Working in the online reporting field since 2001, Thomas Rosenmayr has a financial background as an equity analyst and holds an MBA from Vienna/Austria. He is the founder and CEO of Nexxar, a firm that focuses on producing online corporate reporting documents that take full advantage of web technologies to improve engagement through interactivity and advanced functionality. Thomas can be found on Nexxar’s blog and on Twitter @ThomasRos
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
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 at 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 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!
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.