Whether the latest move by the New York Times towards an HTML5 web app is a shot across the bow of Apple, or a real strategic move away from native apps, we'll have to see over time. But today's launch of Web App for iPad will certainly get the attention of many in the newspaper industry.
The web app requires iPad owners to have a digital subscription to the tablet edition of the NYT. A similar web app exists already for the Chrome browser.
For me the approach is a bit weird. After all, since the web app is browser based, one would think a reader could access the app via their web subscription. The Chrome web app, unlike the iPad web app, appears to be tied to one's web subscription. Like many print publishers, the NYT seems to be confusing the device for the product.
"Our subscribers have told us they are interested in trying new ways of reading The Times across a variety of platforms,” Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer, said in the company's announcement this morning. "We are working constantly to develop new products that distribute our content in innovative ways, and this Web-based app is just one example of that."
The NYT is in a good position to make a break from Apple work. The reason, which I voiced here many times is that there are two kinds of publications that can succeed at paywalls (and by extension web apps): financial publications such as the WSJ and Financial Times, and national newspapers that are considered essential reading, such as the NYT.
Many media analysts have assumed that the success the Financial Times has experienced can be easily reproduced. I believe it can't, in that the FT is in a unique situation being a financial newspaper. Likewise, the NYT, if it wanted to, could make a break from the Apple App Store and go it alone. I think it would be terrible idea as it would put them on the outside, but the lure of taking a greater share of their digital subscription revenues may be too great.
For now, however, the NYT is taking a cautious approach. Readers who want to access the web app must be current subscribers to the NYT's iPad edition, so Apple has little to complain about.
I've always thought that the NYT's iPad edition was a mistake because it is based on the website rather than creating something more like print. A move to a web app, with a paid model, could open up the Times to creating a new tablet edition that would be more like the reading experience of print, but also more interactive.
The current NYT pay model makes readers choose between a subscription to the smartphone (with web access) and the tablet (with web access). I would assume few choose to subscribe to both.
To lure readers into buying the whole enchilada, the NYT would need to differentiate their products more – not just by design, but by content, as well. One way to do this is to make their tablet edition more of a leisure time read, concentrating on breaking news on their website, mobile phone and web app products.