So why do we need apps anyway?

April 29, 2010 | 3 comments

Ebooks don’t cut it: everyone wants an app

NB (May 20, 2010): A lot of my suggestions for web-based apps are part of the Google Chrome Web App Store. In fact, the .crx file used there is a zip file with very similar characteristics to epub. (I assume, as Chromium is open source, that .crx files are also open source – so the web app store is not limited to Google.) This post can be reread as an argument for building for the Web App Store.

At Intersection: Publishing in London the other week, there was a lot of discussion from publishers looking at mobile apps as their mobile publishing solution. Rather than creating ebooks, there seemed to be a general feeling that dedicated applications presented more of an opportunity for richer content, while closing the door to pirates and ensuring that publications remained a paid commodity.

The piracy argument is kind of spurious: although app stores tend to be locked down, this presents a false security blanket for publishers. It only takes one person to crack a store for piracy to be generally possible; technology only ever becomes less secure over time. A cynical person might suggest that the piracy argument is largely spread by the people who own the app stores or provide related services. The people who will suffer are authors and publishers.

Why apps rock

However, there’s definitely an argument for using apps – not just for publishers, but for anyone who wants to create dynamic content. Anyone who’s ever owned an iPhone will tell you that native applications can still provide a smoother, more consistent experience than a web app, without the hassle of remembering website addresses or waiting for pages to load. Tweetie is a million miles better than Twitter’s mobile website – something they themselves acknowledged when they acquired the iPhone application last month.

Mobile vs app

Above, mobile Twitter is on the left; Tweetie is on the right.

  • The app doesn’t need to load its interface from the web; only the underlying data is downloaded, meaning the app can appear instantaneously, loads data faster, and provides a better user experience.
  • The mobile web app needs to sit within the browser chrome (URL and search boxes, browser buttons on the bottom, and in my case, a debug toolbar). The app, on the other hand, has a full-screen UI dedicated to Twitter.

Why the web rocks

The mobile landscape right now is a bit like the personal computing landscape circa 1985. There are a bunch of different platforms to code for:

  • Apple iPhone and iPad
  • Android
  • Symbian
  • Windows Phone
  • Blackberry
  • WebOS (now more important in the wake of HP’s acquisition)

Each of these platforms is different under the hood, and must be developed for separately. Most developers and publishers can’t afford to do this – there isn’t a way to write once and cross-compile to many platforms at once. In fact, Apple recently specifically forbade this: if you’re developing an Apple app, you’re doing so natively, or you’re violating that platform’s terms of use.

However, each of these platforms have one thing in common: they support the web.

HTML5 and ePub: a new platform for apps

As you’re probably aware already, the upcoming HTML5 standard revises the web platform to become far more suitable for apps. Improvements include:

  • Methods for offline and cached usage (so interfaces can load immediately)
  • Built-in databases and storage (so web pages can natively store their own data)
  • A paintable canvas element and WebGL 3D graphics functionality (so web pages can display interfaces more like real applications; the 3D shooter Quake II has already been ported to native HTML)
  • Native video and audio support (no Flash required)
  • Websockets (a more efficient way to connect to Internet data from web pages)
  • Built-in support for advanced functionality like geolocation

This is a big deal. Compliant browsers like Firefox, Safari, Chrome and even the upcoming Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 will be able to run applications that look and feel like native software but are powered by web standards. Between those browser engines, that’s most of the mobile platforms covered: those that don’t have an HTML5 browser built in by default should have one available to download. What’s more, both Firefox’s Gecko HTML rendering engine and the WebKit engine that powers both Chrome and Safari are open source, so anyone can pick them up and build software around them.

So sites on the wider web can be more like applications. That’s fantastic news in itself, but what about the app store model? A lot of people depend on that for revenue, and there’s no reason why that should be incompatible with using web standards.

Luckily, it turns out that ePub – the ebook standard – is really just a bunch of XHTML 1.1 pages drawn together in a specialized way and bundled up in a modified zip file. There are already established best practices for buying and selling ebooks.

If the ePub standard was updated to allow HTML5, it would evolve into a format for self-contained, multi-platform apps that could be sold in the same way as ebooks, music, videos, or apps in something like the iTunes App Store. Except app publishers would only need to build once to support many different kinds of mobile platform, thereby reducing the barrier to entry and allowing their budgets to be concentrated on building just one really awesome piece of software instead of spread across multiple devices.

This would be in a lot of peoples’ interests: app publishers, device manufacturers, browser vendors and consumers alike. There’s a lot of money tied up in a venture like this. The only question is, will the International Digital Publishing Forum, which controls the ePub standard, be foresighted enough to see this opportunity?

Update: Steve Jobs weighs in

Apple’s CEO has written a little about why HTML5 is the future of mobile apps (albeit in the context of his platform’s refusal to support Flash):

HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member.

