html5

The Silly Web vs. Native Apps Debate

 

Mark Zuckerberg admits Facebook was wrong to bet on HTML5 for its mobile app. Indeed, while the previous version was a mere wrapper around HTML code, the latest iOS app is much improved, faster, nimbler. Facebook’s CEO courageously admits the error, changes course, and promises to ship an equally native Android app in the near future.

A fresh set of broadsides from the usual suspects predict, with equal fervor, the ultimate success/failure of HTML5/native apps. See, for example, Why Web Apps Will Crush Native Apps.

This is bizarre.

We don’t know what Zuckerberg and the Facebook technical team were thinking, exactly, when they chose to take the HTML5 route, but the decision was most likely guided by forces of culture and economy.

Perhaps more than any other company in the HTTP age, Facebook is a product of the Web. The company’s engineers spent days and nights in front of big screen monitors writing javascript, PHP, and HTML code for PC users. And no Website has been so richly and promptly rewarded: Facebook is now the #1 or #2 most-visited site (depending on whether you count pageviews or unique visitors).

Even as the Smartphone 2.0 era dawned in late 2007, there was no reason to jump the Web app ship: Smartphone numbers were low compared to PCs. And I’m guessing that when Facebook first looked at smartphones they saw “PCs, only smaller”. They were not alone.

Then we have the good old Write Once Run Anywhere (WORA) refrain. Developing and maintaining native apps for different devices is time-consuming and expensive. You need to hire separate teams of engineers/designers/QA, experts at squeezing the best performance from their respective devices, educing the most usable and intuitive UI, deftly tracking down elusive bugs. And even then, your product will suffer from “feature drift”: The ostensibly separate-but-equal native apps will differ in subtle and annoying ways.

HTML5 solves these problems. In theory.

In practice, two even more vexing dilemmas emerge: Performance and The Lowest Common Denominator.

Mobile users react poorly to sluggish performance. Native apps have more direct access to optimized OS modules and hardware features…which means better performance, faster, more immediate interaction. That’s why games, always looking for speed, are almost universally native apps, and it’s why all smartphone vendors promote native apps, their app stores sport hundreds of thousands of titles.

For the Lowest Common Denominator, consider a player piano that can read a scroll of eight parallel punched hole tracks, a maximum of eight simultaneous notes. You want to create richer music, perhaps on an organ that has multiple ranks, pedals, and stops? Sorry, we need your music to play everywhere, so we’ll need to enforce the eight note standard.

In the world of smartphones, sticking with the Lowest Common Denominator means trouble for new platform features, both hardware or software, that aren’t available everywhere. A second camera, a new sensor, extended graphic primitives? Tough luck, the Web apps can’t support them. The WORA approach stands in the way of creativity and innovation by demanding uniformity. This is especially wrong in a world as new, as fast-changing as the Smartphone 2.0 universe.

Pointing to the performance and lowest common denominator problems with the WORA gospel shouldn’t be viewed as a criticism of HTML5. This new (and still evolving) version of the Web’s content language provides much improved expressive power and cleans up many past sins.

Also, there are usage scenarios where Web apps makes sense and run well across several platforms. Gmail and Google Docs are prime examples, they work well on all types of PCs and laptops… But Google took pains to write native Android and iOS apps to provide better access to Google Docs on leading smartphones.

Forget facts and nuance. “It Depends” isn’t as enticing a headline as the fight between Right and Wrong.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Bloggers, publishers and the Apple lockdown

Bloggers like simplicity. They view themselves as computer industry geniuses, as the embodiment of a fantasied future, vectors for all forms of intellectual life, culture, news, entertainment… Bloggers believe in a world where traditional publishing will soon meet a well-deserved death.

Last week, this Manichaean worldview reached a paroxysm: many self-proclaimed digital pundits were celebrating Apple’s move to lock the tablet business down, at the expense of the ever-caricatured “old media”. I’m of course referring to Cupertino’s new policy on subscriptions.

This “us vs. them” is both exasperating and completely misguided.

Last Thursday in London, I attended an INMA conference on tablets strategies — focused on dealing with Apple new rules. About fifty people, all of them using at least one Apple device, all of them eager to make their contents available on the iPad and the iPhone — as long as it is economically tolerable.

For traditional media, the transition to digital boils down to a simple equation. The industry needs to mutate from a business models that used to generate a revenue of 100, to a new one that will only yield 30 — while preserving its core product features and values.

Today’s problem is not one media versus another, it’s the future of journalism — it’s finding the best possible way to finance the gathering and the processing of independent, reliable, and original information. This is emphatically not the blogosphere’s mission statement.

