Category Archives: itunes

Financial Times thrives on HTML 5, paywall, and snubbing Apple iTunes

I spoke to Rob Grimshaw, Managing Director of FT.Com, shortly after Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where the FT web app won an award for “Best Mobile Innovation for Publishing”.


I was interested in speaking to Grimshaw for two reasons.

First, the FT is a publication which has successfully managed the transition from print to online. The latest published results , for the first half of 2011, report that FT Group sales were up 7% and profits up 10%, “enhanced by digital subscriptions.”

Second, the FT took the initiative to bypass Apple’s app store with its onerous subscription terms by remaking its app as HTML5, as reported here .
The award “was the icing on the cake for the whole process,” Grimshaw told me. “When we abandoned the native app and stepped out of iTunes, it was a big commercial gamble, and it was a rueful moment as well because we’d created a beautiful native app and won an Apple design award.”

Was the FT move all about subscription fees, or were there other factors? “It was not all about Apple,” said Grimshaw. “Certainly their 30% tax on subscriptions didn’t make sense to us, because we already have our own platform so why pay somebody else to use their platform? Second, they would have owned the relationship with the customer. That’s important for various reasons, but for example it makes it difficult to manage churn, which is a crucial aspect of a subscription business.

“There were some other reasons. The mobile market would have been problematic if we had to keep developing all our applications for many different  operating systems. The overhead is enormous. It doesn’t stop once you’ve launched the app, you have to keep ugrading and changing.

“HTML 5 offers a way out of that headache by producing code that runs across multiple platforms.

“When you add all of that together, it seems to be smart to go the HTML 5 route even though it was technologically risky because at the time nobody else had done it.”

So what has been the impact of the web app versus the native app?

“A lot of people said, if we leave iTunes we’ll disappear from the world. We haven’t found that to be the case. In the four month period after we launched the web app, from June through to October 2011, our traffic on the iPad and the iPhone increased by over 50%. 1.7 million people have now visited the web application, more than ever downloaded our old iPhone and iPad app combined.

“We have many tools and techniques which help us to promote and build audience in the browser, and they work just as effectively for the web app as they do for our normal web sites.”

Is the success of the web app a reflection of the type of app, which is content-dominated, or will web apps dominate more generally in the mobile space?

“I think that HTML 5 will dominate. The buzz around HTML 5 at Mobile World Congress reinforced that view. It feels to me that there is an unstoppable momentum behind it,” said Grimshaw, mentioning PhoneGap-style native wrappers as well as pure web apps. “The counter argument is that for some of the new features of phones and tablets you have to use native code. However, I think 90% of applications don’t need that kind of support. We produce a very sophisticated app, and HTML 5 covers all the functions that we would ever need to use.”

“Once people discover what they can do within the browser they will start thinking why would you develop in native when it creates all of these headaches.”

As form factors become more varied, do you see a convergence between what you do for mobile and what you do for the wider internet?

“I can see them coming together. I can imagine a day where a single set of HTML 5 code can power our site across the full range of smartphones, tablets and desktop. The only obstacle is that so many browsers on the desktop don’t support HTML 5 fully.

“That doesn’t make all the contexting go away. Now with our mobile development we are dividing screen sizes into four buckets, and the thinking is that we will have to design for those four screen sizes. Device manufacturers are going to carry on producing a device to occupy every possible niche, and as publishers we have to cope with that.”

How important is cloud and mobile to your business, what new opportunities does it offer?

“Mobile is incredibly strategically important. I’m personally convinced that mobile will be the main distribution channel for news in the future. People’s lives don’t stop when they leave their desks or exit their houses. They want to carry on their friendships, their business, their reading. If you have a powerful mobile device that can deliver that, you’re going to gravitate to that device, and pretty soon it does become the main channel.

“We already see the audience migrating onto mobile. About 20% of our page views now come from mobile devices. That could be over half within three years. Figuring out how to present our content, sell our subscriptions, deliver our advertising on mobile devices is hugely important.

“It’s a shift on a tectonic scale. For publishers this is a bigger shift than the shift from print to desktop, and it’s happening faster.

