By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE (Reuters) - For Microsoft Corp, and Amazon.com, and the clutch of other companies that hope to carve out a big slice of a mobile computing business currently dominated by Apple Inc, the future depends on people like Scott Porad.
As chief technology officer of Cheezburger Network, a popular publisher of humor websites, Porad has to make the tough calls on which mobile devices merit the development of special software, or apps, that will make the company's content shine.
Developing apps for the hot-selling iPhone might be a no-brainer, but that's not the case when it comes to apps for Microsoft's new Windows 8 software, or for the various versions of Google Inc's Android mobile operating system, or for Research in Motion Ltd's BlackBerry devices.
"We are a small company and we don't have unlimited resources," said Porad "We cannot afford to do it all, that's for sure."
Cheezburger, an independent publisher with 85 employees and about 16 million unique visitors a month worldwide, ultimately decided to go ahead with a Windows 8 app while passing on BlackBerry and some other platforms. But many other developers are taking a wait-and-see approach.
The caution extends not only to Windows, but also increasingly to Android as that software evolves in different ways on different vendors' platforms. A Kindle Fire app is quite different from one built for, say, the Samsung Galaxy, even though both devices are based on Google's Android.
Indeed, the explosion of competition in the tablet and smartphone markets may be providing consumers with plenty of choice, but it's a decidedly mixed blessing for Internet content companies. They now have to develop as many as six different apps if they want to reach all their mobile customers, with each development project costing tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum, and far more to update the apps over their lifetime.
One solution is to rely on HTML 5, a software language that can support apps on many different platforms. It also enables developers to avoid the strict rules that Apple imposes on how iOS apps handle subscriptions and financial transactions.
But many argue strongly that HTML 5 apps are sub-par -- a view that was endorsed earlier this month by none other than Facebook Inc CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said his decision to focus on HTML 5 for Facebook apps was the biggest mistake the company had made.
Critics say that HTML 5's one-size-fits-all approach will mean average experience across the board at the expense of excellence on individual platforms. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body behind HTML 5, concedes the format may not be able to match native experiences, but says it is getting better as more developers adopt it.
"We are observing the common pattern where performance of new features improves as implementations mature," said W3C spokesman Ian Jacobs.
I CAN HAS APPS
The decision Seattle-based Cheezburger faced over Windows 8 is emblematic of the dilemma facing hundreds of Internet publishers.
"Our framework for thinking about it is simple -- return on investment," said Porad. "The return is how much benefit we expect out of it and the investment is how long it takes to build, and the ongoing maintenance costs."
With limited resources, Cheezburger debated long and hard on whether to make a Windows 8 app, but eventually decided the gamble was worth it, even though the return was uncertain.
"Microsoft's put a lot of their muscle behind Windows 8. We think that by being there at the beginning when they launch this thing, that'll be a benefit to us," said Porad. "The counter-argument is that it could be Windows Vista. Nobody knows what's going to happen here." Vista was Microsoft's widely panned 2007 version of Windows.
Cheezburger's Windows app was produced by an in-house team of three developers in just over a month, with help from an outside design agency. Porad said the process was made easier by the fact its underlying code is written in Microsoft's .NET programming framework.
The company has a virtual team of about 20 developers spread across the United States. The team also handles iOS and Android apps, both of which Cheezburger plans to update in-house rather than produce with outside developers, as it did with previous versions.
Porad agreed with Zuckerberg that native apps written specifically for each platform work better than those written in the HTML 5 web-based standard, at least for now.
HTML 5 is "completely unrealistic," said Avi Muchnick, CEO and founder of photo editing software firm Aviary, which requires precise rendering for its products.
"There are still nuances for each browser and platform, and you end up with a product that will work 75 percent as well as it should across the board instead of 100 percent on each platform," said Muchnick. "Everyone will need to have an HTML 5 version just to support something people can access from a browser, but the best apps will be developed natively."
CAN CROSS-PLATFORM SOLUTIONS WORK?
Not everyone agrees that HTML 5 is a dead end.
Just over a year ago, the Financial Times became the first big news organization to launch an HTML 5 app that works across all formats after pulling its iOS app from Apple's App Store.
Users access the FT site via the browser on whichever device is being used; an icon is installed on the start screen, essentially emulating the look and feel of an app but operating entirely in the browser.
The FT's new app reader has 3.1 million users and has already outstripped downloads of its previous iPhone and iPad apps combined. Making an HTML app that matched the performance of a native app was hard work, but cost no more than developing the iOS app, said Mary Beth Christie, the Financial Times' online product management director.
"For example, the swiping interactions, when you go between sections, to get the same level of quality as you have in a native app experience, we actually had to develop our own libraries for those interactions," said Chris Smith, the FT's product manager for emerging platforms. Rendering high-quality photos was also a challenge, he added.
The FT bought the development firm Assanka, which created its original iOS apps, earlier this year, and rebranded it as FT Labs. That team was already working on an HTML-based app, but it became the primary mobile strategy when the newspaper dropped out of Apple's App Store after refusing to agree to Apple's rules on how subscriptions were handled.
Exiting the app store and using HTML 5 means the FT can now control the financial transaction and data associated with it, a key issue for subscription-based businesses such as news media.
The Seattle Times has gone down a similar road, developing primarily in HTML 5, mostly for the same reason.
"Being able to control the commerce layer and keep that direct relationship with our subscribers, our readers, is a high value to us," said John Frey, program manager for digital technology at the Seattle Times Co.
The good news for Microsoft is that porting an HTML 5-generated app into Windows 8 is relatively easy.
"We didn't have to redesign from the ground up," said Smith at the FT, which already has an app up and running in the preview version of Windows 8 and which will be there at launch on October 26. Another draw is that Microsoft does not control transactions with app users, avoiding the point of contention that drove FT away from Apple's App Store.
Google's Android platform is firmly ensconced alongside Apple's iOS as a major player in the mobile market. But enthusiasm for Android is waning slightly, according to a survey of 5,500 developers last month by tech research firm IDC.
The study found that just 66 percent of developers were "very interested" in creating apps for Android tablets, the third time in four quarters that figure has declined.
That lags 83 percent who were "very interested" in developing for the iPad and is about even with the level of enthusiasm for HTML 5. Only 33 percent said they were "very interested" in designing Windows 8 apps.
Porad at Cheezburger calls Android "a giant pain."
"Every manufacturer and every device is a little bit different," he said. "It's a strain on a small company to have a lot of different platforms to support. The other side of the coin is that is where the users are going."
(Reporting By Bill Rigby. Editing by Jonathan Weber, Bernard Orr)