May 29, 2012
FT Mobile event analysis: Life in API time
- Mobile is central to FT.com's business
- Online revenue and activity is shifting to mobile devices rapidly
- FT.com is focusing on HTML5 for both web and native apps
- Its apps are built on APIs to its content and other services
- Those APIs will be made commerically available to other developers
This morning's FT Mobile event (full liveblog here) contained much that was no surprise at all. The story of the FT's disatisfaction with Apple's App Store and shift to an HTML 5-based web app is well (and often) told. I think FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw's characterisation of it as declaring independence from the tech giant's war for control of mobile was slightly disingenuous - the current strategy still relies on those giants shipping web browsers with their devices with really good HTML5 support, which Apple has done.
While I suspect a lot of interest will focus on the announcement of their Windows 8 app, the real heart of the presentation was elsewhere. In fact, I think the most significant part of the session can be summed up in three letters: API. But I'll come to that shortly.
One consistent message from Grimshaw was that publishers should be braver. Be brave enough to charge, he said. Be brave enough to step away from the App Store and other intermediaries and go your own way. I've seen people intepret that as a call for all publishers - B2B, local, consumer - to go that route, yet every example he cited was a national or major regional newspaper. I have my doubts that smaller circulation magazines could achieve the same success without the heavyweight Financial Times-style brand.
For me, there were two key points that emerged from the session:
1. The future is mobile.
The facts he gave were stark enough - 30% of the traffic from their core subscriber base is coming via mobile, with levels of revenue to match. A profitable digital business. The predictions are even more stark. With the FT predicting 50% of its traffic coming from mobile devices within three years, where will it be in five years? Grimshaw seemed to be postulating that within half a decade, the FT may be primarily a mobile publisher, with legacy print and desktop web businesses. And I think he's right. Rapid news will be consumed on the phone, and in-depth analysis on the tablet. The traditional desktop PC will become the least important digital channel.
2. The future is an API
Snuck into the middle of the presentation, and returned to later in the Q&A session, was the idea that the web app is now, essentially, an interface on top of a number of APIs; one for the content, one for search and so on. Grimshaw's talk of the work they're doing on photos suggests that an image API is probably on the horizon, too.
As delivery channels multiply, this feels like the only sensible approach to take. Having entirely seperate workflows and content systems for each digital product is clearly a non-starter. A clear seperation of an expression layer - the web app, the web site, the newspaper - and the content layer, with the gap between the two being bridged by an API allows rapid and efficient development of new products for new platforms, because of good, basic infrastructure hygiene. Essentially, they're thinking of their content as a dataset that can be interrogated by their products through APIs.
And, sigificantly, not just by them. Grimshaw was clear that the FT intends to open up the API to approved third party developers, through a commercial relationship, that allows them to build products that incorporate FT conent. This is the sort of propery, deep digital thinking as an approach to business that we see too rarely from publishers right now. Today's conversation may be all about web apps versus native apps. Tomorrow's will be about the right business models around API access to the content store.
The FT is pushing hard and fast into making mobile work, while the rest of the industry scratches its chin, and does the odd bit of experimenting. While some publishers are still figuring out what to do next, the FT has launched native iOS apps, replaced them with HTML5 apps, and then started expanding them to other platforms. It has built APIs that allow the FT to become an informational hub around which other businesses can develop. While The Guardian has done a good job of opening itself up to open web community, the FT is making a much more focused play for the commerically-minded start-up developer. I know which I'd bet on as the one more likely to fund a future for news.
Sarah Marshall's take on the FTMobile event is worth reading.
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