The FT and NPR: HTML5 as part of a multi-platform strategy

I had heard that the FT and Apple were struggling to come to an agreement on digital subscriptions, so it came as no surprise to me that the FT has launched an HTML5 web app. Some folks have added sneer quotes around app, but I’m not going to. The HTML5 version of the FT’s app looks, behaves and has even more functionality than their native iPad app.

Robert Andrew of paidContent: UK has a great interview with Rob Grimshaw, The Financial Times’ online managing director, on the issues that separate the two companies. The subscription issues are well known, and it’s not just Apple’s 30% take that has publishers pissed off. Publishers are also uncomfortable letting Apple get between them, their customers and customer data. I’m impressed with the maturity that the FT has demonstrated here. Rather than play up the conflict and engage in an all too typical media industry drama queen spat, the FT used the potential impasse to explore what would be possible with HTML5, the next version of the web mark-up standard. Grimshaw said:

It’s not just Apple versus FT – there is more to it than that. We started to look at HTML middle of last year when we realised how complicated it would be to develop applications for all these different platforms.

The FT believes that it hasn’t had to compromise. I gave the app a spin this morning on our first gen iPad. The execution is extremely polished, walking you through every step from adding it to your home screen to giving the app increased offline storage space. The app is not only identical to the native app experience, it also has a few extras. The native app allows you to choose a live or a downloaded version. The web app automatically caches the content on load. Unlike the native app, the web app also supports the FT’s video content offline. That’s a real bonus – I often read the FT on the iPad on flights and missed the video content. (I actually prefer the iPad version to print. When I don’t travel with the iPad and get the paper, I often struggle not to punch my neighbour when wrestling with the broadsheet. I have no such issue with the iPad.)

I will agree with some comments online today that said it is a little sluggish on the first gen iPad. On the iPad 2 and Xoom, dual-core tablets with better graphics, I would expect the web app to fly. On Suw’s now creaky iPhone 3G, the app gently let us know that the device was too slow before elegantly redirecting us to the FT’s excellent mobile website. Nice. It puts most other UK mobile newspaper sites to shame, though for my money, the New York Times still has the best mobile site – fast, clean and easy to use. For comparison, I’d also recommend that you check out Firstpost.com, a site that Suw and I helped Network 18 of India launch in May.  The site uses WordPress and launched with a great mobile version through the use of the Mobile Detector plug-in, which can detect more than 5000 mobile devices and serve and experience relevant to the device.

The FT head of mobile, Steve Pinches, has an explanation about the work that went into the FT HTML5 app. He echoes Grimshaw’s point about development costs:

developing multiple ‘native’ apps for various products is logistically and financially unmanageable. By having one core codebase, we can roll the FT app onto multiple platforms at once.

For another example of what’s possible with HTML5 and cross-device coding, check out NPR’s app for Chrome.  It looks exactly like the US public radio broadcaster’s iPad app, but it runs in Google’s Chrome web browser. NPR explained how it was done:

Like to get your geek on? Well, you’ll be happy to know that NPR for Chrome leverages the power of HTML5. Using a technology called Sproutcore, this web app has the potential to work in other modern browsers, on tablets, and even be repurposed for other app stores.

Smart. Ben Ayers, formerly of ITV, and I had little discussion this morning about how HTML5 might allow these apps to run not just on smartphones, tablets and computer web browsers but also on connected TVs.

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/benayers/status/78009292824907776"]

Leaving Google TV to one side for a moment, LG’s new smart TV platform uses webkit, which underpins many browsers including Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome. From an interface standpoint, I’m not going to suggest an interface for a mobile phone would appropriate for the “ten-foot” experience of TV, but device detection and CSS can help serve up an appropriate interface.

As HTML5 matures over the next few years, this will be the standard that enables the next wave of cross-platform innovation. The combination of APIs, CSS and HTML5 could make the painful process of developing apps for multiple platforms and multiple screen sizes a thing of the past. In the meantime, it’s great to see what HTML5 is capable of.

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