The iPad and Digital Publishing: Web Apps

In 2007, the world was a different place. The App Store didn’t exist yet, and the iPhone had just been announced. Steve Jobs wanted consumers to fill their iPhones with web apps. Before they debuted the App Store, Apple tried to prove that web apps could be as easy to use and as responsive as native apps. Although web apps didn’t succeed the way Jobs originally intended them to, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth exploring.

In the last two articles on digital publishing and the iPad, we took in-depth looks at a lot of apps that offer magazine services on iOS, including Zinio, apps on Apple’s Newsstand, and Flipboard. They’re just the beginning of the digital publishing movement. Magazine publishers all over the world are also investing in HTML-based web apps that come with a lot of benefits for both them and readers. But there are two big questions everybody always asks about web apps, even my own mother when I explained this article to her: “What is it; why bother?” and “Are they better than the apps I’ve already got installed on my iPad?” Read on to get my take on it.

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Why a Web App?

Web apps are powered by HTML5, the standard for great Internet experiences. Instead of relying on Flash or Java, HTML5 is a more powerful and reliable backend for developers. It’s also been put to great use by some developers with web apps like Forecast, an incredibly powerful and easy-to-use weather app.

The benefit to a web app is that it’s compatible with almost every platform right out of the gate. In fact, Internet Explorer is the only browser I’m aware of that doesn’t offer direct support for them (although I can’t speak for Blackberry). That being said, even Internet Explorer can allow the installation of web apps on Windows phones if developers adjust a few lines of code.

Some HTML5 magazines look fantastic.

Some HTML5 magazines look fantastic.

The bottom line? A well-coded web app can work on any device. All it requires to develop is a working knowledge of HTML — one of the world’s most popular programming languages (if not the most popular). And it allows developers to completely sidestep Apple’s and Google’s takes of their revenue if they charge any fees. It’s not hard to see why many developers, including magazine publishers, are opting to produce web apps.

Even the New York Times offers a web app for their subscribers. Currently, the web app is only available for iPads. Although that defeats the point, the company is attempting to roll out the platform slowly so as not to overwhelm their servers and so they’re able to monitor customer feedback. Many cynical tech pundits suspect they developed a web app to avoid Apple’s 30% take of App Store fees.

It arguably doesn’t matter why the NYT have made a web app; what’s important is that they made one. Whether they like it or not, they’re leading a charge for many publications big and small towards an HTML-based future.

Are Web Apps Superior?

That’s a tricky question to answer. On paper, they’re certainly superior. But in real world application, that remains to be seen. They’re often smaller and clunkier than a native app. But if a web app is done well, the difference is either negligible or minimal. I’ve used some web app magazines that were terrible and some that have been surprisingly joyous and as lovely as anything I’ve tried on Newsstand. If the developer gets it right, a web app can sing.

This is the kind of web app I'm instantly attracted to.

This is the kind of web app I’m instantly attracted to.

The thing is, web apps aren’t discovered in the App Store or in an app like Zinio. Instead, users have to be guided to them. They’re not stored in Newsstand; they’re simply saved as icons on the iPad’s home screen. There’s no updates and no bug fixes; just immediate rollouts to HTML code. And although web apps are compatible with almost any Internet-connected device, thanks to the bevy of screen sizes, they often have to be tailored to just one or two.

Some web app layouts, like this demo one, can take a while to load because of their heavy use of multimedia.

Some web app layouts, like this demo one, can take a while to load because of their heavy use of multimedia.

The big problem is that making a web app is hard. It involves a lot of work and planning, and they don’t seem to hold up well when they’re filled with multimedia or images. In that sense, taking the approach Marco Arment took with The Magazine or TypeEngine is taking with their apps makes sense: minimalist design is faster to load and easier on servers. But not all content publishers have caught on to that yet — everybody is convinced users are hungry for multimedia.

Making Web Apps Easier

However, there are a lot of businesses that have sprung up to make publishing to web apps easier for publishers. Most of them operate with similar business practices: They offer visual templates in a web app, not unlike a WYSIWYG blog editor like Tumblr or WordPress, and publishers can fill them with content.

This HTML magazine was a great reading experience.

This HTML magazine was a great reading experience.

These templates are highly customizable, and once they’re tailored to a publisher’s specifications, the developer doesn’t have to remain involved. Publishers then usually pay a monthly fee for the service and charge whatever they like as a subscription fee; most of the web developers don’t charge a percentage of a publisher’s revenue. The publisher remains in complete control of their content and their schedules.

It’s a unique system and one that works well, but I have yet to hear about any truly huge web app magazines. It’s not taking off as a movement. I’m familiar with plenty of the companies who build magazine templates, including Readz, HTML5 Magazines and Netizine. (Disclosure: I occasionally do freelance work for one of the web app-based digital publishing magazines, the name of which I’m keeping private. They have not influenced this article.)

Customizable layouts mean that no two articles look the same. A focus on the text makes this easy to read.

Customizable layouts mean that no two articles look the same. A focus on the text makes this easy to read.

There’s arguably a race right now to see which company perfects their web apps first, but I’m not sure if any of them are producing any truly notable content yet. I think it’s a shame: These web apps, while not necessarily perfected yet, have a lot of potential. All any of them need is a truly great magazine to prove that to the world before they take off.

So What?

Web apps optimized for the iPad are just one tool of many that have sprung up over the past three years since the iPad’s debut. Ultimately, as a reader, I have very little interest in the form the app takes up and I remain more interested in content. But as a fan of technology, I want to see where these apps go and what boundaries they push. I want to see how they change my lifestyle.

I’m always reading magazines. I love reading magazines. Right now, my favourite way to read magazines is on my iPad, but that’s because of great apps like The Magazine or The Loop Magazine, or even Flipboard. I’m very interested in seeing what web apps are capable of, but the content just isn’t there yet.

Here’s my challenge to you: Thanks to our three-part series on digital publishing, you’ve seen all the current options. If you’re an entrepreneurial spirit or a writer, wow me. Create a native or web app for a publication. I want to see what comes from the amazing technology we have today. I want to be floored. Don’t let me beat you to it.