FT on the Samsung Galaxy Tab

This post was originally made on the Assanka blog. Assanka was acquired by the Financial Times in January 2012, and became what is now FT Labs. Learn more.

Ever since the launch of a certain 9.7 inch tablet device from Apple, the world of tablet computing has been turned on its head. As I write this there are still vendors pushing the old pretend-tablet devices that are really just laptops with screens that swivel (and therefore quickly break), but the real action is in slate-type devices such as the iPad.

No keyboard, no mouse, and no stylus equals a completely new approach to designing user interfaces and user interaction. Some have been slow to accept this, hence the continued existence of hybrid devices running Windows or Linux, but once you’ve experienced a device that is designed from the ground up for touch input only, you quickly realise that this is where your business needs to be if you’re going to give your customers the ease of use that they crave.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab, running our app

The Samsung Galaxy Tab was the first device to really challenge the iPad’s dominance in the touch-only tablet market. It’s smaller, at only seven inches to the iPad’s ten, and runs Android 2.2 (Froyo), an operating system really designed for phones. In fact, you can use the tab as a phone, though you look a bit ridiculous doing so.

We were given a great opportunity by the Financial Times to create an app that would ship pre-installed on many Galaxy Tabs. The FT already has some excellent, award winning iPhone and iPad applications, but these are native, and not portable to non-iOS devices. Our philosophy is that when innovation is as rapid as it clearly is in the mobile computing world, it’s not wise to get locked down to a single platform, no matter how awesome it is at the time, and developing separate native apps to the same standard of quality for every platform is mind numbingly expensive.

So our approach was to build a very thin native Android app that can simply download content and store it. This provided us with a reliable offline storage capability, and something to distribute through Samsung’s application gallery. Beyond that, the app was simply a container for some very advanced HTML5 magic, with sliding, zooming, and revealing animations all implemented in Javascript.

This enabled us to deliver an app that would not only delight users of the Galaxy Tab on launch day, but was ready and waiting when the Blackberry Playbook and Motorola Xoom and other upcoming tablets came along as well. Building an app using open web technologies provides the best platform on which you can more easily customise an experience appropriate to each new device that comes along, allowing rapid development and extremely quick entry into the market with something that is already a polished product.

Another benefit of using web technologies is the ability to update the app proactively. Users don’t need to go to the app store to download a new version that provides extra features – we can simply serve it directly to their device. When we release new behaviours, users get the update almost immediately.

When the app has the ability to be used offline, we had to consider carefully the problem of analytics. It’s easy enough to collect usage data on a website where you can easily send a notification to a tracking service, but when a mobile user is busy browsing pages with no internet connection, we have to store a history of their browsing, and upload it when they next go online.

Steve Pinches, FT’s lead Product Development Manager, is a big fan of this approach:

Using HTML5 we have been able to build a dynamic FT.com web app that can be tweaked to operate across a range of platforms and devices, starting with Android. This is an important step in being able to offer FT readers a consistent experience, no matter where or from what device they access FT content from.

The content available through the app comprises all the major sections of the FT, including award-winning high quality video content with the latest updates on markets and interviews with high profile CEOs each morning. Users also benefit from being able to analyse key metrics in a comprehensive markets data service, and keep up to date on movements in their personal portfolio.