Annual reports for iPhones & iPads: hype or good idea?

An iPad app of an annual report can combine the advantages of online reports with the well-worn advantages of printed reports.

The following post is a 1:1 duplicate that I originally wrote for IR Web Report:

There is currently a lot of discussion in the corporate reporting community – some might call it hype – about companies creating iPhone and iPad apps for their annual reports and other documents. In this post, I am going to try to frame the debate in terms of the pros and cons from an investor or analyst’s perspective because that’s ultimately who is supposed to use the apps. By doing so, I hope to bring some rational discussion to a topic that is often charged with all the emotion that Apple tends to evoke with its technologies.

But let’s start at the beginning. When companies and corporate reporting professionals talk about creating “an app” for their annual reports, they typically mean creating content that will be available via Apple’s App Store, which currently offers more than 300,000 apps across a wide range of categories.

It’s interesting to me that most people don’t seem to draw distinctions between apps created for the iPhone or the iPad. They talk about creating “an app,” as if to suggest that one app will be able to meet the requirements of both devices.

While it’s true that a single app can work on both devices, my view is that the two devices are very different and require separate approaches.

Annual report apps for iPhone

Bulky annual reports don't lend themselves to small iPhone screens, so they end up being little more than marketing pitches.
Bulky annual reports don’t lend themselves to small iPhone screens, so they end up being little more than marketing pitches.

Let me cut to the chase right away: annual reports are horrible on the iPhone and there’s not much anyone can do to make them better.

Think about it for a moment. Annual Reports are content rich publications. Depending on the jurisdiction, they can vary from a “slim” 100-page report in the US to a typical 250-page document in Germany and the UK. This goes up to a range of around 500 pages, which is common among Italian companies.

Is this the kind of thing you would want to download and squint at on your iPhone?

The user experience of the iPhone annual reporting apps I’ve looked so far is poor. It takes an awful lot of clicks to end up, far too often, with a useless dead end of information or a PDF download.

And, if I’m being honest, I don’t think this is a result of bad design by the developers. I doubt there is much scope to improve the user experience with clever navigation and content preparation.

No, the real problem is that the large, text-heavy annual report itself is simply not suited to the small iPhone screen size, especially for not for large tables, which are common in annual reports.

This brings me to what I think makes more sense for the iPhone: a slimmed-down, fast-read mobile version that gives you a summary of the essential information, but which directs you to view the full version on another, more appropriate device — which may be an iPad.

Annual report apps for iPad

iPads have a much better screen size to view annual reporting content. In addition, there are several advantages an iPad app could offer users:

1. Offline use.

Users can download the report from the App Store and use it even if they don’t have an Internet connection, such as while they are traveling. This is potentially a very attractive application for number crunching analysts. Together with a good toolset, this could potentially combine the strengths of an online report with the advantages of the portable document format (PDF).

Making notes on the digitized report itself, something that has been tried with little success on the web, would finally start to make sense. Users can attach their personal comments to their personal version of the app and not worry about the information being lost or seen by others on a publicly available online report.

Of course, if you step back, you’ll recognize that these advantages are not new. They’re pretty much what you can do with any printed document!

2. Standardized presentation.

Since all iPads are the same, we know exactly how our content will look for the end user. We can optimize the display and functionality to precisely meet the iPad’s specifications. That means we can optimize the size of pictures and use multi-column layouts, things that we have to refrain from doing when people are accessing our reports with a variety of screen sizes, browsers and operating systems.

Now this might sound like a good thing, but again it’s more or less bringing back strengths we already have in printed reports. Of course, an app will enable us to do things that we can’t do on paper. You can zoom in on a picture, watch a video, hear an audio clip and explore with your finger tips. You can even flip through pages with your fingers, just like a paper report!

The iPad offers a much better viewing experience, especially for multimedia. But it lacks support for key software like Excel spreadsheets.
The iPad offers a much better viewing experience, especially for multimedia. But it lacks support for key software like Excel spreadsheets.

3. Brand positioning.

Being part of the tech-savvy crowd is probably the main driver behind the current buzz around annual reporting apps. Having an app for your annual report positions your company as being a leader. It could attract media attention and inspire interest from a technology-focused crowd. It can raise awareness of your company among app users, a growing number of whom inhabit the world’s financial districts.

