Here we go again—another article that says the future of magazines is in the web and not apps, and that apps are rubbish, largely because the apps that have been made so far are mostly sub-standard, presumably because the people driving them are making mistakes. I’ve written about this before, but the Technology Review piece I’m referencing needs looking at in more depth, because it often reads like a laundry list of  screw-ups you can make regarding apps and the thinking involved behind mobile, rather than a serious argument for the web over native apps.

As a rather good starting point, tech journo and app developer Tom Royal tweeted the following earlier today:

That ‘Publishers don’t like apps’, thing spectacularly misses the point. *Readers* like apps. Publishers like having readers.

Bear that in mind.

So, Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review, starts off in his article by claiming traditional magazine publishers were

overtaken by a collective delusion

when the iPad first appeared, in that they’d be able to

unwind their unhappy histories with the Internet.

The web, he argued—rightly—has led to an expectation of free when it comes to a lot of what was previously print-based journalism and other editorial content. He then states publishers considered tablets a means to return to simpler times, through form factors that are, to some extent, similar to paper publications. Native apps could deliver interactive digital magazines, which would have the functions of true software, rather than merely being a website compiled from mark-up and scripts.

Pontin argues that publishers then lost their heads:

Publishers believed that because they were once again delivering a unique, discrete product, analogous to a newspaper or magazine, they could charge readers for single-copy sales and even subscriptions, re-educating audiences that publications were goods for which they must pay. They allowed themselves to be convinced that producing editorial content for the apps and developing the apps themselves would be simple.

Immediately, this paragraph makes me twitchy. This isn’t so much a strike against the idea of apps as against the arrogance of managers and publishers thinking an entirely new medium would be easy to develop for and conquer. It’s no different from people prominent in movies thinking: “Gaming? Pah! We’ll nail that easily. After all, we already do moving pictures, and games are just moving pictures you can control.”

Pontin continues in noting that software vendors

promised that publishers could easily transfer editorial created on print copy management systems like Adobe InDesign and InCopy directly to the apps. As for software development … well, how hard was that? Most publishers had Web development departments: let the nerds build the apps.

Again, this strikes me as an error in management, not any kind of drawback of the medium or format. Digital mags are not the first time we’ve seen the ‘write once, deploy anywhere’ sentiment, and history has shown such an ideal to rarely—if ever—work. In believing—or wanting to believe—that you could, with very little work or outlay, take your print material and just pipe it into an app, those managing publications were, at the very least, knowingly deciding to take a shortcut. They didn’t have to do this—it was to do with cost-effectiveness and speed, rather than quality and optimisation for the platform.

Pontin then talks a little about advertising and how apps were supposed to revitalise print-oriented ad models, rather than the much more cutthroat advertising you see online, based heavily on click rates and ad impressions. He says he ‘succumbed’ and decided to release apps that would enable anyone to read Technology Review’s daily news for free, and buy digital replicas of the magazine. With a budget of $125,000, 5,000 subscriptions and a handful of single issue sales were needed, but everything went wrong.

Initially, Apple’s inability to offer subscriptions caused problems, and I certainly wouldn’t defend Apple in this regard. Those entering the app-mag space early on did have their work cut out, figuring out how to deal with selling content—but this has since changed with Newsstand. Pontin also complains about Apple’s 30 per cent cut (despite traditional newsstand outlets taking a massive chunk of every magazine’s cover price—something many people tend to forget) and ‘adaptation’ of publications to apps.

A large part of the problem was the ratio of the tablets: they possessed both a “portrait” (vertical) and “landscape” (horizontal) view, depending on how the user held the device.

I have no idea why this is a problem. Steve Jobs himself famously argued that one of the most important things in design is learning to say no. Although the ability to switch orientations is a nice-to-have, it’s not essential. Tap! magazine only works in portrait mode, and is none the worse for it. I wasn’t party to the reasoning behind this decision, but I’ll bet it had something to do with resources—in wanting to focus on getting one really good orientation out the door rather than two sub-optimal ones.

However, Pontin says most publishers have ended up producing many different versions of their editorial product: print, PDF, landscape for tablet, portrait for tablet, a ‘hack’ for smartphones, and HTML for online. At this point, I see duplication and mismanagement. I imagine the majority of the work was in many cases down to a desire for pixel-perfect asset placement on all of these versions of the editorial product (bar the web), rather than creating digital templates in universal apps for iOS (say) and piping content into them, while also sending it to the web.

