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There has been quite a stir in recent weeks about Boston Globe. This American daily publication has shunned Apple and its in-app subscription model and decided instead to develop a new desktop browser based website which is optimised for mobile browsers using a techniques called adaptive and reactive design. We are going to take a brief look at what they did, why it works for them, and whether or not you should care.
Boston Globe have produced a fantastic example of adaptive and reactive design. It is the first major site of its kind to receive such public acclaim and has been heralded as proof that apps are a short lived blot on the landscape of browser dominance. While it is a very impressive piece of work and a very good solution for their needs I don’t think we should be writing the obituary of the app just yet.
Reactive design is a technique where by the website reacts to the size of its containing browser. Resizing the browser will automatically adjust the layout of the website to optimise the content for its new surroundings. This might mean making images smaller or changing column widths; even removing columns entirely. The idea is that no matter what your reading preference you will have a view of the content that is optimised for you.
Adaptive design is a similar technique in which there are 2 or more predefined states. The website adapts when it is loaded or resized to a predefined screen size. For example you might set an adapting point at iPhone screen size, or at iPad portrait screen size. This is useful in providing an optimised view of your content for specific target devices.
Boston Globe combined these two approaches and produced a fully reactive adaptive site. This reacts and then, at specific points, adapts. It is a very good implementation and it goes some way to solving their major mobile problem. Post September 30th, when the pay wall goes online, they will not have to give 30% of their sales to Apple while still offering a mobile specific context to their users.
Emerging app use cases
Notice that I didn’t say app like context. It’s mobile specific but it’s not app like. Clear use cases for browser technology and apps are emerging. If you are looking to provide a function or an interactive service; if your service requires users to do something then you need to seriously consider an app. If you are providing traditional or corporate content then a mobile optimised web site is what you should be looking into. Admittedly subscription news providers do fit somewhere in the middle but Apple’s policy on in-app purchasing revenues have push this one way instead of the other. On the other hand news services providing free content have tended to go down the app route. The BBC News app is a great example of this.
Boston Globe’s approach hasn’t, by any means, killed the app. However, what they have shown is that there is a viable alternative for content providers who are looking for mobile optimisation rather than mobile functionality.