And to be honest, this is not a bad reason to create an iPad app for your annual report information. We all need to differentiate our companies somehow. It’s just important to be honest about our reasons, and not fool ourselves that our annual reporting apps are actually more useful than anything that has come before.

Towards a platform-independent approach

An iPad app of an annual report can combine the advantages of online reports — search, hyperlinks, multimedia and instant worldwide availability — with the well-worn advantages of printed reports. As the iPad is a very interactive device, a key success factor will be engaging users with the app.

But at the end of the day, an iPhone or iPad app is just that, an application for a single device. It’s an additional expense over and above the traditional report. And it doesn’t support file formats that are important to analysts, such as tables in Excel.

The question is, is it wise to put all your eggs in one basket? Perhaps a better approach would be to create a platform-independent application that can work just as easily on Apple’s devices as it can on other tablets and mobile phones. Increasingly, this is the direction we and other web developers are moving in.

Comments.

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  1. Great article Thomas,

    I love my iphone and I’m sometimes tempted to buy an ipad but I have a great distrust of producing work that’s only available on one platform.

    It seems increasingly strange to me that a great deal of interest is paid to how the content could be viewed and used on an ipad when we all know it’s not the viewing device of choice for the vast majority of the users.

    I totally agree you about platform-independent applications & I would much rather spend the development time on producing work that is platform agnostic and works beautifully across the board (allowing for tweaks and flourishes where applicable) then spending €10k on an app that will be viewed by such a small audience.

    Remember, if the Blackberry pad turns out to be as good as the advert then we will all be asked to develop apps for that, let’s instead spend the time developing top notch websites that work across the board.

    I’d be very interested to hear about others experiences in this field.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your piece.

    I’m not sure you need to be too worried over the iPad lacking “support for key software like Excel spreadsheets.” The ‘Documents to Go’ app costs just $10 and with that you can read and edit Excel files (and Word, etc). I am sure that most IR people, analysts, etc, who are iPad evangelists will have already installed that app, especially as they will be familiar with it already from the various iPhones, Palms etc that they have had in the past.

    I am interested as you know, so I have just now this moment set up a very short survey to see whether people would find it useful to be able to access annual reports in this way on their iPads. I will share the results with you once I have a meaningful amount of data: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/MLD96CC
    Feel free to send that URL on to anyone else!

  3. I cannot agree stronger with you Stewart!

    Thats why we are working so hard teaching our online reports how to fly.

    We all have to remember to fish where the fish are. And currently some big fishes enter the iPad pond. Wise to look into this before the pond gets too small for the fish. But we will never do something for the sake of it. If we develop an App there needs to be a good reason and thats something we currently need to find out!

    Once again thanks for your much appreciated input!

  4. Very interesting viewpoints that you brought up Thomas, although I have to disagree in some aspects:

    1. The iPhone and the iPad are different media types, hence they should be treated as such

    I think that the nature of a tablet combined with the specific options that both the iPhone and the iPad offer, we should aim at leveraging those options accordingly. I agree with you that both devices are very different and should be treated differently according to their use cases.

    The iPhone I guess is more of an ad hoc research / search device, I imagine a person sitting in a meeting, on the plane or reading something while travelling, so only having a basic version with links to the online report don’t make sense. Either the app is fully offline capable and searchable to have a real usage scenario, or you would probably just use Google on the iPhone and sift through the online report. But I think, that if you have a publishing workflow that allows for easy repackaging of the content, having a full version, with a searchable content and a graphic section would be a great service, combined with multimedia this would be really great.

    With the iPad I think that its even more necessary to repackage the app to fit the screen and the possibilities, think of all the options that you might have, which are more than just using multitouch to resize an image.

    As you said: the options are similar to those reports on paper, and you wouldn’t just take the HTML version of the report and print it. You will very likely try to use the full potential of the medium.

    2. Prefering a device specific approach over a platform approach

    I think that the difference here is that you focus on the publishing process and my viewpoint would focus more on the use cases. So I guess being inline with the argument above, I would favor those approaches where the content is fitted to the device (medium) but is cross-media published out of one infrastructure.

    The current HTML5 approaches that some frameworks offer, trying to mimic a native iPhone / iPad app are never going to offer the same feeling as a real native app, because those apps are integrated deeper into the device.

    I’m comparing this to other publishing workflows, where of course the content that is the basis for the product is generated out of a platform that supports more than just device, but in turn the device is not limited by the platform in the background.