“It does create new opportunities as well. We have a new sales channel, we’re now selling our subscriptions through mobile devices. 15 to 20% of our new digital subscriptions every week are sold directly through mobile devices.

“It gives us the potential to reach new audiences. We’ve seen some good evidence from the mobile operators to show that our audience from mobile is much younger that our audience on desktop or on print. Devices are helping us to reach younger audiences and recruit readers who might be with us for the rest of their lives.”

What about social media and the relationship with the big web portals, Google, Facebook, Twitter?

“I see social media as a parallel trend to mobile. Mobile is the desire of people to take content with them physically. Social media is about the desire of people to take content with them virtually, and equally powerful.

“On the advertising side I find social media a little alarming because of scale. Facebook has a trillion page views a month, which makes them 400 times bigger than the BBC and 1500 times bigger than the New York Times. It’s scale which is unimaginable for most publishers, and they have tremendous insight into their audience. That’s a potent cocktail. And every time someone shares an FT article on Facebook, an extra bit of data builds up on their side that tells them about our readers.

“On the subscription side though it is all positive and they can be powerful sales channels for us. We have big communities in social media, 300,000 odd on Facebook, 1.2 million Twitter followers, and these are to some extend self-selecting marketing audiences, people who stuck up their hand and said we’re interested in the FT.

“We also believe we can find ways to allow people to consume content in the social media environment if they are subscribers. We’re working on finding ways to do that.”

What do you think of paywalls versus free content for newspapers on the web? Does the paywall only work because the FT is a niche publication, albeit a large niche?

“We are very much on the paywall side and unashamedly so, we think our content has tremendous value and people do not object to paying for it. We now have 270,000 digital subscribers and that compares to our newspaper circulation which is around 330,000, so we’ve been successful in building up a paying audience in digital which is now pretty close in scale to our paying audience. It’s been an enormously success business venture for us.

“When you look at the publishers that are giving all their content away, the reason they are giving it all away is in order to build up a bigger audience for advertising. But the scale of the competition in the advertising market is so huge that actually it is a fruitless exercise, unless you can acquire a scale which will give you billions of page views a month. It’s very hard to see how you can build a decent business just from online advertising. The numbers don’t stack up.

“My message to other publishers is not necessarily that you have got to have a paywall, but is that you probably need other ways to make money, other than online advertising.”

Financial Times ports app to web to avoid iTunes

The Financial Times, which is among the few web publications that seems able to make sense of paywalled content, is launching a web application [paywalled article] for mobile devices, specifically to bypass Apple’s iTunes App Store. Here they are side by side.

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Rob Grimshaw, managing director of, said the FT had no plans to pull out of any apps store, but that it would encourage users to adopt the web app with a marketing campaign, including a week’s free access.

The issue highlighted in the FT’s own article is analytics. The FT says it wants to "secure a direct relationship with readers." Apple currently does not divulge information about subscribers to publishers.

Another possible factor may be Apple’s insistence that all subscriptions and in-app purchases are offered through its own payment system, ensuring a 30% cut of every transaction. Publishers may also offer subscriptions on their own site, but may not undercut the App Store, nor include links to such offers within the app, as detailed here.

Is the web app as good? Well, A banner encourages the user to pin the app to the home screen so that it behaves more like an app:


Further, the web app makes use of HTML 5 local storage to enable offline reading and prompts the user to increase its local storage space:


With these two features, the web option can be nearly as good as a native app. However, while there are advantages for the FT, there will be little or no intrinsic advantage for subscribers, who like the convenience of purchasing through the App Store, unless the web option is cheaper or better. Perhaps it is: the FT’s Tim Bradshaw says it is “actually faster than native”.

The dark side of Apple’s success with iOS is the company’s control over the platform and tax on all transactions within it. Interesting to see the FT turning back to the open web in an effort to win back a little freedom.

First impressions of Google TV – get an Apple iPad instead?

I received a Google TV as an attendee at the Adobe MAX conference earlier this year; to be exact, a Logitech Revue. It is not yet available or customised for the UK, but with its universal power supply and standard HDMI connections it works OK, with some caveats.

