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Publishing Showdown: Mobile Apps vs. HTML5

On May 16, I had the privilege of attending a portion of Internet Week New York. Internet Week is an annual week-long celebration of the Internet industry and community in New York City. One of the sessions I attended was hosted by Webby Awards president David-Michel Davies who interviewed Jonathan Battelle, now the chairman of Federated Media. Battelle also was a founder of Wired magazine and the Hotwired website (where the first display ad was born), the Web 2.0 Summit and The Industry Standard. Battelle is very passionate about standardizing online advertising and mobile web.
Battelle said at the conference that native apps are wonderful things, but they are not the Internet, which allows linking.
“They are a specific application to do a specific thing. What I would like, I mean, I remember my desktop of my Macintosh in 1987 had a bunch of applications, and the funny thing about it, and you may forget, is that Apple had a huge push in the late-’80s to create a set of standards that linked data between applications. They had a bunch of visionaries at the company who said, the future of the Internet is applications and shared data between them,” he said, adding that ironically it’s illegal in the iOS terms of service to do that without working out a business development deal with Apple.
Marketers are now required to generate content for multiple platforms, whether it’s ads for an iPhone, iPad, or Android app. But it doesn’t stop there. Companies also, to reach their audiences, have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc…
“The problem with native advertising is, there’s way too many formats. Just think about it, if you’re a marketer now, you have to be on Pinterest, you have to be on Tumblr, you have to be in blogs, you have to be on Facebook, you have to be on Twitter. Maybe you want to join a conversation at Buzzfeed. You have to make native units and you have to understand where they are. Essentially, it doesn’t scale. All of a sudden, it breaks down,” said Battelle.
Wired Ventures launched Hotwired in 1994, and this is where the first banner ad was born – it was an AT&T advertisement that had a long arrow from one side of the banner to the other that read, “Have you ever clicked here? You will.” According to Battelle, the click-through rate was somewhere between 70 and 90 percent.
He elaborated that for approximately 15 years there was a standard online advertising format.
“We may not have liked it as an industry, both as publishers and as marketers. We didn’t necessarily love the display banner or the tower on the right, the IAB standards, but they were standardized. So, you could say, I’m going to create a suite of creative, and I’m going to put them all over the Web. I could buy them anywhere, I could put them anywhere,” said Battelle. IAB Ad Unit Guidelines are voluntary standards created for media companies, agencies and marketers as a framework for online advertising. The goal was to streamline work for advertising agencies, so they weren’t creating multiple types of advertising for multiple placements. That’s out the window today.
Apps vs. Mobile Web
Battelle wants the industry to perfect HTML5 so it’s not as buggy and includes features of apps, too. “They [apps] have eyes and ears and accelerometers. I mean, you have access to stuff that you can see through the camera phone, and you can sense a response, you can know where you are. The Web is just one, big dumb animal compared to the mobile phone when it comes to sensory input and output. The ability to create a rich experience that makes you aware of those senses, that’s what apps are,” Battelle said, adding that he wants the Web to “completely infect and take over mobile phones.”
As a news publisher, Battelle, who is not a fan of Apple taking 30 percent of revenues, said, he wouldn’t want an app for his publication. He would want a product that consumers can read on a mobile device, laptop, or desktop computer.
“I think we’ve got to get past scrolling down, and we have to get past banners and into something that is as gorgeous and refined as flipping through a full-color magazine,” he said.
That being said, there has been some progress – albeit slow compared to apps – on the mobile web front:

  • The Financial Times, which launched an HTML5 web app on June 11, could have more digital subscribers than print by 2013, according to Rob Grimshaw,‘s managing director, who also spoke at Internet Week. The Financial Times has print circulation of 310,000 and 270,000 online subscribers. And, according to The Guardian, the FT Web app has reached 2 million users since it was released. Bucking the tide, the company decided to stay out of the Apple App Store because it didn’t want Apple taking 30 percent of its revenue. “It is actually easier to promote outside of Apple,” Grimshaw explained at Internet Week.
  • The Boston Globe, whose main website was previously, discovered it had two audiences: one that valued traditional journalism and article writers more, and the other that wanted to know more about the sports and entertainment scene. So, it launched a paid site,, in 2011, using responsive design. The responsive design site adapts to whatever screen size the user is using, whether it’s a mobile device, laptop or desktop computer. I recently interviewed folks at The Boston Globe, as well as the person who coined the term responsive design, Ethan Marcotte, for an Editor & Publisher article.Marcotte told me: “Responsive design on a basic level is about using more flexible layout, more flexible page design, and using a little bit of technology called CSS (cascading style sheets) basically to articulate how those designs should reshape themselves to be viewed on smaller or wider screens,” he said. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for The Globe, told me, at the time of our interview, that had only published one responsive design advertisement so far, but it has made life much easier for editors, who only have to update stories once. It’s definitely still early days for mobile web advertising.
  • Nonprofit news organization ProPublica also launched a responsively designed site, in December 2011. However, it doesn’t plan on eliminating apps. “Keep in mind, I think both approaches are very interesting. ProPublica is not making a big bet on responsive Web design and abandoning our apps. We’re absolutely in all of these places and are likely to remain so indefinitely. What excites us about the mobile Web is, there is a large audience who we can promote via the regular means,” ProPublica’s Scott Klein, told me for the Editor & Publisher interview.
  • The Chicago Tribune will be switching over its homepage,, to responsive design later this year. The newspaper decided to make the move after trying out responsive design first on election center and breaking news websites. It also converted its blog network,, and Spanish-language website,, to responsive design.
  • Hearst newspapers also tells me it’s planning on converting sites in its major markets to responsive design, and The Los Angeles Times told me it is looking at it, too.

In addition, the BBC launched its responsive design site in March, and LinkedIn used 95 percent HTML5 for its new iPad app, as well as a Javascript framework called Node.js.

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