Goodbye, Native Mobile Apps
Why Atavist is betting on the web
When we concocted the ideas that would become Atavist and The Atavist Magazine, in 2010, we did so amidst a frenzy of optimism and speculation around new devices, and the apps that would live on them. The iPad didn’t actually exist when we started hashing out our idea for a new outlet for longform stories, and was less than a year old by the time we launched in early 2011. The iPhone itself had only been around a couple of years. But as subway-riding New Yorkers, we noted the growing number of people staring at the screens in their hands, and made the fairly obvious connection that soon stories would need to be formatted precisely for those screens. Our idea was to create a new kind of magazine, specifically designed to be read on phones and tablets. So when we sat down to create our publication—and the publishing software behind it, the Atavist platform—there was only one logical place to start: in a native mobile app.
Now, after nearly five years and 51 stories in The Atavist Magazine—plus tens of thousands of publishers and individuals making their own on the Atavist platform—we’re discontinuing our native mobile apps to place all of our focus on the web. For most Atavist Magazine readers, nothing will change: All of our award-winning stories, and the ones on the way, live at magazine.atavist.com. For anyone who subscribed through our native apps, we’re transferring that subscription to the web.
In reality, we started this transition a long time ago; we’re just making it official now. Still, it’s a big change for us, given our history. We thought we’d take a minute to explain why we did it.
First, let’s transport ourselves back to the 2010 world of digital story design, to understand why we went native in the first place. Apple had just made it clear that Flash would be forever banned from its mobile browsers, leading a rush into the still-new world of HTML5. The latter held out promise for the kind of interactive design we wanted to produce for Atavist Magazine stories, with image, video, and audio elegantly integrated. But by the middle of 2011, six months after we launched in our app, more than half of installed web browsers were still not HTML5 compliant. Outside of the app world, there were also very limited options for offline reading—this in an era when not all devices tended to be online as constantly as they are now. Given that we were going to be producing 10,000+ word narrative stories designed to the hilt, building a native iOS app was the logical choice.
At the same time, the app universe was still new, and quite naturally viewed as one full of potential as a place for publishers to find a new audience. The “will the iPad save magazines / see the iPad didn’t save magazines” discussion was always as absurd as it was reductive, but buried within it was the possibility that print and online publications alike could find new audiences through their own mobile apps.
So when we launched The Atavist Magazine with our first two stories, we did it in an iOS app with what was, at the time, on the cutting edge of digital story design. One of those stories, “Lifted,” opened with surveillance footage from the beginning of a cash robbery in Sweden. Another, “Piano Demon,” laced music into the narrative of a piano player from the early 20th century. For two weeks in late January of 2011, we dutifully refreshed the iTunesConnect portal to which we’d uploaded it, until the approval message finally appeared, granting us passage into the kingdom of home screens.
And from the beginning, our mobile app did well, particularly for a “News” or “Books” app with $0 of marketing behind it. It was downloaded some 40,000 times in the first two months. We built out our software platform so that we could publish to the web and into the app simultaneously, with the minimum amount of design refactoring. We eventually launched an Android app as well. Over time, our app readership grew slowly, and our web traffic easily dwarfed it. Nonetheless, we viewed the app readers as a nice audience to have—readers who had carved out a little bit of real estate for us.
Suddenly, the reasons for creating a native experience began to narrow. Not only was there very little we could do in a native app that we couldn’t do on the web, but the strictures of the native app environment made it nearly impossible to design well for both. Even with our own software to ease the process of “publishing everywhere,” we were forced to make suboptimal design decisions in order to ensure that stories looked as perfect in the app as they did on the desktop and mobile web. Those differences needed to be tested on different devices and operating systems, no matter how good our software was at pushing to multiple environments smartly.
Simultaneously, the business complications of the native app world for digital magazines became increasingly clear. The Atavist Magazine avoided the grim fate of other publications by staying out of the Apple Newsstand graveyard, where apps were banished to obscurity. (The problem was bad enough, in fact, that Apple is now phasing out Newsstand itself.) But in an era where stories are increasingly found and shared through social media, discovery in the app store was a nightmare of its own. The only strategy proven to produce substantial app downloads for a new publications app was and is, essentially, “get featured by Apple.”
Driving readers from social media or the web into a native app proved to be a highly challenging operation. You could annoy them with pop-up ads asking them if they’d rather read the article they were currently reading somewhere else, instead (has this ever worked?). Or you could try to more subtly coax them into your app via “available on the app store” banners (recent data crunching by Google shows this does not work). “Deep linking,” the ability to link directly into specific articles in an app, was once the promised solution to this, but proved to be ineffective and difficult to implement to boot.