The main snag with my evaluation is that I use a TV with built-in Freeview (over-the-air digital TV) and do not use a set top box. This is bad for Google TV, since it wants to sit between your set top box and your TV, with an HDMI in for the set top box and an HDMI out to your screen. Features like picture-in-picture, TV search, and the ability to choose a TV channel from within Google TV, depend on this. Without a set-top box you can only use Google TV for the web and apps.


I found myself comparing Google TV to Windows Media Center, which I have used extensively both directly attached to a TV, and over the network via Xbox 360. Windows Media Center gets round the set top box problem by having its own TV card. I actually like Windows Media Center a lot, though we had occasional glitches. If you have a PC connected directly, of course this also gives you the web on your TV. Sony’s PlayStation 3 also has a web browser with Adobe Flash support, as does Nintendo Wii though it is more basic.


What you get with Google TV is a small set top box – in my case it slipped unobtrusively onto a shelf below the TV, a wireless keyboard, an HDMI connector, and an IR blaster. Installation is straightforward and the box recognised my TV to the extent that it can turn it on and off via the keyboard. The IR blaster lets you position an infra-red transmitter optimally for any IR devices you want to control from Google TV – typically your set-top box.

I connected to the network through wi-fi initially, but for some reason this was glitchy and would lose the connection for no apparent reason. I plugged in an ethernet cable and all was well. This problem may be unique to my set-up, or something that gets a firmware fix, so no big deal.

There is a usability issue with the keyboard. This has a trackpad which operates a mouse pointer, under which are cursor keys and an OK button. You would think that the OK button represents a mouse click, but it does not. The mouse click button is at top left on the keyboard. Once I discovered this, the web browser (Chrome, of course) worked better. You do need the OK button for navigating the Google TV menus.

I also dislike having a keyboard floating around in the living room, though it can be useful especially for things like Gmail, Twitter or web forums on your TV. Another option is to control it from a mobile app on an Android smartphone.

The good news is that Google TV is excellent for playing web video on your TV. YouTube has a special “leanback” mode, optimised for viewing from a distance that works reasonably well, though amateur videos that look tolerable in a small frame in a web browser look terrible played full-screen in the living room. BBC iPlayer works well in on-demand mode; the download player would not install. Overall it was a bit better than the PS3, which is also pretty good for web video, but probably not by enough to justify the cost if you already have a PS3.

The bad news is that the rest of the Web on Google TV is disappointing. Fonts are blurry, and the resolution necessary to make a web page viewable from 12 feet back is often annoying. Flash works well, but Java seems to be absent.

Google also needs to put more thought into personalisation. The box encouraged me to set up a Google account, which will be necessary to purchase apps, giving me access to Gmail and so on; and I also set up the Twitter app. But typically the living room is a shared space: do you want, for example, a babysitter to have access to your Gmail and Twitter accounts? It needs some sort of profile management and log-in.

In general, the web experience you get by bringing your own laptop, netbook or iPad into the room is better than Google TV in most ways apart from web video. An iPad is similar in size to the Google TV keyboard.

Media on Google TV has potential, but is currently limited by the apps on offer. Logitech Media Player is supplied and is a DLNA client, so if you are lucky you will be able to play audio and video from something like a NAS (network attached storage) drive on your network. Codec support is limited.

In a sane, standardised world you would be able to stream music from Apple iTunes or a Squeezebox server to Google TV but we are not there yet.

One key feature of Google TV is for purchasing streamed videos from Netflix, Amazon VOD (Video on Demand) or Dish Network. I did not try this; they do not work yet in the UK. Reports are reasonably positive; but I do not think this is a big selling point since similar services are available by many other routes. 

Google TV is not in itself a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) but can control one.

All about the apps

Not too good so far then; but at some point you will be able to purchase apps from the Android marketplace – which is why attendees at the Adobe conference were given boxes. Nobody really knows what sort of impact apps for TV could have, and it seems to me that as a means of running apps – especially games – on a TV this unobtrusive device is promising.

Note that some TVs will come with Google TV built-in, solving the set top box issue, and if Google can make this a popular option it would have significant impact.

