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Financial Times iOS web app tops 350k users since launch

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled "Financial Times iOS web app tops 350k users since launch" was written by Stuart Dredge, for guardian.co.uk on Friday 5th August 2011 12.33 UTC

The Financial Times' web app for iPhone and iPad is already attracting substantially more traffic than its native apps for those devices according to Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com.

"350,000 people have used the web app now, and more than half of them have bookmarked it to their homescreens," he says. "In the first week, we saw more traffic coming from the web app than from the native app, and that has been sustained: the traffic to the web app far exceeds traffic to the native app."

When the web app launched in early June, it was seen within the industry as a direct response to new rules on iOS subscriptions. That was certainly part of the story, but Grimshaw says browser-based mobile access is about more than giving Apple a bloody nose.

"Everyone focuses on the scrap with Apple, but the origins of the web app come from thinking more broadly about our mobile strategy, and particularly how we are going to cope with developing for numerous different platforms," he says. "There are at least five out there that you reasonably have to cover, and a web app is the obvious solution. We just accelerated it because of some of the things Apple did with their subscriptions."

An Android version of the web app is almost up and running, with BlackBerry Playbook next on the priority list. Grimshaw says that the key strength of the web app is that it can be rapidly tweaked and launched for new devices as they appear.

The FT had been dabbling in mobile for a while when its FT Mobile iPhone app launched in July 2009, but that proved to be something of a tipping point for thr company, and was followed by an iPad version in May 2010. According to Grimshaw, the latter has been downloaded around 650,000 times, with "more than that" for the iPhone edition. These have also been joined by an Android version and a separate mobile website.

Around 15% of new digital subscriptions every week come from mobile devices, says Grimshaw. In July, the FT announced that digital subscriptions to FT.com rose 34% in the second quarter of 2011 to almost 230,000.

The strong uptake of both apps and the new iOS web app have strongly influenced the FT's investment into mobile, buoyed by the wider trends that he sees in the market.

"When you look at the rates of adoption, it's very clear that mobile is going to be the major channel for news consumption within a relatively short time," he says. "We think that within three years, we will have more than half of our digital access through mobile devices. Right now, 23% of our page views are coming from mobile."

This is why that scrap with Apple – which wants 30% of the revenues from subscriptions initiated within iOS apps, but also to retain control of subscriber data – is seen as so important by the FT and its print media compatriots.

"It is very important that publishers seize the initiative on this stuff. Apple's desire to own the customer and the channel to marketplace is not unique: there are many other technology and platform providers out there who would like to do the same thing," says Grimshaw.

"We can sit around and whine about it, but it is more positive for publishers to take the initiative and show there's a different way to do business. And by doing that, we change the terms of our conversations with technology providers. The balance shifts. It's not that we don't want to work with third parties, but we want to do so on more favourable terms."

For now, the content for the FT's apps and mobile sites is all drawn from its main website, and that is likely to continue. However, the company has just appointed its first mobile editorial head, with Grimshaw saying he can foresee certain situations where the FT's editorial team might want to edit mobile content separately.

The company is already noticing some interesting usage habits among its mobile and tablet readers. In the case of the iPad, usage remains consistent throughout the week and into the weekend for example, rather than dipping markedly on Saturday and Sunday as the website traffic does. The FT's weekend content is thus being brought to the fore in its tablet apps in a way that it isn't on the site.

Mobile has been the FT's big push in 2011, but Grimshaw is already mulling the evolution of that strategy. "In 2012, we'll be adding a real focus around personalisation, thinking about how we can use the insight we have into our audience to start delivering the content that we know they want," he says.

"We are taking a lot of lessons from the retail industry, who are better than this than almost everybody else. Many publishers are light years behind companies like Amazon, Zappos and other successful internet retailers. It is entirely appropriate to look at what they do, and adopt the same tools, techniques and culture."

However, personalisation requires rich data on a service's subscribers, which brings us back to the situation on iOS, not to mention the strategies of Apple's rivals in the smartphone and tablet space. From a publisher's point of view, Grimshaw thinks the important thing is to have a diversity of devices and platforms: he praises Samsung's new Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet as the "the first one that really comes close to rivalling the iPad in terms of form".

"Publishers have to take steps to help themselves," he says. "There is a channel here that has always been neutral: the browser. It's been neglected in some ways in the mobile world by publishers, but not by the audience. Even before we launched the web app, 50% of our [iPad] traffic was coming from the iPad browser rather than the native app. The browser is sacred territory: it's neutral and anybody in the world can use it to reach their audience. The more publishers do to secure that neutral channel to market, the stronger position they will be in when talking to technology providers."

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