May 8, 2012

Did Apple kill the publishing App dream?


To many in the publishing industry, the Apple “App” seemed like salvation after the woes of free online content and the disintegration of old business models.

For some, the dream may be over.  One early App-adopter, Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Reviewoutlines why he decided to kill the magazine’s App.

According to Pontin, tablets and smart phones were at first perceived by publishers to be so similar to the closed format of newspapers and magazines, that some semblance of the old publishing model might be maintained.  By creating a unique and proprietary product on a locked device, the iPad, the traditional way might continue — single sales and subscriptions.  Some publishers may have been additionally comforted by emotional in-house statements from Apple, like this one published in the New York Times,

“Steve believes in old media companies and wants them to do well. He believes democracy is hinged on a free press and that depends on there being a professional press.”

Pontin thinks they were taken in.

“For traditional publishers, the scheme was alluring. They lost their heads. One symptom of the industry’s euphoria was a brief-lived literary genre, the announcement of the iPad edition. A touching example of the form is this 2010 letter by the editors of the New Yorker, published by Condé Nast, dashed off in a style that was uncharacteristically breathless: “This latest technology … provides the most material at the most advanced stage of digital speed and capacity. It has everything that is in the print edition and more: extra cartoons, extra photographs, videos, audio of writers and poets reading their work. This week’s inaugural tablet issue features an animated version of David Hockney’s cover, which he drew on an iPad.”

Pontin details his initial excitement about the App project, commisioning a “beautifully designed digital replica of Technology Review.”  He was to be disappointed.

“Apple demanded a 30 percent vigorish on all single-copy sales through its iTunes store. Profit margins in single-copy sales are thinner than 30 percent; publishers were thus paying Apple to move issues. Many responded by not selling single copies of their magazines. Then, for a year after the launch of the iPad, Apple could not figure out how to sell subscriptions through iTunes in a way that satisfied ABC, which requires publishers to record “fulfillment” information about subscribers. When Apple finally solved the problem of iPad subscriptions in iTunes, it again claimed its 30 percent share. From June of last year, Apple did permit publishers to fulfill subscriptions through their own Web pages (a handful of publishers, including Technology Review, enjoyed the privilege earlier); but the mechanism couldn’t match iTunes for ease of use, and most readers couldn’t be bothered to understand it. And while Google was more reasonable in its terms, Android never emerged as an alternative to the iPad: today, most tablet computers are Apple machines.”

These issues are all symptoms of what Matthew Ingram at Gigaom calls Apple’s “content economy”, an economy one must enter into by creating and marketing an App.

The other problem Pontin and Ingram identify is that Apps don’t deliver information in the way consumers want.  They don’t allow the reader to follow links in the same way they can online.  Pontin goes on to detail other options, like using HTML5, which can replicate an App’s best qualities, but inside a normal web browser.

“At the same time, there seems to be increasing interest in the model adopted by the Financial Times, which uses HTML5 to duplicate the look and feel of an app. It’s an approach that is not only cheaper in many cases, but also allows the publisher to do an end-run around Apple’s 30-percent commission — and in the long run, that could make it a much more realistic dream for content producers than the one that Apple has been selling.”

This is not to say there are no benefits to using the Apple App system. The iPad is the most popular tablet device, and Apps can generate revenue.  But then, Apple gets to have a say in what kind of content you can publish.

One can’t heap entities like Amazon and Apple together, but although these corporations have been highly innovative, and may be so again, the type of monopoly they are able to exert over publishers’ content cannot be conducive to creativity and malleability.  Two vital qualities in an industry trying to find its feet.  In such a fast moving field and with such fickle readers, tying content to one platform, the iPad and Apple Appstore, is a mistake.  A mistake that some publishers are quickly rectifying.

In the words of Pontin,

“I hated every moment of our experiment with apps, because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital.”

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.