Boston Globe proves browser is king. Maybe.... - Enterprise Software Development - Dootrix
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On: 27th September 2011


Boston Globe proves browser is king. Maybe….

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.


  1. Marcus
    on September 29, 2011 at 7:51 am

    ” 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.”

    Don’t agree with that Bob. I successfully (and happily and usably) donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund on my iPhone on their adaptive site.

    Also, the Beeb app annoys me :) That said, I don’t know whether a well-designed adaptive version of their news site would beat a well-designed app. Logically, they should be the same, ergo the app is dead! :-)



  2. Anonymous
    on September 29, 2011 at 8:54 am

    The biggest benefit of a site/product remaining in a browser to me is the ultimate “sharability” of the content.

    Apps by their nature create a mini walled garden of sorts because they are usually designed to guide a user through a path/s to achieve things rather than sites which encourage exploring a bit more.

    It is of course easy for you to share a link to any page on The Boston Globe (until the paywall comes in at least) by simply sending me a link. It’s not usually as easy with an app based system.

    My big hope from the Boston Globe redesign is that Filament Group and the Globe themselves are open about publishing stats and information for the community to digest because without some context as to how well the new site is doing in terms of meeting business objectives, it’s impossible to judge whether it’s actually a success or *just* a well built website.


  3. Rob Borley
    on September 29, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Completely agree. It will be really interesting to see the impact over the long term.

  4. Rob Borley
    on September 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Thanks Marcus. I did say seriously consider. I agree with you in the case of RAFBF. The donate functionality would not be as effective or usable out of the context of the site itself. It does not make sense to have an app that just allows you to donate. However, there maybe more effective ways of using an app to generate donations. You need to take each situation on its merits.

    News content is a grey area. On the one hand it is traditional web content. But the nature of it’s continual updates make it suited well for an app environment. It’s the same reason why some users preferred to use an RSS reader rather than go to a website, while some will always use the website itself.

  5. Marcus
    on September 29, 2011 at 9:05 am

    My final point was if an adaptive site is well-designed – unless it can’t actually do something an app can – then there should be no difference in the user experience. The ‘one web’ version is likely to cost less to develop (never mind the other benefits) therefore it should always be the natural choice.

    The issue is, at the moment at least, adaptive sites can feel a little unwieldy and therefore not as pleasant a user experience as many native apps. I just wonder how easily that gap can be bridged.

  6. Rob Borley
    on September 29, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Would have to disagree on that one. There definitely should be a difference in the user experience. The users context defines the experience that they want and require. In fact, that’s really what adaptive design is doing; changing the experience to match the context.

    The website and the app are solve different problems. You should never be trying to recreate a website as an app. That’s pointless.

    With adaptive design techniques you opportunity to make your website more accessible / tailored to the context of your user. This is a good thing. You would develop an app if you wish to bring something more.

    The BBC app and the BBC site are not great examples of this because they are essentially presenting the same content in much the same way. Though I do prefer the speed and interface provided by the app there isn’t a lot in it. A better example is the Sky Sports News website and their Football news app. With the app I can tailor my view of the content that I want to see. It quicker use and has a more efficient and pleasing UX due to the native controls available.

    News is a funny example though. A better example is when you are using an application rather than a standard site. eCommerce for example can be greatly enhanced using a native app rather than a simply rehashing the desktop browser version.

  7. Marcus
    on September 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I appreciate that. What I’m saying is once the unwieldiness of adaptive sites has been sorted, will they be able to deliver ‘everything’ that a native app can?

  8. Rob Borley
    on September 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I want to just say no. *smile*

    But I still think that you are asking the wrong question. The adaptive site, and the native app are both the correct answer but to two different questions.

  9. Chris Mason
    on October 4, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Some interesting stuff here on some of the techniques involved in this –

    Call ‘responsive’ here, but essentially the same thing.

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