The tablet market is exploding and exceeding everyone’s wildest dreams. Apple is in the lead, but the Android tablets along with many others are on their way. In an interview back in January, I stated that “apps are bullshit for content”. I thought it would be good to clarify that statement and explain my reasoning why the future of content on tablet devices is not going to be delivered through apps, but through one killer app: the browser.
Referral Traffic Is Lost With Apps
The majority of a content owner’s traffic comes from referral traffic such as search, share, and email. That traffic has and always will go back to the website itself. Even if a link is opened in the twitter app, it is still showing that content in a UI web view. It’s close to impossible to have that traffic open up in a native app, which would require a user has it installed already. Sure, it could prompt the reader to download the app, but that is a painful experience. A reader wants instant gratification, not a friction filled process with a long download.
If publishers create apps instead of focusing on the web they throw out half of their traffic .
Readers Are Already Going To The Site
Readers are already trained to go to a publication’s website. Why should they be funneled through a website, told to download an app, and then navigate to an article. Larger publications may have readers search within an app store, but that only applies to larger media brands, not the type of influencers that are dominating the web now. This very article you are reading now is appearing on the web and not an app.
HTML5 Is Capable To Deliver App Like Experiences
Problem: Publishers want to deliver a great experience that can take advantage of what’s possible on tablet devices.
Solution (for the first 9 months): Create apps that are essentially glorified PDFs and cost a ton of money
Solution (now): Use HTML5 to provide the same type of experience and on the web.
HTML5 can’t do the crazy game enabled capabilities…yet (WebGL please?), but it certainly can do many of the fast + speedy content effects seen in native content apps. Transforms, fonts, and more make it possible that the web can be indistinguishable from native apps. It’s hard, don’t get me wrong, but it’s now possible.
Fixing The “Stuff To Do” Problem
When you buy a tablet, you’re given a new device and need “Stuff to do”. Apps clearly fill that void by allowing you to play games, consume content, and more. Sure you already browse the web, but you download apps because you know they are made for that device. Sadly, most of the web is not made for tablets…yet. By making the web tablet and touch friendly, it increases the value of tablets tremendously regardless whether it is iOs or Android based.
Scoble explains this well here . It’s simple, the iPad has a ton of stuff to do by having a lot of tablet apps. If Google and others focused on making the web a better place out the gate for tablet users, then they can strongly counter that argument.
Readers will only keep so many apps on their homescreen at one given time. You’re also competing against apps that will never go away such as safari, youtube, mail, and more on a reader’s homescreen along with apps like angry birds+instagram, that aren’t even content apps. On the other hand, readers are used to navigating to your site or bookmark specific content within the browser.
Consistent Cross Device Experience
By focusing on the web, you can create a consistent cross device experience. It’s hard to create apps that will work across all touch devices, if not nearly impossible. By focusing on the web, you can know that a reader will have the same consistent experience whether they are on iPad, the Xoom, or a the PalmPad. The web is also a write once, deploy everywhere environment, where apps are not. Sure there are quirks for each browser+device, but they pale in comparison to developing native apps across all platforms.
The Web Was Meant For URLs
The web was meant to have each individual piece of content have a permanent place in history. With apps there is no foot in the ground for a piece of content. If you want to directly link to a piece of content inside of an app, how do you do that? You can’t. The web was built upon urls and people sharing+linking to them. If apps were to dominate the world, we’d lose that structure.
App Stores Don’t Provide Real Distribution
Publishers think that app stores are the holy grail for traffic and distribution, when they are in reality driving very little “new distribution”. App stores have horrible discovery. The best way to discover new content apps is through a pure search query. Odds are though, that if you love a media property enough to search for it in an app store, you already visit the site. You are not a new reader.
Exercise: if you and two friends started a publication tomorrow, put it in the app store, and could not use any existing brand leverage, how many downloads would you get? Very very few, if any. There is no magical customer acquisition bullet here.
Apps like the New York Times also receive so many downloads since they are a centuries old brand that can drive downloads. The number of users of the app are still some # < their overall web usage.
What does provide real distribution? Social sharing and distribution. If sites take advantage of intelligent recommendations and build in sharing not as a bolt on to their application, they can
Follow The Money
Apps and the keepers of the platform ultimately decide what a publisher can or cannot do. How much can they take for subscriptions? What data can they collect? When can they push an update? Going through intermediary app stores puts the decisions they can make from a business perspective in the hands of others. Those decisions, especially around monetization are the lifeblood of any publisher. Putting that control in the hands of a select few is scary and literally gives away the power they have. The most alarming is Apple’s decision to take a 30% cut of all subscriptions and making that a mandatory option. On the web, publishers can choose the ads they want, display the content they want, and give up a much smaller peice of the pie.
So where do apps make sense in the tablet world? With applications that exist PRIMARILY as an app, not as a supplemental app to a website. Examples:
Flipboard and Angry Birds make total sense as apps. They take advantage of what can be done natively and don’t have web counterparts.
All content apps such as CNN, Huffington Post, and more are just extensions of a website, where there real traffic exists. They should not be apps. The same can be seen with SaaS apps such as basecamp and their recent HTML5 version of the site for touch devices.
It’s not a question of if after talking to publishers of all sizes, but a question of when.