Publishers would be ‘fools’ to disregard wearables, says FT's CTO John O’Donovan as he discusses smart-watch opportunities and responsive-design pitfalls

The Financial Times’ foray into smart watches has marked a major step in its strategy to build a contextualised, API-based digital portfolio, and publishers would be “fools” to disregard the opportunities wearables can offer, according to FT chief technology officer John O’Donovan

Speaking to The Drum following its first venture into wearables with the launch of its fastFT service on the Samsung Gear S, O’Donovan said that early testing on the platform has “validated” that responsive web design is not all it’s cracked up to be, and that publishers must contextualise content to the screen or device on which their content is being consumed.

“Smart watches are going to change the way you read content," he said. "Talk around responsive design has taken over, but that doesn’t mean very much. The reason why we particularly liked the idea around the watch is it shows a total change in how you read content because the screen is so small.

“It completely validates that there is a model that isn’t just about making web pages smaller – that’s always been my bugbear – ‘make the website smaller and it will work on each device’.”

O’Donovan referred to all those who, only a few years ago, would have laughed at the idea that half of publishers’ traffic would be generated by mobile – and yet that has now become a “boring statistic” due to its commonality.

“It’s hard to predict how big the [smart] watch platform will be, but you’d be a fool to disregard it,” he added.

The FT has explored wearable devices such as Google Glass, but has chosen the platform on which it believes it can provide value to readers.

“It’s something that has considerably changed our view on how we use different devices. The biggest thing for the FT was proving we could do something relevant on wearables.

“We have looked at all of them [wearable devices] – the key thing is finding what’s right for each. A video might work well on Google Glass – fast FT and Headlines might work well on glass – but it’s unlikely you would want to read a whole article on Glass.

The launch came just ahead of the FT’s launch of a customisable API for government and education customers, letting them cherry pick the most relevant content for their businesses, which can then be repackaged into a contextual package.

The FT Headline API means professionals can create lists of relevant FT headlines and integrate them into their intranet, CRM system or other technology platforms they use to allow for easier access to FT content most relevant to their employees.

This use of API integration is indicative of how the publisher plans to rebuild its entire digital platform including FT.com and signals one of the first stages of its “universal publishing” strategy, which involves experimenting with how content can live on all platforms on which it makes business sense to be.

"Ultimately our focus is about putting together a whole range of contextual things that let us make our content more focused, and using APIs to power that and make it our basic business model."

“The way people use the home page is changing considerably and the most powerful thing we can do is be contextual. What you can do with an API but you can’t do with a website is you can know who someone is, where they are and what they like. Then you can start to build a more personalised service in a more light-weighted way that doesn’t involve investing huge amounts of time.

“We are looking at ways to make it more personal in the smartest way possible and to expose content more and surface content better - making the right things bubble to the top – the new structure will let us use API to build services that are contextualised,” he said.

O’Donovan referenced a previous statement he made at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, when he said the term ‘mobile-first had become meaningless.

He reiterated that although it is not necessarily a bad term, and has been a “useful war cry” for people who were focused on building things in desktop, but that it is a mantra that is “stuck in the now”.

He added: “What’s next – ‘wearables-first’”?

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