InPublishing Tip 1 - Produce content, not apps

The current publisher obsession with creating apps is misplaced, says Yaron Galai, CEO of Outbrain. Instead, publishers should focus on producing content.

By Yaron Galai

A couple of years ago, I pitched our content recommendation service to an investor. He told me in pretty much these words that I was stupid to be making the service available on the 'old web' instead of converting it into a Facebook App. "The future of the world is in Facebook", he explained to me. And needless to say - he decided not to invest in my company. That was the common wisdom about two or three years ago - the world is moving into Facebook Apps, and every company should have a significant "Facebook App Strategy", if not move the whole company to developing everything as a Facebook App. 

Then Mark Zuckerberg, or someone in his product team, decided they didn't like that the 'Apps' tab was the first default tab, and shuffled the tabs around - Newsfeed now being first, and the Apps moving to being maybe the seventh tab. This meant that in the morning, people were betting their houses on building Facebook Apps but come the evening, it was not the brightest thing to do because a product manager at Facebook moved a tab and rendered all apps virtually invisible.

Facebook is just an example... the rush to put engineering resources to develop the "must-have" app of the moment comes and goes like the ocean ebbs and flows. There were days where companies that didn't have a "Second Life strategy" or a "MySpace strategy" or a "Google Buzz/Wave/+ strategy" looked stupid. 

The current hype of the moment is native mobile apps, namely iPhone and Android apps. So many publishers are rushing to use their scarce development resources on developing native mobile apps, and it seems like most are not thinking it through. To be clear - I don't believe that iPhone/Android apps will go away any time soon, the way that Facebook tab suddenly disappeared. However, there is some commonality here; all are proprietary environments controlled by other companies that have very specific interests that they will see to first before taking care of any app developer.

The open, "Old", web has none of that - on that platform (whether desktop or mobile) every publisher is the master of their domain, not a node within someone else's domain.

Developing an app for a proprietary platform, whether it's Facebook or the iPhone takes time, money and resources. Before committing those based on hype, I would recommend that publishers would be wise to consider the outcomes they're looking for. A proprietary app sometimes has vast advantages over the open web. For example, Angry Birds, which requires much of the native functionality of the phone (interaction with the game, sounds synced to events, speedy response, etc.) are perfectly suited for a mobile app. 

For content publishers, there are fleetingly few benefits in a native mobile app. I'd say there are basically two: 1. offline reading/viewing, and 2. being on the App Store, so people "can find us". 

Offline reading is a benefit, but increasingly an irrelevant one. The amount of time our devices can't connect somehow to the web is decreasing by the day and will soon be gone. Also, new web technologies like HTML5, now make it possible to make some content available for offline consumption. 

Being in the app store is a good reason to have an app, but not to develop one. Other than these two reasons, and hype considerations aside, there are few other reasons for publishers to spend any resources developing native mobile apps. I believe what they should be focused on instead is developing a single, great mobile website that works well on web browsers of the common mobile devices. Any work put into that will equally benefit readers with iPhones, and Androids, and also any other mobile platform - Windows 8, Blackberry, etc. 

So how can a publisher have an app in the app store without actually developing one? Build a great functioning mobile website, and create an app that is basically an icon, and a bookmark. When that ‘app’ is clicked, it opens the mobile browser with the publisher’s home page. That should take no more than 10 minutes to develop, and requires no maintenance or resources. You will get 100% of the value of being inside all the proprietary app stores, with 0% of the development cost or dependence on other peoples’ business.