Common sense: from apps to responsive design

When the iPad was unveiled a year and a half ago, it was received with enthusiasm by media companies, especially by their directive boards, as it provided two essential things for them:

  1. A closed, confortable and standardized environment to receive content. Like good old magazines, but with video and rich-media ads.
  2. An opportunity to charge for content again, by creating scarcity, taking advantage of the walled garden of the iTunes store and selling apps like they sold magazines in the past.

But this approach overlooked several important flaws:

  1. Apple, while the biggest player in the market (at least for now), is not the only one. Any effort would have to be repeated, and then maintained, to gain more potential audience for any other platform (Android, Blackberry…). It’s not escalable.
  2. There is a bottleneck at the distribution stage, and you’re at the mercy of Apple’ internal app approval policies.
  3. The company has to give Apple a 30% cut of their subscription sales through the app, and probably will not have access to their subscribers’ data.
  4. In september, almost 40 million iPads were sold worldwide since the tablet was introduced one year and a half before. Why would you limit to a potential audience of 40 million when there are hundreds of millions of other devices capable of internet access?
  5. What will happen when the iPad and iOS are surpassed by newer, better technologies? Change is unavoidable, and in a world of planned obsolescence, it doesn’t make much sense to tie yourself to a product that will be obsolete in a few years.

Lately, there has been a trend that seems to take a more thoughtful, long-term. sustainable approach called responsive design. The first to jump the boat was the Financial Times, with an HTML5 app that avoids the iTunes app store and lets users access the app directly through the browser. That was a good start, but it was still rooted on the idea of developing an specific product for just one platform, in this case, iOS.

Instead, Propublica made some changes in their site to allowed it to adapt to the screen size of the visitor’s device, whether smartphone or tablet of any size, and independently of the device’s operating system.

The redesign of the Boston Globe was an even more ambitious project. It’s probably the first news website fully redesigned under the responsive web design paradigm, which means it’ll adapt its layout to the characteristics of the device used to acces the site.

If journalism is not a product, it’s a process, a platform-agnostic approach that will deliver, with quality, consistence and coherence, the same news, reports, analysis and commentary, no matter what you use to read them, makes much more sense. It also allows the company to retain control and independence over their most important assets: their audience and how they access their content.

Over 2012 we’ll see more and more media companies sailing away from the siren chants of the iPad and getting the control of their own future back with HTML5 responsive design websites. Those who don’t will see their efforts scattered ineffectively accross a handful of platforms, draining precious resources away from meaningful innovation.

This article was previously published in the blog of the ESCACC Foundation (Espai Català de Cultura i Comunicació, in catalan) and in ElEConomista / CanalPDA (spanish).