When the app economy becomes the real economy

As the lesson of the FT shows, the App Store isn't quite ready for the economic importance Apple see

When Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, announced the new iPad yesterday, one of his selling points was that the new retina display could print "text sharper than a newspaper". Three years ago, this might have sounded like a threat to publishers, but these days it's closer to a promise.

There is broad agreement that, where the internet disrupted journalism in a way that threatened the ability to make money from content at all, the second generation of digital news presents more hope.   Readers on smartphones, and especially tablets, have shown a willingness to pay for the journalism they read, even when it is available for free elsewhere. In turn this may allow the transition to digital to be -- if not quite painless -- then at least not as painful as it might have been.  

But with new territory has come new conflicts. One of the big promises of digital is the fact that it does away with the printer, the distributer, and the retailer -- and their financial cut. Yet new middlemen have sprung up to take their place. Why go through all the hassle of a switchover just to give Apple -- and it is invariably Apple -- 30 per cent of everything you take, which is what it demands to be stocked in its App Store.  

For the most part, publishers have grumbled, but accepted the company’s terms. After all, there isn’t so much a tablet market as an iPad market; it’s pay to play, or get out.

Last summer, however, the Financial Times took the latter option. It coded an app that ran entirely in the browser, thus skipping Apple altogether.  

At the Press Gazette News on the Move conference yesterday, FT.com managing director, Rob Grimshaw, went into a little more depth as to why his paper made that decision.

As well as avoiding the 30 per cent cut it would have to pass on to Apple, building a web app allowed the FT to consolidate its development process, moving from focusing on multiple platforms (not so much of an issue in the tablet market, but a major concern in smartphones) to just one. But the real issue for Apple was the FT's concern over subscriber data.

When subscribing to a publication through the App Store, readers are given the choice as to whether or not to share their personal details with the publisher, and a significant proportion opt out. This leaves the publisher essentially clueless as to who a lot of their readership are, which affects two major areas: advertising, and retention.

Ad sellers are willing to pay a lot more to deliver targeted campaigns (think how much more Rolex would pay to be certain to advertise to a fund manager than, well, me), and the FT need to encourage renewals -- a big deal when the cheapest subscription is £270 a year.  

Grimshaw estimated that the value to the FT of this information is between 25 to 30 per cent of the value of the subscription. In other words, a user coming through the App Store was worth between £145 and £160 a year less than one subscribing through the FT’s own website.

So the FT has a pretty big motivation to leave. What is interesting is how comprehensively this outweigh’s Apple’s motivation to retain the charges and restrictions.

The App Store is there to make Apple’s products more attractive, not to make huge amounts of money for the company. Seven years of the iTunes store generated just $1bn in profit -- the same amount the iPad made in just one quarter. An iPad with apps is more valuable than an iPad without; and apps with strong customer protection are more valuable still.

And yet, in doing so it has caused a very important developer to bail ship, and create an alternative experience that -- despite being a world-class example of what it is -- is unarguably worse for their customers. We can’t know the value of those restrictions to Apple, but it is unlikely to be anywhere near £150 per user per year.

It's not clear if there is an easy solution to this battle of wills, but it certainly seems like a market inefficiency. And with Apple loudly trumpeting its $4bn app economy, inefficiencies in its market are fast becoming inefficiencies in everyone's market. This isn't a cottage industry anymore, and it needs the scrutiny to ensure that.

The old FT app, before the company was forced to pull it. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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