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Summary:

There has been a growing revolt in the publishing community against the idea that iPhone and iPad apps are the best route to digital dollars. The Financial Times shuttered its apps this month while a popular essay by another publisher lamented that apps were a “collective delusion” and an expensive failure.

There has been a growing revolt in the publishing community against the idea that iPhone and iPad apps are the best route to digital dollars. The Financial Times shuttered its apps this month, while a popular essay by another publisher lamented that apps were a “collective delusion” and an expensive failure.

That’s bunk, according to Wired publisher Howard Mittman, who said in a recent interview that apps have proven “incredibly profitable” and touts the publication’s 165,000 tablet subscribers (65,000 of these are pure-digital subs). Mittman adds that Wired readers also spend a significant amount of time with the tablet version and that he “missed the memo” about the failure of apps.

So what’s going on? Is there something special about Wired, or have other publishers simply failed to execute correctly?

To understand, it’s useful to consider the key complaints set out by Technology Review’s Jason Pontin in his influential “Why Publishers Don’t like Apps” essay from early May, including:

  • expensive developer costs
  • difficulty quantifying subscribers
  • an unnatural, walled garden reader experience.

Pontin also decried the vulturous 30 percent bite that Apple took from many sales, a figure that exceeded publishers’ own margins. He concluded that he would toss the apps and instead follow the Financial Times’ example by using HTML5 technology to provide an easy cross-platform reader experience. (The FT this week told pC2012 that it didn’t need a marketing boost from the iTunes Store.)

Wired’s Mittman, however, says that Pontin simply “chose one path that didn’t work out” and that “trail-blazing is not for everyone.” He believes that HTML5 will just be part of a “larger app experience” in which an app is a storefront or gateway for readers to have deeper interactions with publishing brands.

One upshot of this may be that publishers need to try harder to make apps work, but it’s also possible that unique factors make Wired an outlier. These include a techy readership combined with corporate and editorial support for a development team that has been building apps longer than most. Condé Nast, its deep-pocketed parent, may also be betting big in the hopes that Wired’s success can be replicated at its other publications.

Mittman’s bullish stance on apps may also be in keeping with Wired’s famous “Web is dead” cover of two years ago that described how browsers were being supplemented by other types of viewing platforms.

The proof will ultimately be in the revenue pudding, of course. Based on a $20-a-year subscription price, Wired is set to earn $1.3 million on its digital only subscribers (minus any Apple cut). This is hardly earth-shaking but, after just two years, it may be big enough to keep Condé Nast in the app game for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, it seems likely other publishers will continue to join instead the “good enough revolution” (a Wired term, by the way) offered by HTML5.

  1. Tracy Pease Friday, May 25, 2012

    Reblogged this on iOS Affairs and commented:
    It really is so true!

  2. yup..he has excellent strategy for tab and mobile worlds.
    http://www.phpflow.com

  3. Apple’s 30% cut is less than publishers print and distribution costs.

  4. Does Wired’s app or The Daily offer presentation of content that could not be authored using HTML5 and displayed in a browser?

    I suspect the “app” mindset comes from Apple’s distribution model on what has become the leading tablet platform. It’s what a new generation of users have come to expect in content delivery (“there’s an app for that!”).

    Until I see content providers serving their wares on the PC via a specialized app instead of in a browser, eBook, or PDF format, I’m not buying what Mittman says.

  5. “So what’s going on? Is there something special about Wired, or have other publishers simply failed to execute correctly?

    To understand, it’s useful to consider the key complaints set out by Technology Review’s Jason Pontin in his influential “Why Publishers Don’t like Apps” essay from early May, including:

    1. expensive developer costs
    2. difficulty quantifying subscribers
    3. an unnatural, walled garden reader experience.”

    This misses the most important complaint of all, which is kind of given away by the third complaint. Apps mean Apple, and iPad.
    This is a propaganda war. Microsoft owns FT and probably Jason Pontin.
    Once Microsoft has a tablet OS and hardware, (which will be a near identical copy of the Apple “walled garden”) the Financial Times will be praising the brilliance, and profitability of the glorious Microsoft app store.

    1. Good to know. That’s a pretty large oversight by the author, wouldn’t you say?

      1. No its not. Because Microsoft doesnt actually own FT. Pearson does. He’s talking rubbish. He also makes the daft assertion that apps are Apple only. I seem to remember Android having more than 100,000 apps for its platform.

    2. Jason Pontin zato Friday, June 1, 2012

      Microsoft really doesn’t own me, or MIT.

  6. One more thing while I’m here:
    I think the whole “tech internet” story of “The Financial Times” joining, then exiting the Apple App Store, then boasting of huge success in follow-up articles every other month is all pure, engineered anti-Apple propaganda from Microsoft/FT.
    FT’s subscription numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. 90,000 of them are probably Microsoft employees.

  7. Alastair Mackie Monday, May 28, 2012

    Microsoft owns the FT? What?

  8. Digitalspace Monday, May 28, 2012

    Zato, when did Microsoft buy the FT from Pearson?

  9. To the management: I suggest that you remove Zato’s comments concerning the ownership of the FT and Jason Pontin. The FT is owned by Pearson, not Microsoft. Jason Pontin is a staff member of the Tech Review, which is owned by MIT. The comment that Jason’s piece in TR was influenced by MS is a slur on his journalistic integrity, that of TR and MIT. One reader has called Zato on one of his lies. Here’s a second.

    If Wired or the blogger is not going to remove those comments, are your readers to assume that you normally turn a blind eye or connive at the distribution of misinformation?

    1. Jeff John Roberts BobB Monday, May 28, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, BobB. Zato’s theory on Jason Pontin and the FT appears be wrong and misinformed but he has a right to his opinion. Rather than removing such comments, we prefer to let the community weigh in with their own views.

      For what it’s worth, yes, the FT is owned by Pearson not Microsoft and Zato’s overall theory seems far-fetched at best.

  10. Len Feldman Monday, May 28, 2012

    One issue with Wired’s numbers is that there’s the app (which is more like a container), the issues and the subscription, and each needs to be looked at separately. In order to read the tablet issues, you need the app. If you’re a print subscriber, you get the tablet issues for free. The question is, how many print subscribers are counted as tablet subscribers because they installed the app, but rarely or never actually download an issue? (Wired’s tablet issues take a long time to download and a lot of storage space.) It would be interesting to know how many of those tablet subscribers download, say, three out of four issues.

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