Will Publishers Choose the Open Web Over Apple’s Walled Garden?

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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

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