I do have some sympathy for the layout problem, however (and I know it remains a thorny issue among many editors I work with), but the next one beggars belief:

Software development of apps was much harder than publishers had anticipated, because they had hired Web developers who knew technologies like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Publishers were astonished to learn that iPad apps were real, if small, applications, mostly written in a language called Objective C, which no one in their WebDev departments knew. Publishers reacted by outsourcing app development, which was expensive, time-consuming, and unbudgeted.

Again, this isn’t a problem with the platform or apps in general—it’s a problem of management and research. Going back to my gaming example, would movie directors be ‘shocked’ to learn that you need more than a camera to create a videogame? Then why were people surprised to find iPad apps were applications, using technology different from websites?

Pontin continues, arguing these expensive, time-consuming and unbudgeted apps also happened to lack essential features:

But the real problem with apps was more profound. When people read news and features on electronic media, they expect stories to possess the linky-ness of the Web, but stories in apps didn’t really link. The apps were, in the jargon of information technology, “walled gardens,” and although sometimes beautiful, they were small, stifling gardens.

Yet again, we’re not talking about a problem with apps, but of the apps that were created, often using specific systems. I recall downloading an early edition of Wired on the iPad. It was essentially a set of rendered images, with very little interactivity. But to return to Tap! again, every feature can be tweeted about (reviews will link through to the website’s version), and every piece of body copy can be sent to the clipboard and pasted into another app. Just because a lot of apps leapt aboard the ‘app mag churn’ train, that doesn’t mean apps are inherently bad any more than dross regularly topping the pop charts makes music a bad thing.

Pontin concludes that owners of mobile devices are now largely anti-app, only using websites or perhaps “glorified RSS readers”:

A recent Nielsen study reported that while 33 percent of tablet and smart-phone users had downloaded news apps in the previous 30 days, just 19 percent of users had paid for any of them. The paid, expensively developed publishers’ app, with its extravagantly produced digital replica, is dead.

If this is indicative of the entire audience, one in five paying for your content isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the problem becomes conversion rather than apps. When Future first launched its many iOS mag apps, this was one of the things that in some cases hadn’t been fully considered. Users would download an app and be hit with an immediate brick wall, in the form of a demand for payment. Now, the majority of apps ship with preview editions or the odd freebie, enabling device owners to try before they buy. Some even enable you to flick through an entire mag in low-res, before clicking buy, and I’d love to know what effect this has had on sales.

But Pontin won’t be swayed. He says Technology Review sold just 353 subscriptions, never discovered how to avoid the necessity of designing landscape and portrait versions, fought and wasted money. He says he hated the experience

because it tried to impose something closed, old, and printlike on something open, new, and digital.

I’d argue that apps aren’t necessarily about imposing anything—it’s all in the execution. Yes, you can create something closed, old and print-like, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you creating something relatively open, new and digital. Sure, examples of fantastic mag and newspaper apps are rare, but they do exist, and that they do exist means they are possible for every publisher to create. It just needs research, planning, good management and a strong, dedicated team, along with all the great content you had in the first place.

That’s not to say native apps are the only way. Technology Review plans to follow in the path of the FT’s successful ‘HTML5′ app, which works cross-platform and cross-device. However, the FT’s decision was made for many reasons, not least its reliance on having plenty of information about its subscribers, which Apple wouldn’t provide access to. I’d also bet much of its success has been down to having a core audience of wealthy readers willing to pay and also willing to move over to whatever platform the FT decided it wanted to support. Additionally, it’s not like the FT web app sprung up out of nowhere, for free. Anyone deciding on going ‘web app’ rather than (or in addition to) going ‘native app’ will have to be mindful of not making myriad mistakes along the way, in terms of investment, optimisation, social sharing, payments, and more.

Perhaps the web will win out in the long term, but as developer Matt Gemmell said when I recently interviewed him for .net, native apps will always possess advantages over websites/web apps, in being more fully integrated with the system and not having to spend resources aping native APIs and features. This often results in products that readers like to use, and this naturally has the potential knock-on effect of snaring more readers—if the product is good enough. It’s therefore up to those people creating magazine and newspaper apps to take advantage of the technology, plan carefully, and ensure they’re not just creating digital facsimiles of their print products; should they do so, I’m sure we can look forward to many more first-rate mag apps, rather than the handful available at present.