Google takes on Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles with AMP

Google wants to play a more significant role in the development and delivery of news on mobile devices, and its new open source AMP initiative already has an impressive list of supporters. But will it be enough to compete with Apple and Facebook?

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A battle is brewing over the future of news and media on mobile devices. During the last five months, the makers of the world's two most popular mobile platforms and the leading social media company released new services that let publishers deliver curated and packaged content tailored for mobile screens.

Facebook's Instant Articles, Apple News and the Google-led Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project are facing off, with varying objectives. Google, a company that's disrupted the news business for more than a decade, is leading the new open-source effort that will speed up mobile Web page load times by up to 85 percent, according to the company's early tests. 

More than 30 publishers and technology companies, including Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest, already expressed support for AMP. These companies want to reign in the scattered and superfluous nature of news articles, blogs and other content on mobile devices.

AMP a proactive response to ad blockers?

Google and its AMP partners want to circumvent the growing consumer interest in ad blockers by eliminating, or at least reducing, the problem that drives people to block advertisements — slow page load times, which can be particularly painful on mobile. 

[Related News Analysis: What Apple News means to publishers, advertisers and you]

"Consumption of news articles, and similar relatively static content, is often painfully slow, with pages taking a long time to load," writes AMP project tech lead Malte Ubl. "Even after text becomes visible, pages continue to build up over many seconds, as ads and images come into display. The result is an often jarring experience of janky scrolling and users needlessly losing their reading position."

Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News depend on partnerships with publishers, but AMP is different because it is entirely open source and does not have any special relationships or revenue-sharing deals for ad dollars. Google says publishers that use AMP will be able to fill their own ad inventories using their own preferred tools, including third-party ad networks or other automated technologies that are supported by the AMP initiative. Facebook and Apple similarly let publishers sell their own ads and keep all the revenue, but AMP could end up being more restrictive of third-party ad networks.

Facebook, Apple and AMP aim to drive more primary traffic for publishers by improving the user experience and provide a foundation for creators to build and deliver their content, according to Forrester analyst Michael Facemire. "Everybody's trying to pine for that, 'We are the place that you should come to create your content because we can drive eyes towards you, eyes that are focused and monetized,'" he says.

AMP a stripped down version of the open Web 

AMP fits in well with the "happy triumvirate that is the open Web — HTML, CSS and JavaScript," according to Facemire, but it also severely limits the latter component to restrict obtrusive ads. The open-source AMP approach should be more attractive to developers than the closed Apple, Facebook and Twitter platforms, Facemire says, and it should contribute to a greater speed of adoption. All of AMP's supporters have a heavy interest in the mobile Web, especially as it becomes their primary content delivery system, he adds. "It also benefits the altruistic argument, 'Let's all come together and build the modern open Web.'"

[Related Feature: Facebook Instant Articles will shake up media, benefit users]

Many of today's leading publishers partnered with Facebook and Apple to reach their massive user bases, but there's a growing fear that those closed approaches might be too much of a land grab. Media companies contribute to these various efforts because they don't want to be left behind, but concerns over the viability of these business models remain.

AMP, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles all deliver vastly improved experiences for users compared to traditional mobile sites, but AMP is unique because it claims to be an open-source initiative meant to benefit publishers, advertisers and users. Meanwhile, an underlying perception exists that Apple and Facebook's partner-centric approaches will result in the formation of winners and losers based on those platforms' business interests. 

"If we have a standardized way about doing this, then all of a sudden all of these folks benefit. Twitter can win with Moments, while Google wins with AMP," says Facemire. "It's not mutually exclusive."

AMP aims to improve content delivery across all mobile browsers and apps; the goal is not to serve as a defined container for articles within a specific ecosystem. Web pages built for AMP using HTML can be created using standard tools, and Google then accelerates pages via cache servers that are available to anyone for free.

[Related News Analysis: Twitter Moments miss the mark]

However, AMP provides significantly simpler versions of what most people see on the Web today, and the early results (at least the first example provided by Twitter) look like a decade-old version of the Internet at best. Much of the rich media publishers promote alongside articles on their sites, such as interactive maps, data visualizations and various embedded content, won't work on AMP because of the JavaScript restrictions. AMP's Ubl says this limitation makes sense for the vast majority of articles because although "JavaScript is the core building block for advanced Web pages," it's not always required for static content such as headlines, text and images. Google also says these are the very early days, and it could develop more extensions to supplant restricted media components in the future.

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No winners or losers … yet

It's unlikely that a clear winner will emerge in the battle between AMP, Apple and Facebook because of their segmented and disjointed audiences, according to Forrester's Facemire. "I think we have an opportunity for some lesser wins across the board."

If Google succeeds in speeding up the mobile Web, its efforts could benefit all parties. "This is another iteration of what [Google] does to increase the speed and therefore increase the overall experience of the Web," says Facemire. "That benefits everybody — consumer, producer of content, and these platforms that support content — so I think it's too early to say who's going to win here." 

Google released the initial technical specification for AMP on GitHub on October 7. The company plans to work with other participants on the project during the coming months to build more features and functionality for content, distribution and advertising.

More details on the initiative are available on AMPProject.org.

This story, "Google takes on Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles with AMP" was originally published by CIO.

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