August 20, 2015 Last Updated 1:33 pm

The argument in favor of app building becomes obvious once you consider your objectives

Developers of games and utilities are finding new ways apps can serve the needs device owners, while publishers have barely begun to explore the platform

There are two very good articles concerning mobile and mobile apps that I would call your attention to:  Essential Retail discusses the issue of mobile apps versus mobile websites, while the story on Business2Community talks about personalizing the mobile experience.

I’m often asked my opinion about creating both apps – either stand-alone apps or digital edition apps that are housed inside digital newsstands – the thinking being that my opinions have somehow changed in the five years since launching TNM. They haven’t. I’ve always felt that a publisher should strongly consider what their goals are and why their new app will somehow a superior product to what has come before.

MyShape-iPhone6-380Because often it is not. Many publishers launch apps for the same reason they launched their first websites: everyone was doing it and they felt stupid not getting in on the rush. I hate that reason, but I also understand that while many publishers had no clue what they were doing when they first launched online, they soon learned.

The digital publishing vendor community is fairly split on why a publisher should launch an app. A number of platforms continue to say that there are newspaper and magazine titles making boatloads of money with their apps (mostly digital edition apps), though I’ve seen no hard proof that this is the case, and none is ever offered up for review. Others say publishers are taking the wrong approach with the efforts and should be thinking about new ways to reach their readers through their apps, customizing the content, enhancing it, etc.

For me there is no choice between having a good mobile app or having a good mobile website – both are desirable. Today, the idea that a website would not be made to provide a good reading experience on mobile devices seems antiquated, not standard operating procedure. But apps do many things a mobile website cannot, and so open huge new opportunities.

Meredith’s relaunch of the mobile app for SHAPE magazine is an example of an app meant to do something very different from a standard digital edition app. Love My SHAPE is all about the “ability to activate mobile-enhanced content and promotions from the current issue of SHAPE and from signage at SHAPE events.” (See TNM post no the app here.)

NYTCooking-iPhoneThe app, therefore, ties together print, online and events in a new way. Whether readers and mobile device users will find it useful, or entertaining, is something that time will tell. But it’s not just another PDF shrunk down to iPhone size. I may not care for Meredith’s digital edition strategy, but if they are thinking about apps in this way then they are being very progressive, indeed.

Apps can do things that a mobile website may not be able to do – at least not yet. Apps allow things to happen from within the publishing environment, while mobile websites need external helpers. A look at your own mobile device should enough to being the ideas flowing.

I think we are starting to see, for instance, the NYT’s Cooking app become more app-like and less simply a digital version of print content. Recently they have added the ability to add notes to recipes, and generally improved its design and navigation. Updates have come about once a month, pointing to both the advantage and disadvantage of apps.

Few publishers would consider ordering monthly updates to their websites, but apps are sometimes so regularly updated that a twice a month schedule is not unheard of (Facebook and Twitter do this, for instance). The frequent updates allow for small modifications, and easily adding new features. Updates, though, are sometimes forced on the publisher due to external factors such as Apple launching a new or revised version of iOS, or a digital publishing platform such as Adobe modifying its software. Publishers without the ability to quickly respond to these changes suffer serious blowback from users who sometimes find their apps no longer function.

What we not seen much of is the combination of stand-alone app functions and digital editions. Yes, a few newspaper and magazine apps feature updated web content in addition to their daily, weekly or monthly issues. But few have chosen to experiment with the kind of hybrid app that might encourage readers to open their publishing apps more frequently. I often wonder, for instance, why B2B magazine apps don’t include constantly updated industry directories? or why they don’t include separate areas for ad sections. Wouldn’t it be nice, for instance, for the Saveur app to have its marketplace section outside the issues not inside – part of an interactive area, one that allows the reader to contact the advertisers, see ads, videos, and the like.

The fact that we haven’t seen more inventive apps from traditional publishers is proof – if needed – that we are still early into this era of digital publishing. We see publishers who suddenly are buying into the fact that the web is where the future lies – a full decade after everyone had already figured that out. That many don’t see the potential for their apps and digital editions shouldn’t be a surprise. They will, eventually.

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