By Georgina Prodhan
LONDON (Reuters) - The Financial Times is launching a new, Web-based version of its mobile app, the first of its kind by a major publisher, that will allow it to adapt quickly to new tablet PCs and reduce its dependence on Apple Inc.
Until now, news publishers have tended to custom-design their tablet offerings for Apple's iPad -- which has opened a new and potentially profitable market for them as print sales decline, and offers a glitch-free experience for users.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, for example, recently launched a new digital newspaper, The Daily, initially just for iPad users in the United States.
But an explosion in the variety of tablet computers means designing so-called native mobile apps for each device will soon be too costly and slow, and will delay new apps getting to market.
John Ridding, chief executive of the FT -- which is part of British publishing group Pearson Plc -- said the FT aimed to make it easy for customers to read the newspaper on any phone or computer through a single subscription.
"We are determined to make it as accessible as possible for the user," he told Reuters by telephone. "Readers will be able to get our journalism through whatever device or channel they may choose."
The new app, available from app.ft.com, launches on Tuesday for the iPad and iPhone, with a week's free access. Versions optimized for the Samsung Electronics Co Ltd Galaxy, Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc Xoom and Research In Motion Ltd BlackBerry PlayBook are planned soon.
Tweaks for particular devices will now take weeks, not months, and FT.com's managing director Rob Grimshaw said the FT would be encouraging users to migrate to the Web app, which would generally deliver a better experience than native apps.
The move will also free the FT from the confines of Apple's App Store. Apple charges 30 percent of revenues and is trying to enforce a rule that subscribers must sign up through the App Store rather than directly with publishers.
The FT, however, is determined to maintain a direct connection to its readers, which it says is fundamental to understanding the way they consume FT content.
"Working through the browser means we can maintain a direct relationship with the customer. That's been central to our business model," Grimshaw said.
The new app is based on HTML5, the latest version of the HTML standard Web language that can be read by any browser. Grimshaw said it took five to six months of development in partnership with software designer Assanka.
"We've had this in mind since probably the middle of last year when we first started to realize how much would be involved ... if we had to write them all with native code," Grimshaw said.
"At that point nobody had done anything like that, so it really wasn't clear you could produce an app-like experience using HTML5."
Using the Web rather than an app store also means users will be able to get automatic software updates without having to download them.
Benedict Evans, an analyst with London-based research firm Enders Analysis, said: "On a purely technical level, it's very impressive. You can occasionally notice it's not quite as fluid as a native app, but most of the time it performs just as well."
Evans said the FT was in a different position from most news publishers, who had yet to develop a mature online business.
FT.com has more than 224,000 paying online subscribers, and digital revenues grew 47 percent last year, accounting for 24 percent of the FT's total sales. Its mobile and tablet apps have been downloaded more than 1 million times.
"For those other publishers, the point of the iPad is that it offers a great experience qualitatively different from what you can get on the Web," said Evans. "If you're The Daily or The Times, it's a great way to capture customers. The FT doesn't need the App Store as an acquisition tool in quite the same way."
(Editing by Andre Grenon)