It is too early then to write it off; but it is a shame that Google has not learned the lesson of Apple, which is not to release a product until it is really ready.

Update: for the user’s perspective there is a mammoth thread on avsforum; I liked this post.

Apple deprecates Java

Apple has deprecated the version of Java that it ports and maintains for OS X:

As of the release of Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 3, the version of Java that is ported by Apple, and that ships with Mac OS X, is deprecated.

This means that the Apple-produced runtime will not be maintained at the same level, and may be removed from future versions of Mac OS X. The Java runtime shipping in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, and Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, will continue to be supported and maintained through the standard support cycles of those products.

This is not altogether a bad thing for Java. Waiting for Apple to update its official version has been a frustration for Java developers on the Mac. If Oracle now takes responsibility for delivering the JVM for OS X, it may keep in step.

Unfortunately there is not currently an Oracle JVM for OS X. Nor does the open source Apache Harmony support it. In the light of Apple’s announcement I imagine both may address this lack; though a further complication is that IBM has recently abandoned Harmony in favour of the Open JDK.

Further, in making this statement Apple is further discouraging use of Java application on OS X. This announcement should be put together with this one, in the new developer agreement for apps submitted to the forthcoming Mac App Store, a desktop version of the iOS App Store:

3.3.1    Applications may only use public APIs and frameworks included in the default installation of Mac OS X or as bundled with Xcode as provided by Apple, deprecated technologies (such as Java) may not be used.

I doubt Apple will ever attempt to lock down desktop OS X, iPad-style. But I think we will see strong encouragement from Apple steering users towards App Store installs. There will be hints that it is safer and better, the true Mac way to get apps onto your machine.

Remember the early days of Java? One of the reasons it won support was that it reduced the industry’s dependence on a single vendor and its operating system.

Plenty to think about as Apple increases its market share.

[Updated to clarify non-availability of alternative JVMs for OS X]

iTunes hacks: whose fault are they?

A big story today concerns irregular activity on Apple’s iTunes store, the one and only means of purchasing applications for iPhone and iPad and central to the company’s strategy. The reports allege that developers are hacking iTunes accounts to purchase and give favourable review to their apps – which can only be a short term strategy since you would imagine that such activity would soon be detected and the perpetrators traced through the payment system.

As it happens I’d been meaning to post about iTunes security in any case. I blogged about an incident just over a month ago, since when there have been a steady stream of comments from other users who say that their iTunes accounts were hacked and fraudulent purchases made.

A recent comment refers to this thread, started over a year ago and now with over 200 comments from similarly afflicted users.

Despite the number of reported incidents, there is no reason to suppose that Apple’s servers have been broken into. Several other mechanisms are more likely, including malware-infected computers on which users may have stored passwords, or have keystrokes logged; or successful attempts to guess passwords or the answer to so-called “security questions” which also give access to account details.

Such questions should be called insecurity questions, since they are really designed to reduce the burden on helpdesks from users who have lost passwords or access to obsolete email accounts. Since they allow access to accounts without knowing the password, they reduce security, and even more so when the questions are for semi-public information like mother’s maiden name, which is commonly used.

Given the number of iTunes accounts, it is not surprising that there are numerous successful hacks, whether or not there is some issue (other than the insecurity questions) with iTunes or Apple’s servers.

That said, there is a consistent theme running through all these threads, which is that Apple’s customer service towards victims of hacking seems poor. Contact is email-only, users are simply referred to their banks, Apple promises further contact within 24 hours that is often not forthcoming, and there are reports of users losing access to credit or previous purchases. It was an instance of the latter which prompted my earlier post.

Apple therefore should fix its customer service, even if its servers are watertight. I’d like to see it lose the insecurity questions too.


iTunes user has account hacked, loses access to his own purchases

Spare a thought for iTunes user Peter Bilderback. His account was hacked and someone downloaded almost a $1000 worth of items from the iTunes store using his account. Bad stuff, but it happens. Bilderback wonders why Apple did not query the purchase of iPhone apps, when it knew that he had no iPhone – you would have thought that Apple’s closed system would be ideal for this scenario at least – but never mind, the credit card company spotted the suspicious activity and disputed the charges with Apple.

