UPDATED on Tuesday, October 2 at 11:23 am
When it comes to reading news on a small screen, U.S. consumers lean toward web browsers, with 60 percent of tablet-wielding news consumers and 61 percent of those using smartphones now accessing mobile news mostly through the web, according to a survey published today by the Pew Research Centre.
Fewer than half as many mobile news consumers, in contrast, most often use apps; that is, 23 percent of tablet news readers and 28 percent of smartphone readers. A third category, representing 16 percent of those on tablets and 11 percent on smartphones, claims to be more or less evenly split between the two.
An Online Publishers Association survey from June 2012 corroborates the trend: it found that 41 percent of tablet users mostly accessed magazine and newspaper content through the mobile web, 30 percent through single-publication apps, and 22 percent through newsstand apps.
Moreover, this year’s Pew findings follow a pattern established in last summer's survey, by which point the browser was already more popular among news consumers than apps, but to a lesser extent: 40 percent of tablet-using respondents said they used mostly the web browser for news, 21 percent leaned toward apps, and 31 percent claimed to use both equally.
News consumers' preferences appear to run in parallel with efforts that some publishers have been making to find alternatives to the app environment. Last June, the Financial Times, unwilling to swallow the 30 percent revenue cut that Apple takes for iOS app subscriptions, removed its iPhone and iPad apps from the iTunes store’s shelves, and re-did its website in HTML5. Its new “web app” is a site that exhibits app-like features and functionalities on the web, and is designed to work optimally across desktop and mobile platforms. This strategy has brought the FT an increase in both readership and paid subscriptions, according to Read Write Web.
Subsequently, several others news organisations have embraced the mobile web. The MIT Technology Review, whose Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, Jason Pontin, published a defence of the web as the future of media on mobile in May, is now following in the FT’s footsteps, after leaking $124,000 in outsourced development, significant internal resources, several staff members, and an “untold expense of spirit” into its ill-fated app experiment, which resulted in a meagre 353 iPad subscriptions. USA Today has recently released an all-in-one mobile and desktop site, and Atlantic Media’s brand new digital business publication Quartz has, from the get-go, eschewed apps in favour of the mobile web.
Quartz is, according to Peter Kafka for All Things D, “on the leading edge of digital publishing.” Why? “Instead of asking readers to download an app to get its stuff on tablets or phones, Quartz will work on the mobile web browsers those machines already have. And it will publish a single web site, which will configure itself depending on the kind of device and screen size each reader uses,” he writes, adding: “Duh. Right?”
But not all publishers- or consumers- are convinced. There remain strong reasons to support the native news app, from aesthetic considerations (fewer design limitations) to the concept that only a custom app can truly provide readers with an immersive experience (enticing to advertisers). Furthermore, today’s Pew survey offers statistics that support the app-based model. App users tend to be more engaged with their news by spending more time reading longer pieces from a wider variety of sources, it finds. Crucially, they are also about twice as likely to pay for news than their web browser-favouring counterparts, with 38 percent of tablet users who mostly choose apps, and 36 percent who are split between apps and the browser, holding a digital news subscription, compared with 17 percent of tablet users who prefer to access news through a web browser.
The arguments for a web app approach, however, are growing more convincing. As Pontin points out, apps are expensive and labour-intensive to develop, and as Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs argues, there are far fewer app developers than there are web developers, and “choice always wins.” Besides, in today’s media economy, it is safe to assume that many news organisations would prefer to avoid offering the world’s most valuable company a 30 percent share of subscription revenue.
Finally, there is one critical element that some apps lack, which might help to explain the popularity of the web browser among news readers: the hyperlink. As Pontin argues, apps, in technology jargon, are akin to “walled gardens;” while sometimes beautiful, they can also be “small and stifling,” or closed off from the highly interconnected ecosystem of digital media. For him personally, Pontin continues, experimenting with an app was like attempting “to impose something closed, old, and print-like on something open, new, and digital.”
The latest Pew survey shows that mobile news readers are appt to agree.
Photo courtesy of Goth Phil via Flickr Creative Commons
NOTE: Corrections have been made to this article to reflect the fact that statistics measure readers' actions and not their preferences, and that linking is indeed possible within some app environments.