Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Financial Times web app: HTML5 based app proves a usable alternative, though not a great user experience

Efforts to access the Financial Times website in order to retrieve its HTML5 web app finally proved successful. Here is a look at the results:

The war appears to be on: some publishers have decided that they don't like Apple's sandbox so they are going off on their own. The question is whether their readers will go with them, or whether readers will end prefer the 'walled garden, as some critics have called Apple's iOS platform.
The Financial Times today launched an HTML5 web app version of their previously popular iPad app.

Accessing the website and the page that allows you access to the app is a chore, you can read about that here, but once you do the experience is acceptable, if not totally satisfying.

To be sure, the FT iPad app was not revolutionary: it was essentially of the same design as the NYT app, but it's simple design and functionality worked well enough that the FT bragged about its download numbers. Last fall, for instance, the FT reported that it had brought in a £1 million in new revenue through 400,000 subscribers.

But the attitude of the FT, and indeed many publishers, especially in Europe, soured when it became apparent that Apple would not instantly hand over customer data to publishers without the consumer agreeing to do so, some publishers began to rebel.

"It is unclear how their proposal is going to work, we are still talking to them," FT chief executive Marjorie Scardino said, according to The Guardian. "The important thing to remember is there are many, many tablets coming out and multiple devices ... [from] Kindle to mobiles. If indeed Apple are not happy to give us customer data then maybe we will get it somewhere else."

So what was a huge benefit for consumers, secure data, was a point of contention for some publishers. (It should be said that many publishers have simply begun asking their readers for this data themselves. Image that.)
So in a move very much timed to coincide with Apple's own slew of announcements, the FT has launched a web-based app version of its iPad app – the design is identical to the iOS version.

Readers familiar with the iPad app will certainly feel right at home on the HTML5 version. Once a reader has accessed the entry page (iPad link) they are instructed to add an icon to their home screen as one does with the aside mag magazine web app.

"This is our best app yet, and it is an important step in our strategy of providing multi-channel access to our global journalism quickly and simply,” John Ridding, CEO of the Financial Times said in the company's announcement. “The FT Web App offers our customers flexibility and freedom of choice with access to our global journalism anytime, anywhere, with a single login or subscription. In a world of increasingly digital complexity we want to keep our service simple, easy to use and efficient to offer our customers the best possible experience of FT journalism.”

Unlike aside, however, which attempts to duplicate so many of the features of native iOS apps in its HTML5 alternative, the FT here is only trying to duplicate a much more modest iPad app – and it does so fairly well.

The HTML5 version here is almost the same experience as the iPad app. Readers will notice some glitches as the home page loads. The slow load times, combined with the pages elements flashing on and off are about the only signs one is dealing with a non-native app.

The irony here, of course, is incredible: newspaper publishers who have not found a winning formula online are returning to an online solution in order to avoid the App Store, and when doing so are trying to duplicate the native app experience – Apple, in their minds, is both the enemy and the prophet of future media ventures.

Media analysts would be making a huge mistake by looking to the FT or the WSJ as models for newspaper strategy. The financial category is the exception to the rule, in my opinion: business information is very valuable, readers will pay for it as witnessed by the success both papers have had with both paid app subscriptions and paid online access. The value of a story about, say, Kraft Foods, to someone in the grocery business, is far higher than the value of a story about Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan.

This is the mistake many small to mid-sized newspaper publishers are making, assuming that their local news has a value so high that consumers will be happy to jump pay walls in order to access it. Good luck with that.

But if you can make me money by giving me good business news, or if I can write off that expense with my employer or the IRS, then I will be willing to pay. (Ironic, isn't it, that the biggest critics of government interference in the free market, the WSJs and FTs of the media world, are the ones being subsidized by the government through the tax code.)

Update: added quote from company release.