Mobile sites affordable, accessible way to deliver news

If you’re thinking “app” to deliver news to the mobile phones of your readers, think again. You might want to think mobile sites instead.

That’s what independent news site The Tyee learned when it implemented it’s two pronged mobile strategy, says Geoff D’Auria, home page editor and web manager for the site, which delivers news on the Province of British Columbia.

In planning mobile delivery, The Tyee’s first approach, which it called “Big mobile” was to build an app.  Its second approach, dubbed “Small mobile,” was to build a mobile site. But in retrospect, they should have done it differently.

“We should have done it in reverse,” D’Auria says. “We thought [the build out] would be a lot faster and we thought we would roll them out faster. A year ago everybody was doing apps. We felt we were late too the game so we should do the app first.”

To get started on its mobile approach, The Tyee technical team built an API, application program interface, to allow clients to connect to the site and digest their news.

Next was the app, which they decided to build in HTML5.   HTML5 is supposed to work on all browsers that can handle Javascript, allowing The Tyee to circumvent the need to build a separate app for each type of phone and OS, Blackberry, iPhone or Android. That didn’t work out exactly as they had hoped. It turns out the app does not work on all phones, possibly in part because HTML5 is still under development and is not expected to be completed before 2014.

“HTML5 is a great solution if you do decide to build an app, if you decide an app is the thing that fits your needs” D’Auria says. “Right now our app works on iPhones and on most Androids. We haven’t “officially” released it for Android-powered phones because we’re chasing a bug that stops it from working on certain older models with older versions of the operating system.”

Coming up against these bugs, a newsroom could find itself spending more money  to get on more types of phones.  In addition, a newsroom might  find its distribution strategy is at the mercy of gatekeepers like the iTunes store.

“From the point of being an independent news organization,” D’Auria says, “We do things as much as possible in terms of the open web and open principles because that is the thinking that allowed us to prosper and bloom for the past ten years — open technology.”

The Tyee team wanted to honor that.

Their “Small mobile” strategy, building the mobile page, honored that fully.

The mobile page, built in regular HTML is refashioned so it works well on a phone screen and degrades gracefully on any type of phone or mobile browser. It uses a special logic that detects the size of your screen and delivers the appropriate mobile version.

Had The Tyee known how well the mobile site was going to turn out they would have done that first, D’Auria says.

“Nokia, Blackberry — smartphone or not, you can read The Tyee on it,” D’Auria wrote in a post introducing the new mobile site.

“Building a mobile website before a mobile application makes a lot of sense for a lot of businesses, especially digital news corporations,” says Brian McMurray, Web and Mobile Interactive Developer for web developer  Treehouse Agency. “Customers know your website and will try that first. The goal is to get your information in front of your customers, not get them lost in the phone’s app store. Plus, you can easily bookmark a mobile website on the homescreen of your iPhone with a custom icon that makes it as easy to launch as a native application.

Paul Baker, President and co-founder of Chicago-based technology design firm Webitects,  agreed, saying  his firm also suggests building a mobile site first.

Baker lays out his reasoning in a blog post:

Many people ask us, should we build a mobile website or an app? We generally suggest that clients build a mobile site first, unless there are compelling reasons to have an app.

Mobile site advantages:
•    Build it once and deploy to all devices (reach large audiences quickly)
•    Costs a lot less money
•    Backward compatibility is less complex
•    Design revisions are easy and don’t require installing updates
•    Audience penetration doesn’t depend on the success of particular devices
•    No Apple approval process

Think about creating an app(s) if you:
•    need to store data locally when a connection to the web is not available
•    require seamless GPS integration
•    need seamless integration of audio and video
•    are delivering products such as games
•    want a slicker look and feel
•    can productively use a wider variety of controls built into the device
•    have a board member who just purchased an iPhone

Research from Forrester concurs as reported in a May 3 article in ReadWriteWeb.  As use of mobile and smart phones grows, the mobile Web will continue to grow as will the use of apps. We’ll simply have to decide the appropriate interface for the content we are delivering.

So, where do you put your money? It depends on your audience. Looking to rally the Silicon Valley and South By Southwest crowd? Rich media integrated apps are probably the way to go. Wider reach at a lower cost? The mobile Web.

As to how much this all costs? Simple arithmetic will tell you that it costs less to build one mobile site than to build 6 separate apps.  Technologists were unwilling to discuss possible costs.

Sally Duros is a social journalist working toward the next generation of successful, credible online newsrooms. Connect with her on  and on twitter at saduros..

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