This is where it gets really nasty. Apple closed the compromised iTunes account and de-authorised all his purchases – not only the ones the fraudster grabbed, but everything he had bought over a period of 6 years:

When I contacted Apple about what happened they were totally unhelpful. Now they seem to have closed my iTunes account entirely, and I can no longer access any of the protected AAC music files, television shows or movies that I “purchased” from iTunes in the past. They are as good as gone. iTunes customer service does not respond to my emails inquiring about how to get my account reactivated. I cannot get through to anyone via phone, I just get a message directing me to their customer service website, and I can’t really use that because as far as Apple is concerned, I don’t have an account with them anymore.

With such a clear-cut case, you would think that Bilderback would eventually recover his purchases, but he says the incident “has been going on for three months now with no resolution in sight”.

The case highlights the difference between the old world of buying physical media like a CD, which comes with a transferable licence for personal use, and the new one where you download the media and buy a licence that is more restrictive, sometimes combined with technical content protection that further limits how you can enjoy your purchase.

That said, much iTunes content is not DRM-protected so presumably Bilderback can still get access to that.

The other aspect of this story is about customer service. It is a common story: individual versus large corporate entity, and the difficulty in getting through to anyone with both the willingness to listen and the power to do anything about a problem.

I guess he could try emailing Steve Jobs? Sometimes you get a reply.

Joining the Smartphone dots

Google has made a big splash with its launch of Nexus One, even though technically it is not all that exciting. A neat phone; 1 Ghz Qualcomm processor; runs Android 2.1; good for web video with its inclusion of Adobe Flash 10.1, along with the ability to capture your own videos at 20 frames per second in 720×480 pixels. No keyboard though; and the q&a at the press briefing revealed a few limitations, such as lack of tethering support (using the phone to connect a laptop to the Internet), and that downloaded applications all end up in the 512MB on-board RAM rather than on an SD card, making it more likely that you will run out of space. Tethering is being worked on, apparently, and the application restriction is for copy protection, supposedly making it more difficult to pirate paid-for downloads.

My biggest disappointment is the price. It is a fraction cheaper than an Apple iPhone, but still far from a mass market product; though it won’t feel that way in the tech influencer community.

All this is rather unimportant; even prices will fall eventually. What matters is that attention is shifting from web+desktop (or laptop) to web+smartphone as the computing platform of the moment. That shift is far from complete; most of us still need the large screen and comfortable keyboard of a laptop to do our work. It is real though, and it is obvious that the need to carry around a bulky laptop with a short battery life is diminishing. Netbooks and Apple’s rumoured tablet are part of the same movement towards smaller, lighter and web-connected.

Although these gadgets are getting more capable, there is no sign of them following the desktop model with feature-rich local applications and heavy use of local storage. The applications being downloaded in huge numbers from Apple’s app store – a breathtaking three billion to date according to today’s announcement – are small, single-purpose apps where speed and usability is valued over richness of features, and where data comes from the Internet. This is the new model of application development.

Google’s announcement is also an important move in the identity wars. Most computer users have multiple identities: maybe an Active Directory account on a Microsoft network, a Facebook account, an Apple ID for iTunes and MobileMe, a Google account for Gmail and Google Docs. All these competing players gain hugely if they can increase the importance of your identity on their platform versus the others. If Microsoft can keep your Active Directory account at the centre of your world, then you will be a customer for Exchange, Office, SharePoint and so on. On the other hand, if your Google sign-in becomes more important, then Google’s products are correspondingly more attractive and it can sell you more services and advertising. Buy a Google phone and you hook directly into Google’s world. In ChromeOS the link is even more obvious, since you sign onto the computer with your online Google credentials.

The power shift is obvious. And as Tim O’Reilly implies in his excellent post, Google’s lack of legacy desktop baggage is helping it to compete against Apple as well as Microsoft.

