Gardens, Markets and the Web: Debating the Future of Mobile Content
The native app/Web app debate was front and center this morning at the Paid Content Live event in New York City. The publisher of MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin, kicked of the discussion with a rundown of what he characterized as the disaster that was TR's experiment with native apps: money wasted, few subscribers gained, the departure of the digital development staff and furious editors. "When it was over I thought it was worthless," Pontin said.
The problem, he said, was that native apps on the Apple and Android platforms do not deliver on their promise of returning publishing to the days of eager subscribers for "walled garden" packages. The future, Pontin said, is in HTML5 and flexible, Web-based products that need not be purchased through data-stingy third-party marketplaces.
"One of the major reasons we dumped iOS is that Apple did not provide the kind of data that traditional auditing organizations recognize. It did us zero good. … and they are taking that 30 percent [off the top] and marketing to my audience. It's outrageous."
Nick Alt, vice president at Vimeo, and Ryan Spoon, senior vice president of product development at ESPN, pointed out that publishers need to be where users are.
"On the back of every ESPN employee card is [the motto] to serve fans anytime, anywhere," Spoon said. "In our organization that means we have to be on both [native apps and the Web]."
"I think 'it depends' is the theme here," he continued. App platforms, he said, should be determined based on audience, type of content and the life cycle of a company.
For subscription models and video-heavy content, native apps often trump the Web, Spoon said. Alt said the native app environment can be advantageous for keeping audiences informed and engaged.
"With push notifications we were seeing higher engagement rates [with native apps] compared to [Web-based] e-mail marketing," he said.
GigaOM's Jeff Roberts brought up the "subcompact" app developers, such as 29th Street Publishing, offering new, low-cost developer options based on subscription models. He also noted the ability of app stores to aid discoverability for new publishers.
"I like some of these small experiments, particularly if you are trying to drive revenue through subscriptions and have no legacy," Pontin said. He pointed out that a venerable brand like MIT Technology Review with multiple revenue streams (subscription, licensing, events) may ultimately have less need for native apps.
Calling HTML5 an "aspirational set of standards," Pontin also noted that it is not yet finished as a next-generation Web code. He said a possible intermediate step is for publishers to "do HTML5 code and wrap it in native code and sell it in the [app] stores."
As to the recently-released Facebook Home, which wraps Android's OS in the social network's Web ecosystem, Pontin called it "very frustrating" and "baffling," while Spoon called it "brilliant," noting there were opportunities for ESPN to serve content through the platform.
"They have turned an app into an OS," Spoon said. "There are avenues for us to play in all of those [platforms]."