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FT ditches iOS apps – more publishers to follow?

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 5th September 2011

The news last week that the FT is to remove its apps from the Apple app store is the latest episode in the ongoing saga surrounding media publishers and their digital content strategies.

If you’ve missed the story so far, then what you need to know is that Apple, in February, changed the rules and forced publishers to run subscription services for any apps on the platform through its in-app purchasing function.

The catch here is that Apple takes 30% of all monies received through in-app purchases. And, as you can imagine, publishers like the FT aren’t very happy about this.

First of many?

The FT has taken matters into its own hands and has pulled its apps from the store and has created a new web-based app for the iPhone and iPad instead. A version for Android will be available soon.

And others will possibly follow suit. Amazon launched a web version of its Kindle iOS app in the summer and it looks as though the WSJ will soon remove all in-app purchasing options to ensure compliance with Apple’s new rules.

Of course Apple is hoping that the sheer number of users on its devices will persuade publishers that the 30% levy is a necessary evil. However, these moves suggest publishers might not have the same mindset.

The data game

Another key part of this that is often overlooked is the data angle. Another part of Apple’s rule change is that no publisher or app developer can retain information about customers that make in-app purchases. For a company like the FT, this is a massive issue. Acquiring data on subscribers and using this for marketing opportunities is absolutely vital to its entire business model.

The irony here is that Apple could be doing itself out of long term app revenues. There has always been an argument over whether platform specific apps or HTML5 cross-platform apps (like the new FT web-app) will be the future with many, myself included, believing the former is unsustainable and the latter will provide much more flexibility for publishers and users alike. This move by the FT seems to confirm that view, albeit the motives are for slightly different reasons.

Going against the app model

It seems that, if anything, Apple is forcing publishers to look at alternatives that might, ironically, do them out of some of the big revenues they currently enjoy from the app store.

The main arguments against web-based apps are they are often slower, less feature-rich and don’t have offline-reading modes. But with HTML5 technology developing quickly, these could soon be irrelevant.

Of course Apple is unlikely to go down without a fight, especially if more high profile publishers move away from the app store. The FT and Apple have apparently held talks over this issue already with neither seemingly willing to budge at this stage.

This is a fight that has many rounds to come. The eventual winners might be uncertain at this stage, but it is another blow for publishers tirelessly searching for answers to the digital conundrum.

Danny Whatmough