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Moving mobile: ReadWriteWeb chooses responsive design over a native iPhone app

Like other publishers, the tech blog is shifting its mobile development emphasis from apps to the browser.

When ReadWriteWeb pulled its iPhone app off the market a few weeks ago, they didn’t make a big deal about it. In fact, they cut to the chase with a tweet. The app is out — responsive design is in.

RWW is working on a site revamp that’ll employ the same fluid, shape-shifting qualities we’ve seen on The responsive approach, which allows pages to snap to the proper screen size and orientation regardless of device, has caught on with media companies because it allows them to serve the desktop and mobile audiences with the same code base and eliminates the need to build custom apps for every new significant phone or tablet platform. Apps still have their place, but mobile web is gaining as the default option for developers.

“We have a simple rule: if we can do it in a browser, we use a browser,” Alex Schleifer, general manager of the media lab at SAY Media (which owns ReadWriteWeb) told me. “If we can’t, well, then we consider building an app. We’re look at cases where we need access to the camera or location services and for that we’re building native apps.”

As indicators continue to show we’re going more mobile, publishers are adjusting their strategy to find the best way to serve that audience. And, as it turns out, they’re learning more about their audience’s reading preferences. For ReadWriteWeb, more readers tend to look at the site’s content through the iPhone’s Safari browser than from its iPhone app. And tablets, led overwhelmingly by the iPad, are the fastest growing segment of RWW’s audience.

Schleifer is overseeing the site’s redesign. Over email he told me they’re not abandoning apps, just focusing on a delivery method that’s available on every platform:

People’s behaviours are definitely changing. We just feel it’s best to invest in the mobile browser first, and the app stores later. It’s all-inclusive, and mostly system agnostic. It also feels a little strange that we should go back to a model where everything needs to be installed. The browser is a pretty perfect content delivery platform. Apps have a place, and they’ve completely changed the software landscape, we just don’t believe everything should be an app.

It’s also a weapon against fragmentation: both by new platforms and the increasing variety (in screen sizes, in resolution, in shape) within platforms. “It’s a single template that behaves accordingly on different devices so while you’re tweaking for specific ones you can be more or less sure that it will adapt to any of the hundreds of models coming out,” he emailed. “Samsung’s Note or even the Kindle Fire. We didn’t build for those devices but our templates work because they’re built to be responsive.” Schleifer said RWW is building for responsive images (for those lovely new Retina-class displays) and for orientation awareness. They’re also experimenting, he said, with “complex gestures and even measuring the tilt in some cases.”

One thing that we knew going in was that responsive would be really, really hard. We’ve done some extensive work using some of the technologies going into RWW for sites like Remodelista and you really need to have your framework built properly from the ground up to take full advantage of responsive. An entire framework is being built in parallel with the next RWW. Once some of the key issues were resolved and we could start really thinking about all the things we could do we knew all the effort had been worth it.

There are still issues — they’re debating how to deal with offline reading — but RWW is confident this approach is where to be investing. “I think that, when you’re looking at content consumption, mobile browsers are more than capable to provide an excellent experience,” Schleifer wrote.

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Mark Coddington    Aug. 29, 2014
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  • matthewhughes

    Shrewd move by RWW.

    Top responsive designers and engineers are going to be in high demand. 

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    My self-hosted WordPress blog is hardly a “typical web site”, but nearly all of my traffic comes from three places – Chrome, Firefox and the browser on iPhones and iPads. Androids and Internet Explorer are for all intents and purposes irrelevant, as is Safari on Mac desktops.

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    Yup, unless you’re a rockstar HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript developer you’re pretty much unemployable.

  • RedMercury

    We’re look at cases where we need access to [...] location services

    Miscellaneous aside, you can get access to the user’s location via HTML5.  You just can’t get continuous access.

    So if I want to see news stories based upon where I am, you don’t need an app for that.  If you want it update live as I go from town to town with the front page open, then you’d need an app.

    In short, unless you’re doing things with live navigation, you’re probably fine on the web.  Especially with things like Safari’s “Reading List.”

  • Jonathan Dunlap

    THANK YOU! I’m so tired of seeing apps that serve no function other than acting like a website. I’d would much rather use a mobile-friendly website to read content than cluttering my mobile OS with a hundred unnecessary apps. Besides, if I REALLY wanted a website as an app, I would use an RSS reader and subscribe to its feed.

  • Joshua Benton

    True re: location services. (Although I believe apps only need to ask the user’s permission for location access once, whereas web sites need to do so repeatedly. I get asked almost every day for location access by the Times-Picayune’s mobile site, for instance, whereas Foursquare just had to ask once.)

    The biggest advantage for native apps vs. HTML5 in my mind remains push notifications, which if used smartly could be a real tool for news orgs.

  • Tony Green

    I definitely prefer a mobile friendly website that plays nice on every device versus loading up my phone with lots of apps.  oh that’s right…I can’t download anymore apps b/c my 16 gb EVO is LOW IN MEMORY :-(  So, businesses better think more about mobile web instead of mobile apps.

  • Alex Schleifer

    Yes, there’s actually a surprising amount we can