The Atlantic has some of the best contemporary writing and photography today, showcased in their excellent monthly magazine (10 issues annually), their news and updates website The Atlantic Wire and now their iPad version: The Atlantic Magazine: Digital Edition, which was just relaunched a week ago after a year in development.
Many iPad magazines go with the model of “download our app for free and you can browse issues, then buy a subscription or single edition when you want to actually read the content.” In the same way that paying the same price for a Kindle version as a paperback version seems odd to many, paying $5 or so for a sort-of-PDF copy still feels expensive to a lot of people, which is one of many reasons tablet magazine revenue is still slow.
The Atlantic, however, takes a nice approach and delivers both free and paid content in the same app. The universal app (works on the iPad, iPod and iPhone) was released on July 29th, and its top purchase is already the annual digital subscription, which is promising.
WILL PEOPLE PAY WHEN THERE’S A LOT OF FREE CONTENT?
News and magazine apps are full of regularly updated content, and in the case of The Atlantic, it’s very well-written and professional content as well. So why would someone pay for a subscription or individual magazine?
In the case of well-known publications respected for their high quality content like The New Yorker, The Economist and The Atlantic: yes.
In the case of this app, I would easily pay for certain issues like the fiction issue for its excellent writing. But after spending some time with it, it’s obvious that while the free articles are great, the quality and reading experience are better in the actual magazine. I bought one issue to test it out, and it made me realize that a lot of people may miss out on seeing this experience because there isn’t a way to try that out. The style, layout and UI of the magazine and free content are both good but both very different.
iPAD VERSUS iPHONE/iPOD EXPERIENCE:
The experience on the iPad is slightly different from that of the smaller devices. On the iPhone, there is no option to subscribe, so the content is all from the web. It’s a well-designed experience for a compact screen. Instead of trying to cram in the rows of image boxes, it has a nice sliding panel with the eight top stories of the moment, so you can swipe through the top stories and see larger pictures before you decide which one you want to read. The navigation is mostly the same with the category titles at the top. Clicking on the individual articles puts in sort of a frame-within-a-frame. I found this to feel a bit “squished” since the menu and ad below take up a good amount of vertical space. It would be nice to take this to a full-screen view to get a bit more space.
The iPad on the other hand does allow users to subscribe and purchase individual issues. I’ll focus mostly on the iPad since that experience has a good bit more content and has the interesting contrast between the magazine and web content.
WHAT IS THE TECHNOLOGY?
The Atlantic’s app was built by RareWire, who have stated that the app consists mostly of XML, around 3,000 lines to be more exact. RareWire mentioned at the launch of The Atlantic that they are planning on making their “RareWire App Creation Studio” available in the upcoming weeks for other publishers who want to create a similar app based on existing feeds and don’t have the skills in-house to build Objective C apps themselves.
GIVE US THE RUN-DOWN
Opening the app looks good, the design is nice and the navigation is very intuitive. Upon launching the app you get an option to connect your already-purchased subscription with the app, subscribe, or just read the free content. The app updates the content with live feeds which takes a very short amount of time. Almost instantly you have an ad in front of you which you can easily close.
The settings of the app allow you to subscribe for a year or connect an existing subscription. There’s a way to set the default view of the app so that it goes to the main page, the magazine, the photo stories or the news channels when it launches. Settings also includes a link to e-mail feedback or get tech support.
There’s just something very Flipboard-y or Pulse-y about the layout, however, which I can’t put my finger on. When you click on the “Top News” button, everything is the same size and therefore given the same amount of importance. For some reason it doesn’t feel right. The place where that layout works great, on the other hand, is in the “In Focus” section, the collection of photo essays. The photographs are beautiful and you can choose to swipe through different collections with or without the captions and credits.
In the individual channel pages, such as Business or Technology, it’s not clear whether the articles are ordered by most recent story or by top stories. I assume that the top three images are the top stories for that category.
I mentioned above about the articles on the iPhone app feeling a bit squished. The iPad app in portrait mode has a similar feeling although it’s less obvious. The menu and navigation at the top and the related articles and ad at the bottom make it feel crowded.
Moving in to the magazine feels very familiar to many existing magazine apps. There is navigation at the bottom to select various issues, and the same navigation of the app remains at the top so you can go back to the news channels or photo gallery. Each magazine issue allows you to swipe through the table of contents (although it is small so a bit difficult to read) as well as purchase that individual issue or an annual subscription.