Worse, as we pushed the design envelope further on our stories, we were constantly running into the technical limitations of the app approval process. While we could develop, deploy, and—if necessary—repair new code instantly on the web, any change to our apps required re-submitting it to the app store in question. For Apple, that generally meant a two-week wait for approval, sometimes more if the app ran afoul of some obscure Apple or Amazon rule—rules often born of a dispute with the other platform giant.
Meanwhile, we—and the growing number of publications and individuals producing work with our platform—were thriving on the web. The story designs for The Atavist Magazine were cleaner, more beautiful, and simpler. To match that design in the app took a tremendous amount of native code work. And since everything we produce for the web is mobile-friendly, we were soon stuck with the irony that the reading experience for our stories in a mobile browser was often superior to the experience in our own app.
More importantly, we were reaching a readership often 50 to 100 times larger on the web than what we could in the app. Our app installs held fairly steady, at mid-to-high five figures (not at all a bad readership to reach for a publication the size of The Atavist Magazine), but all the trends swirling around publication apps pointed downward. Sales of iPads, one of the original impetuses for building native magazine apps, plummeted.
Ultimately, whatever small slice of attention we were gaining by having our app on some people’s home screens was outweighed by the technical, business, and design considerations that had piled up against it.
Earlier this year, we started advising the publications using our platform against launching mobile apps, unless they had a very specific strategy around finding an audience through them. Given how we’d begun to feel about our own apps, we weren’t comfortable taking people’s money for apps we didn’t think could succeed. Then this summer, we started the process of unwinding our own—a process we completed today by pulling our iOS app from the store.
So, are we saying native mobile apps are dead? No, obviously not. There are clearly huge opportunities on home screens for all sorts of apps, media and otherwise. When it comes to native apps for digital-first magazine and book publishers, however, the proposition has become pretty clear. Native mobile apps are best if you are:
- Aggregating content from a wide variety of publications (Flipboard, Longform, and Pocket all do this extremely well), or
- Command an audience so vast, and push out so much daily stuff, that you believe a significant segment of your loyal readership will check your app on a very regular basis—and you have the resources to produce an app that is a unique experience (say, The New York Times or BuzzFeed).
Outside of those two categories, the reasoning gets thin. While native mobile apps may seem like a way to reach a new audience, and while with the right attention or a bit of luck you can no doubt get some folks to download your app, these days the tradeoff in what you lose by devoting any development, production, or support time to them is generally not going to be worth it. For subscription-based digital-first publications, the proposition becomes even worse: You lose both customer information and a significant chunk of revenue to the platform owner at very little gain.
Some small publications may still value having their own apps as a kind of vanity outlet, to give the appearance of being on every platform, or as an additional offering for their subscribers. But the idea that a publication is going to obtain readers en masse through a native app, or that it provides an experience more valuable than the mobile web, has turned in the last five years from a hope to a fantasy.
Meanwhile, we’ve been able to find our readers on their devices—exactly as we hoped to when we started out, except in mobile browsers instead of in our app. Of course, the mobile web isn’t perfect: There are still offline reading issues—we’re working on our own new approach to that. And as the current debate around ad blocking shows, there are still problems with how the mobile web performs. We spend a lot of time working to ensure that our stories load quickly, but it’s certainly an ongoing challenge for all web publishers. (Happily since The Atavist Magazine doesn’t rely on ad networks for our stories, we start with a bit of an advantage.)
Of course, you can still read Atavist Magazine stories saved to other native mobile apps, like Longform, Pocket, and Instapaper—we work to make sure they look great in each. It’s also possible that in the future our stories may be available directly on the social networks now pulling in articles to load faster in their environments, like Facebook Instant or Apple News. (Obviously there is a larger discussion happening around that future, as those outlets have the potential to be fraught for some of the same reasons that native apps are fraught. But for the most part they are much more technically friendly, in that they rely on HTML and RSS rather than other specialized code, as native mobile apps do.)
Would Atavist ever build a mobile app again? Well, we might, actually. We’ve got our eye on a creation app that will let our platform users create their stories more directly from their devices. For now, though, we’re happily focused on making sure that both our own editorial, and everything published on Atavist, looks beautiful wherever it’s read. Come try out the platform and see for yourself, or read the acclaimed narrative stories The Atavist Magazine publishes every month. We’re on the web.