HTML5 is a newspaper’s best friend – even if it has a mobile app

The HTML5 "responsive design" reflexively re-sizes the site depending on the device and screen.

Updated: Apparently The Boston Globe didn’t get the memo that it’s an app-only world when it comes to mobile. According to VP of digital products Jeff Moriarty,  the Globe’s website, Bostonglobe.com, is doing quite well on mobile with more than 30 percent of visitors coming to the site through a phone or tablet browser. In fact, at a panel at the paidContent 2012 conference, digital publishers challenged the mythos that native apps provide a superior mobile experience than HTML5.

“We’re not building a video game here,” Moriarty said. “It’s news, photos and text.”

For many news sites, HTML5 has become the default form of coding. Even if a publisher is pushing out a mobile app, it’s often an HTML app in a native wrapper. When deciding whether to follow an app or a Web browser model, the decision isn’t a technology one — native code versus HTML5 – instead, it’s a distribution decision, said Mark Johnson, CEO of news aggregator Zite.

For a startup or a company that doesn’t have a well-known brand, discoverability becomes key, so it’s necessary to stake a claim in platform app stores, Johnson said. But when it comes down to implementation Zite is basically building Web pages optimized with a native user interface. There’s far more flexibility in that approach: your Web developers suddenly don’t need to turn into Objective C programmers and you can modify your app on the server without pushing a complete update to the device, Johnson said.

As Zite builds up its own online brand (CNN acquired Zite last year), its dependence on the app store may lessen, but Johnson said the need for a slick UI will keep Zite app-store bound for some time. “People have a very high expectation of what the UI looks like,” he said. “You risk losing a lot of downloads if you forget the UI.”

The Washington Post is splitting the difference. It leans heavily on its own mobile apps, including its Facebook Social Reader, but it also has a big presence in the mobile browser. WaPo Labs chief strategist and editor-at-large Rob Malda agreed with Johnson that the Post has the advantage to leverage a huge well-respected news brand to drive traffic to the mobile Web site. “Discoverability is not a problem,” Malda said, but he added that the Post can just as easily use that same brand to nudge its readers to its apps and other digital media technologies.

Ultimately, whether the Post focuses on apps or the mobile Website, it will continue to lean heavily of HTML5 for its core development, Malda said. “I like the hybrid thing,” he said. “Laying out a newspaper – I don’t want to do that in native.”

HTML5 in a native wrapper has it’s limitations, as well. As my colleague Kevin Tofel has pointed out, the experience on the Facebook Android and iPhone apps sucks precisely because they’re HTML apps masquerading as natives. That led Kevin to start using accessing Facebook solely from his mobile browser where performance notably improved.

This post was updated to correct the name of the Boston Globe’s main news website, which is bostonglobe.com, not boston.com.

Check out the rest of our coverage of paidContent 2012. Full archived video on livestream (registration required).

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