Once you’ve purchased and downloaded an issue, it’s again quite similar to many iPad magazine experiences. You have a hideable navigation bar at the bottom, help information and links to specific regular columns. The rest of the magazine is the same sort of PDF-ish feel. Interestingly, clicking on a story name on the magazine cover or table of contents also navigates you to that article.
I want to discuss the reading experience in the magazine versus the free content. In the magazine, each page is fairly static and you can pinch and zoom to increase text size or image size. There are some videos but I couldn’t get any to play very long without crashing. However clicking the “Reading View” button at the top was a very nice experience. The chrome was gone, and I was left with no distractions in my reading: just a small picture and the article text. In this view, you can also click an “articles” button at the top right to view other articles in the issue in the same way. You can select and copy text (not an option in most magazines), pinch and zoom and scroll vertically through the article. I loved this reading experience and it’s something I would definitely pay for: the lack of distractions. I did feel as if I were missing out on some of the art of the articles, and I went back to several articles to page through them after reading them in the reading view, just to see the images. In most of the articles, I hadn’t actually missed out on anything but ads.
Contrast that with the reading experience of the free content in the app. Clicking on an article in one of the news channels gives you the article with photos and text, but there’s chrome around the article and no reading view. Clicking the “Like” button added a less-than arrow in the article nav bar, but I never figured out what it was for. Clicking the heart icon adds the article to your favourites section, but I couldn’t find a way to remove articles from there. So there are a few odd UI things. The disqus comments embedded at the bottom seem like a good idea, but they contribute to the reader feeling he or she is on the web anyway and not in an app designed for reading. Plus the login mechanism is separate again so you have to also log in to disqus to post anything. The magazine reader in me wishes that stuff stayed on the website. The good thing about reading the web content however is that it works fine in both portrait and landscape, whereas the magazine doesn’t seem to adjust (and usually crashed when I tried).
I’ll differentiate between sharing in a magazine article and sharing the free content as well. In the magazine, you get a small overlay that actually contains the title of every article in the magazine issue. For each one, you can select a variety of share options, and this is the first time I have ever seen the option to share via LinkedIn. This overlay interface is strange because it looks confusing at first, and a few times I didn’t remember the exact title of the article I was reading. However in terms of actual implementation, it works much better than the free content sharing. The e-mail sharing sends a link to the article on the website and it works great.
The free content gives you the option to share via Twitter, Facebook and e-mail like many publications. I did not like it at all because you have no options to edit, you simply see a small fade-in message box telling you the article has been Tweeted or linked on Facebook. This always bothers me because you have no idea what your tweet or Facebook link actually says. In the case of Facebook, it kept giving me the login screen and never accepted my credentials. It did end up posting one link however. The Twitter integration never worked for me, but it did continue to tell me my links were being tweeted.
Something I expected to work at least in the iPad version is fast-app switching but the app does not support it and always starts from the beginning. So if you’re in the middle of an article you’ll have to remember where you were the next time you launch the app.
I’ll be honest, while the first time I downloaded and launched this application last week on my iPad it was fairly smooth, this week I have had a lot of problems just getting the iPad app to launch without crashing. I don’t know if the app is very memory-heavy or if the technology is just new and buggy. As it’s relying on live feeds, it could also suffer if one or more of those is overloaded or simply down. I tried reinstalling a couple of times and killing all the other running apps on my iPad, but that didn’t seem to affect it. So hopefully it’s an intermittent issue or will be fixed in the next update. I’ll try again tomorrow and see (note: this wasn’t an issue on the iPhone version, just the iPad).
Because the magazine is such a different reading experience, The Atlantic should consider offering one issue to download and read for free. Or use The Economist model where they give you some of the editor’s recommendations for free in each issue. I really loved the reading view and think it would encourage more people to pay up if they could try it out.
I hope more magazines start putting as much thought into their reader and making that reading experience great as the magazine section of The Atlantic does. The app feels a little disjointed since the experience of the magazine and web content are so different, but I love the content and it’s fantastic to have the option to read both together in one app. As digital magazines begin to need analytics showing large numbers of both downloads and paid subscribers to sell ads in their iPad editions, I think we’ll see more of this hybrid approach. Too many magazine apps get downloaded and ignored or deleted because without spending $5 the reader has nothing to engage him or her.