The Financial Times last year decided to eschew the world of Apple and app stores in favor of an independent mobile content strategy based on web apps. The publisher says it has no second thoughts about the decision, and is instead pushing forward with its web-based smartphone and tablet experience.
On Wednesday, the FT rolled out a new version of its iPad offering that lets readers toggle between a live version of the website and a static view that resembles the morning newspaper. The new “app” also allows readers to clip articles to read later and features a personalized reading history and financial portfolio.
“It’s a much superior second-generation web app based on the latest HMTL5 implementation out there,” said FT.com’s Managing Director, Rob Grimshaw, in a phone interview. He added that it’s only on the iPad for now, but will soon be available on other devices like the iPhone, the Chromebook and Android devices.
While the new version of the web app is nice enough aesthetically (you can see screenshots at right), its real significance remains on a symbolic level. In deciding to bolt Apple altogether last year, the FT took up a vanguard position in the web vs. app debate — standing for the position that improvements in HTML5 means native apps have become unnecessary. Other premium publishers, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have so far resisted the FT’s “all-in on web” approach and continue to design apps specifically for Apple and Android devices, and sell them through app stores. (We’ll be digging into the web vs. app debate with three influential publishers at paidContent Live later this month.)
The FT’s decision to quit the app stores meant it would no longer have to fork out a 30% commission to the likes of Apple, but also raised a risk that readers would fail to find the publisher on smartphones and tablets. Grimshaw says this”discoverability” concern is not an issue for major brands, and that the FT’s tablet traffic has actually risen 70% since leaving iTunes.
“If you are a big brand, why not use that? We don’t need Apple or anyone else to say what the FT is,” said Grimshaw.
He did acknowledge that collecting payments from mobile devices are still a challenge for publishers; unlike iTunes, which already has a user’s credit card on file, the web doesn’t offer a quick and easy way for people to pay. Grimshaw added, though, that a solution is coming soon.
“Players like Amazon are opening their payment plan more,” he said. “There’s Amazon, PayPal and one or two others. It’s problem that’s about to get solved.”
For now, Grimshaw says that 15-20 percent of new digital subscriptions are coming via a mobile device and that he expects that number to rise. Like its sister publication, The Economist, the FT has unbundled digital access from its print subscriptions and is offering a variety of price points: a premium online subscription is $8.49 a week while a standard one is $6.25 (Grimshaw says a third of subscribers buy premium); a print and digital subscription is $11.49 while print-only is $7.25.
The FT has become something of a poster child for the idea that news that a bright future in the digital era. It recently announced that it had “crossed over” with its audience, amassing more digital subscribers than print ones. But, as we’ve noted before, the Financial Times‘ distinct audience and product make it more of an outlier than a model that lots of other news publications can replicate.