The future of native apps, those created for a particular platform, is becoming more and more questionable as publishers start to realize the benefits of HTML5 to their bottom line and to the consumers’ user experience in terms of being able to access their content on any device.
To accommodate the iOS and Android platforms, publishers must develop and maintain multiple apps. Developing apps for both platforms isn’t as easy as making a few tweaks to one to develop the other—in most cases it involves starting from scratch, requiring double the development time. This also means development costs often will be double, and there are updates and other maintenance costs to consider as well; each update will require version releases for each app. But since HTML5 is browser-based, one HTML5 app will accommodate any device with a modern browser, be it a PC or Mac desktop, an iPad, or a Kindle Fire.
In native apps, costs can even be compounded within the same platform—having to make one app for the iPhone and another for the iPad, for instance, to accommodate different screen sizes. This isn’t an issue in HTML5, as responsive design techniques allow for a product—say, a novel, a magazine, a comic book—to transition between screen sizes without degrading the consumer experience.
There are middleman fees to contend with in native apps as well—publishers don’t need to fork over 30% of a sale to Apple from an HTML5 platform. And there’s a lot more than single book sales for publishers to consider. Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT’s Technology Review, recently wrote about moving Technology Review away from native apps to HTML5, noting that Apple took 30% of subscription sales in addition to single copy sales, through the iOS app. As the digital disruption proceeds and the e-book landscape continues to morph into whatever it will become—which could include streaming book subscriptions, or something similar—it’s important for publishers to keep an eye on the long view and how that third-party cut could end up cutting too deep.
Pontin also addresses the closed-off nature of native apps and says it’s a real detriment to the user experience and engagement with content: “When people read news and features on electronic media, they expect stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web, but stories in apps didn’t really link. The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, ‘walled gardens,’ and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens. For readers, none of that beauty overcame the weirdness and frustration of reading digital media closed off from other digital media.”
This might seem like a no-brainer for news content, but as interactivity and active engagement become more important in e-book design, the “stifling garden” becomes an important consideration for book publishers, too. A recent study by Latitude, a research company, investigated how audiences want to experience stories in our new age of technology. The results were summarized into “4 I’s”: immersion, interactivity, integration, and impact, all of which require an open, connected content environment.
HTML5 could also bring new revenue advantages to publishers. Roger McNamee, founding partner of Elevation Partners, the equity firm specializing in technology companies, argues in a recent blog post that HTML5 is the future of content, and at one point he addresses revenue potential: “The beauty of these new [HTML5] ‘app’ models is that each can [be] monetized, in most cases at rates better than the current web standard. Imagine you are reading David Pogue’s technology product review column in the New York Times. Today, the advertising on that page is pretty random. In HTML5, it will be possible for ads to search the page they are on for relevant content. This would allow the Times to auction the ad space to companies that sell consumer electronics, whose ads could then look at the page, identify the products and then offer them in the ad.”
McNamee is talking about newspaper and magazine ads, but given Microsoft’s recent patent activity and Amazon’s modus operandi, I don’t think it will be long before we see ads in e-books, and publishers are going to need to get in on this revenue play.