Financial Times Web app skirts subscriptions fracas

One major publication has changed directions, putting its resources into a tablet-focused version of its site instead of developing a native application.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read
The Financial Times Web app, which takes the place of the company's native application.
The Financial Times Web app, which takes the place of the company's native application. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The Financial Times has opted to put its resources into developing a Web app over a native software client to deliver written content to readers on tablets and other devices. The news comes two months after the publication said that it was negotiating with Apple over the terms of the tech giant's now four-month old subscription program.

The timing is of special interest given yesterday's announcement by Apple of "Newsstand," an app that's been built into its upcoming iOS 5 software for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad that will put newspapers and magazines into an app that graces the iOS home screen.

Just like Apple's iBooks software, Newsstand takes the form of a virtual bookshelf. One key difference is that it will come bundled in with every iOS device, unlike iBooks, which needs to be downloaded separately. The content itself comes from the App Store in the form of apps with subscriptions. Apple is granting those apps special favor by allowing them to download new issues to a user's phone in the background.

In a post outlining the process of building the Web app, which makes use of a handful of Web standards like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, the Financial Times' head of mobile, Steve Pinches, said the decision came out of necessity since "developing multiple 'native' apps for various products is logistically and financially unmanageable." The Web route allows the company to go with just one codebase instead, Pinches said.

So far the Web app will work on Apple's iPad and iPhone, with the group adding other devices like the Motorola Xoom, BlackBerry PlayBook, and Samsung Galaxy tablets later on down the line.

The outlet's original problem with Apple's system revolved around the terms of its subscription mechanism. Apps like newspapers and magazines with recurring content can go through Apple's subscription system, which makes use of in-app purchase to let a user buy a subscription allotment while Apple takes 30 percent of the cut. Publishers can get around the cut by bringing in existing or new subscribers from their own sites, though as part of the deal the publisher must maintain the same subscription terms and pricing elsewhere, which is problematic for publishers that want to offer special deals. Major publishers that have gotten on board with Apple's plan include Condé Nast, Hearst Corp., and Time.

One other problem FT had with Apple was that publishers cannot capture data about a reader unless asking for it directly, an option Apple allows. A report from last month quoting Apple VP of Internet Services Eddy Cue had him saying that Apple's data showed about 50 percent of users opting to share their data with publishers using the mechanism.

In a separate interview with The New York Times about the new Web app, FT.com's managing director Rob Grimshaw said the company was not planning to adopt Apple's subscription policy and would be directing native app users to the Web app instead. Grimshaw also noted that the native app, which is free of charge, could very well be removed from the App Store as a result.

FT's defection from the native app route is interesting given Apple's stance on Web standards. On one hand, Apple has used standards like HTML5 as a weapon against companies like Adobe and its Flash runtime, noting that amazing things can be done without software. On the other hand, it's providing incentives like Newsstand and recurring subscriptions for those who choose to develop native software applications on its own iOS platform.

Apple's deadline looms near for publishers and applications with subscriptions and links to Web storefronts. On June 30, the company will be requiring that applications use its own subscription tools and in-app purchase mechanism for content, instead of allowing apps to direct users outside of an app to make those purchases.