We all agree: for anyone, the no-intermediary ability to reach a global audience is an exhilarating revolution. And, for old-fashion journalism, it’s been the most beneficial kick in the butt ever. Having said this, I don’t buy into the widespread delusion that legions of bloggers, compulsive twitterers or facebookers amount to a replacement for traditional journalism. No question: these new the tools accelerate the news cycle in a stunning fashion — as we can see today with Libyan tentative to cut the internet off, something the Egyptian government did with frightening efficiency ten days earlier. Social networks and microblogging services helpfully supplement the work of journalists when those are no longer able to do their job. But they can’t replace professional reporting. The echo chamber’s sound volume should not be confused with journalism’s unique combination of skills and resources.

Reporting is a métier. No one could become a decent magistrate after reading a couple of law books. In a similar way, good journalism can’t happen without training and experience. Nothing is trivial: handling sources, avoiding manipulation, watching out for ethical traps, managing the distance from facts, and their context…

Without five major newspapers lining up dozens of editors and foreign affairs specialists able to redact and contextualize the Wikileaks trove, the “cablegate” would still be a 300 million words useless swamp –  while still putting at risk the life of hundreds of people. (If you want to grasp the complexity of the operation, read Open Secret, War and American Diplomacy published by the New York Times, or the symmetrical Guardian account Wikileaks, Inside Julian Assange War on Secrecy.)

Blogging zealots will object: Julian Assange could have used the vast powers of crowdsourcing to retrieve and analyze the assembled material. Sure thing. Just consider how the “collective wisdom” would have handled cables pertaining to Middle East politics. Assange knew what he was doing when he decided to work with professional news organizations.

Similarly, consider last week’s investigative piece in the NY Times. It uncovers Google’s strange blindness to JC Penney “black hat” practices. The NY Times described some of the cheating used to unnaturally push a company or a product towards the top of ordinary, “unsponsored” search results. Such an exposé is the product of painstaking journalistic legwork. It didn’t come from the many blogs covering the search business.

This isn’t an exception, it is the rule: talented as they may be, bloggers can’t provide this type of service to society.

How does this relates to the business model of news? One word: Costs. Maintaining and nurturing competencies in a large newsroom costs millions…. which have yet to materialize in digital media. In the transition to the new internet-based world, the failure of advertising and of paid-for models both threaten to make digital journalism insolvent.

Which brings us back to Apple subscription policy. Why were my colleagues at the INMA conference so upset?

Five reasons

#1  The introduction of the iPad led publishers to believe that Steve’s tablet could — finally — be the magic trick to get readers to pay for news. They’re not so sure now.

#2  As we discussed in a previous Monday Note (see Apple’s bet on publishing), subscription is the model of choice for digital publishing, as it is for most of the content industry.

#3  Arguing that publishers who pay 40%-50% in printing and distribution costs should be elated to see Apple charging “only” 30% fee is ludicrous. For one, the true number is 39% here in Europe after taking in account the Luxembourg VAT. Secondly, readers expect (rightfully so) a big discount over the price they used to pay at their newsstand. A lower price tag combined with advertising yielding a third or a fifth of the dead-tree model would call for a platform costing no more than 10%-12%.
For that matter, I totally agree with James McQuivey’s analysis published by PaidContent who says the cost structure of a digital platform should be closer to the credit card processing business (McQuivey, a Forrester analyst, predicts distribution platforms fees falling below the 10% mark at some point).
A 30% rate could be acceptable for managing complex applications such as games that requires sophisticated development tools and technical approval; but not for contents-based apps such as newspapers.
No one says Apple should have left a backdoor for digital subscriptions open, but the Cupertino guys should probably consider a more flexible approach based on real costs.

#4 The same blogosphere misconception applies to the collection of customer data. Many digital pundits praise Apple’s Opt-In for allowing the release of customer data, arguing that medias are responsible for the deluging mailboxes with unwanted mail. That, again, is nonsense. A newspaper or a magazine subscriber costs as much as $300 to recruit. Does anyone really believe that a subscription department will try to squeeze a few dollars per record by leasing its precious database ? Of course not.

And by the way, I find quite funny to see such idea propagated by those who lay socially naked on Facebook, enjoy sharing their breakfast menu on Twitter or flock into email sucking engines such as Groupon.

#5  The least acceptable part of Apple subscription policy is the impossibility for a publisher to propose a cheaper subscription elsewhere. This is probably the most legally challengeable aspect of the newer terms of service. It goes against one of the most basic laws of retail: prices reflect the cost of the distribution platform. The Korean convenience store open 24/7 is more expensive than WalMart.
In itself, this restriction could be the main motive for publishers to quietly exit an overly constraining App Store.

At last week’s INMA conference in London, most the people I spoke with were considering alternatives to Apple’s lockdown. Others solutions are emerging. The most obvious ones rely on HTML5. Today, a set of pages and UI functionalities reproducing the deepest iOS features (such as GPS or sensors management) can be downloaded with a single http request and allow 15 or 20 megabytes of offline reading — sufficient for a digital publication with no video. Of course, such wizardry is still in its infancy and development requires a great deal of tinkering, but it’s improving fast.
There is no such thing as a durable lockdown in the internet world.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com