Why Old-School Publishers Hate Tablet Apps

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The tablet-based magazine is taking one step closer to ubiquity with each new generation of the iPad, with each new software update and each time a fancy new magazine app is talked about on TV, right? It’s only a matter of time before Wired migrates to digital-only... Only a matter of time before tablets achieve market saturation and Web-based magazines are as common tomorrow as print editions in doctors' offices today.

Uh, not so fast. There’s been some push-back. In fact, a lot of push-back. The latest news to counter the trend towards an app-based future came when Conde Nast publications Wired and The New Yorker announced they were scaling back their presence on Flipboard, which was not what the app world wanted to hear.

It turns out that the dream we had a few years ago that tablets would allow publishing to seize content away from the "free Internet" and into subscription-based magazines with enhanced content - well, it turns out that like any bad dream, there were several killers that no one saw coming.

App-killer #1: Apple. Who could have predicted that Apple would want a 30 percent cut of any subscription revenue coming off its Newsstand app platform? Probably anybody, but nobody did. This unexpected ransom note took publishers by surprise and left many of them unwilling to do Apple’s bidding.

App-killer #2: Programming languages. Many larger publishers who waded into the tablet app business thought their legions of computer nerds could program and code their apps, and so didn’t budget any additional programming costs. But most of these apps are written in Objective C, a language hardly anyone knows. Technology Review reports that it spent $124,000 in outsourced software development for its tablet app.

App-killer #3: Market share. The U.S. has 245,200,000 Internet users, or 78.3 percent of its population; but only a fraction of that market own a tablet like an iPad – for now. According to this Silicon Republic analysis, total tablet ownership at the end of this year will only be 29.1 percent of Internet users. Sure, that’s a year-end market of 71.4 million tablet users, but that’s a much smaller segment of the market than magazine advertisers and publishers are used to working with, especially when only 16 percent of tablet and smartphone owners downloaded some sort of paid-for app that was related to news.

Tech blogger Jason Kottke thinks there’s some sour grapes from publishers due to 1) the 30% bite from Apple and 2) customers not flocking to the new product.

So, what’s next? HTML5-based content delivery, like FT is experimenting with after Apple left a bad taste in its mouth. A future based on a HTML 5 platform could diversify the market while releasing Apple’s stranglehold.