all have iPads?

    With Apple’s store they are making real money for the very first time. Good luck with that “end run around Apple”.

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  4. We’ll see. Until Android devices and magazine apps really hit the market en masse, I’m sure it will look like iPad is the best option for many. But stay tuned — the marketplace will be evolving constantly, and publishers may ultimately decide to dump Apple — or negotiate for better terms — when user numbers on other platforms catch up. Agreed, though, that the open web is probably not the most profitable way to go, unless your magazine has a devoted following and very, very strong brand identity. Either way, the digital magazine publishing industry needs someone to step up to compete with Apple. The emergence of another serious app newsstand along the lines of the iTunes model would go a long way toward achieving that.

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  5. Aside is nice, but the problem with it is that it’s just sluggish. At the moment, put it side-by-side with a native app and it’s clear which is the better experience.

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  6. As of today, Aside only works on iPad.

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