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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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.