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Get over it, haters – apps really are the future, says Wired publisher

There has been a growing revolt in the publishing community against the idea that iPhone and iPad apps are the best route to digital dollars. The Financial Times shuttered its apps this month, while a popular essay by another publisher lamented that apps were a “collective delusion” and an expensive failure.

That’s bunk, according to Wired publisher Howard Mittman, who said in a recent interview that apps have proven “incredibly profitable” and touts the publication’s 165,000 tablet subscribers (65,000 of these are pure-digital subs). Mittman adds that Wired readers also spend a significant amount of time with the tablet version and that he “missed the memo” about the failure of apps.

So what’s going on? Is there something special about Wired, or have other publishers simply failed to execute correctly?

To understand, it’s useful to consider the key complaints set out by Technology Review’s Jason Pontin in his influential “Why Publishers Don’t like Apps” essay from early May, including:

  • expensive developer costs
  • difficulty quantifying subscribers
  • an unnatural, walled garden reader experience.

Pontin also decried the vulturous 30 percent bite that Apple took from many sales, a figure that exceeded publishers’ own margins. He concluded that he would toss the apps and instead follow the Financial Times’ example by using HTML5 technology to provide an easy cross-platform reader experience. (The FT this week told pC2012 that it didn’t need a marketing boost from the iTunes Store.)

Wired’s Mittman, however, says that Pontin simply “chose one path that didn’t work out” and that “trail-blazing is not for everyone.” He believes that HTML5 will just be part of a “larger app experience” in which an app is a storefront or gateway for readers to have deeper interactions with publishing brands.

One upshot of this may be that publishers need to try harder to make apps work, but it’s also possible that unique factors make Wired an outlier. These include a techy readership combined with corporate and editorial support for a development team that has been building apps longer than most. Condé Nast, its deep-pocketed parent, may also be betting big in the hopes that Wired’s success can be replicated at its other publications.

Mittman’s bullish stance on apps may also be in keeping with Wired’s famous “Web is dead” cover of two years ago that described how browsers were being supplemented by other types of viewing platforms.

The proof will ultimately be in the revenue pudding, of course. Based on a $20-a-year subscription price, Wired is set to earn $1.3 million on its digital only subscribers (minus any Apple cut). This is hardly earth-shaking but, after just two years, it may be big enough to keep Condé Nast in the app game for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, it seems likely other publishers will continue to join instead the “good enough revolution” (a Wired term, by the way) offered by HTML5.


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