[…] Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

[…] New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

Make no mistake: HTML5 is the platform to bet on.

The future of publishing

April 18, 2010 | 1 comment

Intersection: PublishingThanks to everyone who came to Intersection: Publishing yesterday. Our fascinating round-table discussion was cut off far too soon: I think we could have gone on for days and only barely covered the issues. It’s clear that an open conversation that treated publishers, authors, readers, technologists and lawyers as equals was long overdue. (Missed it? Watch this space.)

I thought I’d write down some of my takeaways while they’re fresh in my mind:

DRM is misunderstood from both sides.

From some publishers, support was shown for Apple’s locked-down App Store business model, with the assumption that it would prevent piracy. Of course, this isn’t the case. I think Sven Edge put it best to me during the post-debate drinks: “any technological system only becomes less secure over time.” In other words, you cannot assume that any technology is unbreakable; someone will do it. Trusting your business model to DRM is therefore a very bad strategy.

Publisher advocacy of locked-down Digital Rights Management technologies apparently occurs because authors need to be reassured that their work won’t be stolen when it becomes available online. A few authors present disputed this point of view. Regardless of this, more work needs to be done to educate non-technical people around the issues, in a calm way that takes in all points of view and doesn’t attempt to reform the fundamentals of copyright law or rights agreements in the same breath.

The market for electronic publishing is still too fragmented.

Many publishers present were worried about the variety of devices and platforms present on the market, as well as their quality. They simply can’t afford to target all of them, and many are either choosing to wait or work with third-party companies to develop solutions for them. All agreed that a single, open platform that allowed publishers to create content using something approaching their existing skill-sets is desperately required.

There also needs to be an open equivalent for apps, to give publishers a choice, and to allow them to deliver to multiple platforms at once. During the debate, I suggested encapsulating HTML5 (which has all manner of app-friendly capabilities) in the ePub format (which produces stand-alone bundles of content that can be sold and transferred between devices). I intend to write more about this another time.

The publishing industry is following the patterns laid out by the music industry.

On the future of publishingPublishers are signing authors rather than books, and are beginning to gather extra revenue through talks and activities surrounding books, just as – for example – musical artists like Madonna are beginning to sign to concert promoters rather than traditional record labels. Together with the DRM arguments above, I think there’s a real danger that the publishing industry could go down exactly the same road. (On the topic of DRM, note that iTunes is now DRM-free – don’t count that any restrictions on iBooks or App Store items will last forever.)

The knowledge gap goes both ways.

The assumptions that geeks take as being gospel are not gospel. The assumptions that publishers take as being gospel are not gospel. Each side needs to listen to the other and contribute to a productive conversation, without demeaning anyone’s expertise or experience. There needs to be both give and take.

To put it another way: the models that govern software do not govern publishing and the models that govern publishing do not govern software. These remain two different businesses, and must be treated as such.

There was some very heated debate yesterday, but also a great deal of very constructive argument. I’m really looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Intersection: Publishing is today!

April 17, 2010 | Leave a comment

Just a quick note that Intersection: Publishing is today:

This afternoon, professionals from the fields off publishing, technology and IP law will gather together to discuss the future of publishing. We’re excited about meeting the attendees, having some interesting conversations and helping to forge productive ongoing collaborations. This is an important time for the industry, and our culture.

We’d love for you to join us. It’s free.

No need to book; just turn up at 1pm. Venue directions are on the website.

Intersection: Publishing

March 18, 2010 | Leave a comment

Intersection: Publishing 2010 is a BarCamp which aims to discuss the future of publishing. There are a bunch of problems with the current models (for example, Amazon’s attempts at digital lock-in), and we want to get people from different backgrounds – publishers, authors, geeks, lawyers, marketers, academics – in a room to try and solve some of them organically and create some new ideas. It will be an informal, creative day.

You should come too.

It’s on April 17th in London, and is completely free. All we’d like you to do is either add your name to the wiki or let us know you’d like to come. (Even if you don’t do either of those things, you can still turn up on the day, but it helps us estimate overall attendance.)

I’m a technologist / lawyer / author / publisher / marketer / academic, but I don’t know anything about electronic publishing!

Doesn’t matter. In fact, so much the better. This is an emerging space, which needs new blood and fresh ideas. Your experience will help – and you’ll meet plenty of new contacts, with the opportunity for future business.

This is a great idea. How can I help?

Intersection: Publishing is already sponsored by the Stirling Centre for Publishing and Communication, but there are still some vacancies for other sponsors. Check out our sponsor page, or get in touch directly at info@intersectionpublishing.com or +44 7773 385 490. We’re also interested in volunteers on the day.

I can’t attend, but these issues interest me.

We’ve started an ongoing blog that will cover related stories and discussion. We’ll be posting there regularly, and are on the lookout for both guests and further contributors. If you think this could be you, get in touch.