    Take for example the Interactive Ad from Codewort that I just found by chance:

    http://codewort.com/

    Of course such an app could probably have been made using HTML5, but it feels smoother, it works better, it looks better being done in Objective C.

    So far for my argument, would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  5. Very interesting viewpoints that you brought up Thomas, although I have to disagree in some aspects:

    1. The iPhone and the iPad are different media types, hence they should be treated as such

    I think that the nature of a tablet combined with the specific options that both the iPhone and the iPad offer, we should aim at leveraging those options accordingly. I agree with you that both devices are very different and should be treated differently according to their use cases.

    The iPhone I guess is more of an ad hoc research / search device, I imagine a person sitting in a meeting, on the plane or reading something while travelling, so only having a basic version with links to the online report don’t make sense. Either the app is fully offline capable and searchable to have a real usage scenario, or you would probably just use Google on the iPhone and sift through the online report. But I think, that if you have a publishing workflow that allows for easy repackaging of the content, having a full version, with a searchable content and a graphic section would be a great service, combined with multimedia this would be really great.

    With the iPad I think that its even more necessary to repackage the app to fit the screen and the possibilities, think of all the options that you might have, which are more than just using multitouch to resize an image.

    As you said: the options are similar to those reports on paper, and you wouldn’t just take the HTML version of the report and print it. You will very likely try to use the full potential of the medium.

    2. Prefering a device specific approach over a platform approach

    I think that the difference here is that you focus on the publishing process and my viewpoint would focus more on the use cases. So I guess being inline with the argument above, I would favor those approaches where the content is fitted to the device (medium) but is cross-media published out of one infrastructure.

    The current HTML5 approaches that some frameworks offer, trying to mimic a native iPhone / iPad app are never going to offer the same feeling as a real native app, because those apps are integrated deeper into the device.

    I’m comparing this to other publishing workflows, where of course the content that is the basis for the product is generated out of a platform that supports more than just device, but in turn the device is not limited by the platform in the background.

    Take for example the Interactive Ad from Codewort that I just found by chance:

    http://codewort.com/

    Of course such an app could probably have been made using HTML5, but it feels smoother, it works better, it looks better being done in Objective C.

    So far for my argument, would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  6. Hi Thomas, thanks for the insightful and well balanced article. Very timely, and just the thing to refer to when faced with an executive ‘wanting one of those for my Annual Report’.

  7. Hi Thomas, thanks for the insightful and well balanced article. Very timely, and just the thing to refer to when faced with an executive ‘wanting one of those for my Annual Report’.

  8. I thought about our conversation when I read this:

    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/facebook-plans-to-speedup-its-iphone-app/

    I still think, native apps are far superior in terms of speed and user experience than hybrid HTML5 apps. Platform independent is nice, but on a platform with limited resources you might want to go the extra mile in favour of better outcomes.

  9. I thought about our conversation when I read this:

    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/facebook-plans-to-speedup-its-iphone-app/

    I still think, native apps are far superior in terms of speed and user experience than hybrid HTML5 apps. Platform independent is nice, but on a platform with limited resources you might want to go the extra mile in favour of better outcomes.

  10. Hi Thomas,

    Great piece. I totally agree that Tablets are great devices for Annual Reports and that smartphones should be used (if at all) for a slimmed-down overviews that points to the full version… or a download page.

    Tablets are here to stay and are generally out-performing laptops and desktops in terms of sales. I think that there is a wider discussion here but on your point about eggs and baskets I just wanted to point out that Apple do hold 56% of the tablet market currently so that’s quite a big egg to have in your basket! Also, Adobe Digital Publishing, with InDesign, outputs not just to Apple devices but to Android too and will undoubtedly keep developing in that way as other tablets gain market share.

  11. Hi Thomas,

    Great piece. I totally agree that Tablets are great devices for Annual Reports and that smartphones should be used (if at all) for a slimmed-down overviews that points to the full version… or a download page.

    Tablets are here to stay and are generally out-performing laptops and desktops in terms of sales. I think that there is a wider discussion here but on your point about eggs and baskets I just wanted to point out that Apple do hold 56% of the tablet market currently so that’s quite a big egg to have in your basket! Also, Adobe Digital Publishing, with InDesign, outputs not just to Apple devices but to Android too and will undoubtedly keep developing in that way as other tablets gain market share.