Apple, Spotify, Google and iPhone: how to get into App Store

I was mildly surprised to see that Apple has approved Spotify for iPhone. Reason: if someone buys into the Spotify subscription model, why would they ever want to purchase music from iTunes, whether for iPhone or elsewhere? The iPhone version lets you listen to selected tracks offline, so that is not a problem.

Here’s a bit of speculation. Maybe Spotify benefited from the fallout over Apple’s rejection of the Google Voice application – though Apple says it “continues to study it”. The Google Voice move drew articles like Apple is growing rotten to the core from TechCrunch. The question for Apple: did it want another high-profile, self-interested app rejection while still fighting Google Voice?

A further consideration is that Spotify is a tiny company compared to Google; music download/streaming enterprises come and go, and Spotify has a tricky task ahead making its business model work, as Mark Mulligan observes. Further, there’s nothing to stop Apple launching its own streaming, subscription service if it chooses to do so.

If Apple felt it had to choose between the threat of Google Voice, and the threat of Spotify, it is easy to see why it would pick the latter.

It follows that if you want to get your difficult, might-compete-with-Apple app into App Store, you should:

1. Build a decent-sized community around your service first.

2. Make a lot of noise when you submit your app.

3. Make even more noise should Apple reject it (this did not apply to Spotify, but it has worked for others).

4. Choose a moment when Apple is already embroiled in App Store battles that are more important than yours.

Publicity makes all the difference.

With all this, will Spotify succeed? The service is fantastic, but I’m not sure about people’s willingness to add £10 per month to their already-expensive iPhone contracts. However, I still think what I have argued for years: that in the digital age, music subscription makes more sense than paid-for permanent downloads.

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Squeezebox and Napster – the perfect combination?

I’ve just posted a review of the Squeezebox Boom, a lovely device that once set up is perfect for hiding all the computer gunk and letting you enjoy the music wherever you are in the house. During the review I noticed that Logitech’s Squeezenetwork, which aggregates a number of Internet radio stations and music services for use with Squeezebox, announced Napster support last week.

I tried this, and it is amazing, though you do need to subscribe to Napster; trial accounts are available. If I want to play any song or album in Napster’s vast library, I select Squeezenetwork as the music source on the Boom, select the Napster music service, search the Napster library, and play the music. No computer has to be running for this to work. Sound quality is good though noticeably worse than locally-streamed lossless FLAC; more radio than hi-fi.

I’ve also been spending time with Spotify. Like Napster, this makes a huge library available, plus it has a couple of advantages. Performance is better, with near-instant search results and playback; and best of all it is free, if you can tolerate occasional advertisements. Unfortunately Spotify does not integrate with Squeezebox yet, though users are clamouring for it.

The Squeezebox is a schizophrenic product with one foot in the old world of local media storage, and one foot in the new world of Internet streaming via Squeezenetwork. Squeezebox plus Napster is great; Squeezebox plus Spotify would be even better. Either one makes Apple’s iTunes purchase-and-download model look dated.

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Why we don’t talk about Zune

Brandon LeBlanc comments on last week’s Guardian article on DRM and says:

What is interesting to me is the article neglects to look at what Microsoft is doing with Zune in regards to DRM. Just like Apple and Amazon – the Zune Marketplace also offers DRM-free music.

According to this page on the Zune Marketplace:

Browse over three million songs you can preview and download—most are now available as MP3s that’ll play on your Zune device or any other MP3 player. Or get an instant music collection: Zune Pass gets you millions of downloads for just $14.99 a month.

Answering LeBlanc, one reason is that Microsoft has not made Zune available internationally, so its visibility in the UK is rather minimal. Nevertheless, the Zune developments are interesting. In fact, the Zune now has pretty much the business model many expect Apple’s iTunes and iPod/iPhone to have in the future – all-you-can-eat subscription, with a premium download option.

Still, Microsoft has a marketing problem with Zune. First, it’s perceived as a me-too answer to iTunes/iPod. Second, the branding is focused firmly on the Zune device, which has only a small market share. Amazon on the other hand makes great play of the iPod compatibility of its MP3 store. How can Microsoft promote Zune marketplace as a source for DRM-free iPod music, without undermining the whole Zune concept in which device and store are tied tightly together?

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