Let’s start by reviewing the basic ingredients of a successful online publishing operation:

1 / Quick load.
2 / Ease of operation and update
3 / Consistent visual identity
4 / Platform independence
5 / Open to the rest of the web
6 / Geared for transactions
7 / CRM and marketing-friendly

Why am I scrutinizing this? Because we are not there yet. But stay tuned: the future looks bright, it’s called HyperText Markup Language version 5, in short HTML5. (No worries, no program code in this column, just a few ruminations).

Back to our list:

1 / Quickly loading contents. So much work to do! I’m currently working on an evaluation of the loading speed of major news websites. Compared to e-commerce websites their performance is just appalling. Most of the news sites I measured are painfully slow to load, especially the ones with ads-saturated home pages. (We will publish the results sometimes next year, once we’ve validated our data).
Speed matters of applications as well. I have 100+ apps in my iPhone 4; about 40 are news-related, including many subscription-based ones. There, too, speed varies — with consequences. Over time, I saw my usage becoming directly related to the app’s swiftness: start-up time, fluid updates and content navigation. Intense competition for user time on the smartphone scene makes speed a key success factor.

2 / Smooth Operation. Only Rupert Murdoch can plan a digital newspaper updated once a day. I bet this feature won’t last. Way too un-internet. Except for the online magazine business, there is no way to think of digital news other than as being permanently updated. The medium demands it. If a production system is too complicated to be fed with fresh content (text, pictures, video), to link to other components (archives, related stories) that will generate page views, or to generate news alerts, that pig won’t fly.

3 / Visual ID. News brands are largely built on strong graphic designs. Right away, everyone is able to spot the cover of a magazine or a newspaper, even if its reduced to a thumbnail. Smartphones/tablets applications are good at displaying sophisticated graphics. On the traditional web, designers were — until now –  limited by HTML fonts and other display constraints.

4 / Platform independence. Ten days ago, I was in Boston at an INMA gathering where Filipe Fortes’ presentation gave me the idea for this column. Filipe is the CTO of Treesaver, a web design startup involving the renowned designer Roger Black. In his presentation, Filipe Fortes sums up the issue in two slides:

Combine all of the above, multiply the number of versions — either functional upgrades or bugs fixes — divide by market reach, apply monetization parameters and you get an idea of e-publishing’s hurdles.

5 / Openness. Social features, Facebook, Twitter, bookmarking etc., will keep growing as contributors to reading habits as well as to audience traffic. As far as we can see today, most of news related apps ignore this trend and are closed to the rest of the web (even sometimes to their own archives)

6/ The transaction issue. In this field, apps remain vastly superior by allowing many forms of friction-free payments. And even if Apple’s business model is open to questions (see previous Monday Note Key Success Factors for a tablet-only “paper”), it allows publishers — for subscriptions — to bypass their closed system and call the shots on pricing and customer relationship. It’s unclear how long this bypass will last, but this toleration is good news: the publishers destined to succeed in the online news business will be the ones able to convert most of their customers into subscribers (unlike with the physical kiosk model which with fluctuating one-at-a-time purchases).

7/ CRM. (For a complete definition of Customer Relationship Management, see here.) In the e-news business, CRM is another key success factor. Using “all means necessary”, publishers must retain and nurture the relationship with their customer. Big internet players such as Google or Apple, armed with their ability to manage large datasets, are very well positioned to profit from CRM. Fortunately, CRM vendors are many and competitive, able to serve businesses of all sizes, ranging from Open Source solutions such as SugarCRM, to SaaS offerings such as Salesforce.com, and more traditional products such as Oracle’s.

For most of the requirements in our list, HTML5 looks promising. In short, HTML5, is the latest iteration of the web language invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1994. The new version of the language makes wider use of JavaScript, a well-regarded scripting system that enables a world of features that, until now, were exclusive to Flash. I can’t add much to the debate between the respective merits Flash and HTML5, I’ll just suggest a visit to  this site, and a run through the demos in order to get an idea of newly advanced HTML5 capabilities. (A great story on the MIT Technology Review sums it up: The Web Is Reborn. The article is subscription-based, but it’s worth it. Previous free articles on the same topic here and here.)

To get a glimpse of HTML5’s potential for digital publishing, point your browser to Nomad Editions. It’s a small, e-publishing company that is also a Treesaver launch partner (story in Wired and in the NY Times). You’ll see a set of magazines, that load fast and display in crisp graphics, pictures and typefaces. And they works quite well on an iPad. Big media companies are showing interest: the Associated Press is getting a stunning prototype which merges the advantages of the richest news content with a magazine look and feel.

In Friday’s conversation, Treesaver’s CTO Filipe Fortes explained the advantages of HMTL 5 and his startup’s goal: “The main idea is to lower the cost of producing content and to display it in a attractive fashion. If you take applications such as Time, Wired, or The New Yorker, they are all done by hand in Adobe InDesign:  they do one version for portrait orientation, one version for landscape (like here for Time)…”:

“… They might have the internal resources to make two versions of their magazine, but what if they want to go to the upcoming Blackberry tablet or the rumored 7” iPad? Therefore, the idea is to retain branded design elements but make sure they’ll run in a low cost fashion on any platform”. Filipe Fortes mentioned apps for magazines where, today, costs range between $100,000 and $600,000, like the one developed by WonderFactory.

The spread of HTML5 depends on the creation of powerful Software Development Kits (SDKs). Unlike Apple’s controlled environment, development tools for HTML5 are still immature and barely organized. This scattered sector provides an opportunity for young companies such as SproutCore, Sencha or jQuery Mobile to build frameworks that could lead to a real ecosystem. But they’re still quite behind the sophistication of Apple’s proprietary development tools. On another hand, the emerging HTML5 playing field will lead to the creation of a new layer: pre-built graphic design components. Today, layouts are hand-coded, tomorrow they’ll be assembled using existing blocks. It will change the way apps are produced. That’s TreeSaver’s pitch.

Creating web sites or apps, or websites encapsulated in an app will soon be done for a fraction of the cost of developing an app today; the result will work across platforms and be easier to handle. In enabling such new development methods, HTML5 could combine advantages from both worlds: the Web’s ubiquity and openness and the performance of applications.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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