Two weeks before the INMA European Conference in Berlin, INMA spoke to Graham Hinchly, engineering manager from Financial Times Labs. Hinchly will speak in Berlin on the topic of why HTML5 and responsive design should matter to publishers. Here, Hinchly discusses how Financial Times is doing with its HTML5 app, why it decided to leave the App Store, and why others should consider doing the same. 

INMA: How many digital subscribers does Financial Times have now? How many did it have when it switched from native to the HTML5 Web app?

Hinchly: In June 2011 when we launched the HTML5 Web app, the FT had 229,485 digital subscribers. We have since seen strong growth in our digital readership, with online subscribers increasing 14% in the past year to over 343,000. Mobile devices now generate over half of all FT.com subscriber consumption, more than a third of total traffic, and 24% of new digital subscriptions.

INMA: Was the 30% revenue share with Apple the only reason you decided to leave App Store or were there other factors?

Hinchly: There were two main deciding factors behind the FT launching an HTML5 Web app in June 2011. The first was to maintain a direct relationship with our customers. This is crucial as we continue to offer customers flexibility and freedom of choice with access to our global journalism anytime, anywhere, with a single login or subscription.

The second was that using HTML5 makes the development of apps for an increasing range of new tablet and smartphone devices easier and quicker. We are able to use the same core code base to power all the FT’s apps, be they for Apple devices, Android, Windows8, or others.

This supports the FT’s multi-channel strategy of making our content accessible to our readers on whichever device or platform they use to consume our content.

While we do not use the Apple App Store as a way to distribute the FT Web app, we continue to use the store to market other FT apps, including the FT Chinese iPhone app and our How To Spend It iPad app.

INMA: How difficult was it to convert the readers from one app to another? It must have required some marketing effort. Have you used any other channels than your own? 

Hinchly: When we launched the HTML5 Web app in June 2011, we ran an extensive global communications campaign through FT channels to encourage migration to the new app and highlight the benefits of using it. The campaign included analyst and online influencer briefings and demos; interviews; global media and social media promotion; and arranging speaking opportunities in all markets. 

Reader reaction and feedback, as well as media coverage, were overwhelmingly positive and over 100,000 people used the app in the first week. The app went on to win several high profile awards and now has over four million users.

Importantly, a redesign in April 2013 has powered a 33% increase in the amount of content subscribers consume in the app.

INMA: The discussion about which is better – native or HTML5 app – seems endless. From your personal experience, is there anything that HTML5 app misses in comparison to native app? Or maybe other way around: In what ways is the HTML5 app better than the native one?

Hinchly: The discussion is endless because there simply isn’t a right answer. At the FT, it’s a case of using the best technology and experience available to our Web development team to create the best overall experience for our users.

When discussing which one is “better,” people often make claims about the performance limitations of the HTML5 Web app. This is no longer the case for the vast majority of examples.

The latest iterations of the FT’s Web app are virtually indistinguishable from a native app when it comes to responsiveness, swiping, and scrolling. Our users have repeatedly told us this is critical to a great app experience, so we focus on identifying and eliminating performance bottlenecks.

Using Web technologies also greatly reduces our development and test overhead. We can deliver new features and improvements to our users faster and without waiting for approval from an app store.

Currently on iOS, we feel this more than compensates for not being able to use some of the additional functionality that native apps offer. On other platforms where app stores aren’t as restrictive, we use a thin native wrapper to enable key parts of native functionality in order to get the best of both worlds.

INMA: Some publishers still cannot decide which road to take or whether to try new apps for different products. What advice would you give them?

Hinchly: When deciding which technology to use, the key is to be very clear about why you are going down a particular route. For example, it’s common to hear “discoverability” as a reason for building a native app and making it available through an app store. But the reality is that there are only a handful of promoted apps which really benefit from this.

As such, ensure your organisation is looking beyond the launch of the product.

For example, how easy is it for you to maintain a relationship with a customer if they move to consume your content through a different channel or platform? And how easy is it to maintain products going forward?

It can make sense to use a combination of Web and native technologies, but it’s important to take into account the additional cost and management overhead of using this approach. We continue to reassess the most appropriate technologies for the FT, but still very much support and advocate Web technologies.