Around sunrise Monday morning, Forbes reported on a new Pew survey that would get many mobile developers up on the wrong side of the bed. Pew surveyed tablet and smartphone users about their news reading behavior. According to the survey—a very large and statistically significant study, evidently—60% of tablet users and 61% of smartphone users access news via their mobile browsers. Last year, those numbers were around 40%. The percentage of users getting news on apps stayed at 23%. Where do the new browser fans come from? The percentage of users reading on both browsers and apps decreased from 31% to 16%. In the battle between browsers and apps, it looks like browsers have a decided upper hand. Those users who were recently undecided have flocked to browsers, indicating serious and endemic deficiencies in news-reading apps. The flight from apps to browsers will likely continue as Apple’s tablet market share decreases. Most app fans are on iPads, suggesting that the ascendency of Android will precipitate an accelerating turnover to browser-based news.
The Forbes article does not probe why browsers are racing ahead of apps on mobile devices, probably because the Pew survey in question offers little rationale for the results. One clue comes in an oblique reference to pay-for-content models, “perhaps most pressing for the industry, the survey shows continued resistance to paying for content on mobile devices.” Apps tend to follow a subscription model, or otherwise replicate browser-type functionality in a non-browser ecosystem. In effect, apps do not provide value-added above the barriers to user entry, which include fees, irritating download systems, intrusive advertisements that depart from our comfortable and familiar web ads, and delays in data pushing into the app. The increase in social news reading has also increased browser activity. Proliferating links on Twitter and Facebook open pathways to news through browsers: few, if any, redirect into app reading systems. Users are incentivized to stay on the browser when simultaneously managing social media accounts and reading news.
That is not to say that it is impossible to develop an attractive and competitive news app. Such an app would need to integrate more successfully with browsers and employ less invasive revenue mechanisms. The ideal news reading app would collate content from multiple frequently read sites. A mobile platform populated by many individual news apps, each linked into its individual publishing unit, is inefficient. Short-term revenue streams may need to yield priority to long-term user retention objectives.