|HTML5 promises to get publishers closer to digital media's Promised Land: create once, deliver everywhere. As deployments increase and the standard evolves, media companies are finding it easier to make a business case for HTML5 investment.
At last week's MPA Digital: Technology conference in New York, media executives and vendors discussed HTML5's potential and some of the early lessons they're learning from their HTML5 projects. The consensus: HTML5 enables publishers to maximize resources as content distribution expands across an ever-expanding variety of tablets and smartphones. HTML5 also provides investment protection against future devices in a mobile market that is still forming.
"HTML5 allows a publisher to create content with existing staff, without adding time or steps in the workflow to repurpose content across multiple channels," Pete Marsh, EVP of global strategy for Atex, said during a panel discussion at the MPA event. "As new devices become available, knowing you have a foundation built on HTML5 makes it easier to get those platforms up and running."
Re-building around HTML5
Some publishers are already re-building their digital foundations around HTML5, having justified that responsive design and web apps are more cost-effective than native, device-specific apps.
"Finding iOS programmers can be expensive," said Don Peschke, CEO of August Home Publishing, which is transitioning its portfolio of woodworking, garden, cooking and home improvement websites to HTML5. "We have HTML technology in-house, so doing a web app actually saved us money, because we've already made the investment [in the underlying skills]."
August Home began its HTML5 transition last fall, turning an e-recipe feature on its Cuisine at Home website into an HTML5 web app that adjusts text and image sizes and functionality for each device. iPad users can swipe through the three panels of images and instructions, while desktop users can click to advance.
This componentised development strategy will enable August Home to quickly scale its HTML5 work across e-articles, digital magazines, e-books and video, said Peschke.
"You have to think like a 19-year-old, who doesn't care about print," he said, explaining his company's decision to re-craft its mission around digital delivery. "They want to read stuff on a screen, they want it to be interactive, and they want it now."
Reasons to switch
HTML5, Peschke believes, is the best environment for delivering that experience. Executives added several other reasons to begin making the transition to HTML5, including:
• Less code. A common code base for web and mobile environments will reduce the amount of code that developers need to maintain, thereby decreasing the chances of errors that lead to broken links or other negative user experiences. IDG's Consumer & SMB group, for example, is consolidating its PCWorld.com, Macworld.com and new TechHive.com websites around a common HTML5 code base - which Chief Technology Officer Aaron Jones estimates will be about 20% the size of the existing code base just for PCWorld.com.
• Better SEO. Responsive design eliminates the need for a separate mobile site, which will make it easier to maintain backlinks and redirects and optimize around one set of search criteria, said Marsh. "That translates into higher page ranking, which translates into greater searchability for your site," he said. Remember: native apps aren't searchable by Google. "If you're in an app, nothing can find you," said Frank Livaudais, chief technology officer at CDS Global.
• Retention. HTML5 is a cool new playground for developers, which publishers can leverage to keep their best developers in the fold. "I want my folks to be working on what gets them excited, and HTML5 is where they want to be," said Larry Chevres, chief technology officer at New York Media, which is transitioning its NYmag.com and Vulture.com properties to HTML5.
There are some caveats. Page loads can take a bit longer on mobile devices because with responsive design, the full-size images are loaded first, then scaled down to accommodate smaller screens.
Ad operations will also need to adapt for responsive design. To date, advertisers have not been as aggressive as some publishers in developing creative that adapts to a responsive UI.
Mobile web vs. native app
While much has been made of the mobile web-vs.-native app debate, some publishers maintain that both are important ways to reach users. New York Media, for example, will continue to develop apps even as it rolls out HTML5 across its websites.
"We're hedging our bets," said Chevres. "We'll continue to do app development while we see the maturation of solutions that can deliver a richer app experience with HTML5. But there's a lot of education and tool sets that need to be developed to support that richer experience."