Great Expectations

Great Expectations

Unread is one of the best RSS readers in the App Store and was recently sold by Supertop to Golden hill software. I hope this transition will benefit users and Unread's new owner, however, in my personal experience it's not a likely outcome. To understand my pessimistic view, I will try to tell Unread's story.

On 24 July 2013, Jared Sinclair announced Unread, an RSS reader he was working on, expecting it to be ready for a fall release 1 . A few weeks later on the 1st of August, Jared announced he had become a dad and quitted his job to become an independent iOS developer 2 .

In-between diaper changes and bottle feedings, I’ve been wrestling with some hard design challenges for my next app. Every day this week, I worked late into the evening, pushing the design to a point that seemed like the right solution, only to wake up the next day and see that yesterday’s solution wasn’t right yet
— Jared Sinclair2

For those waiting with anticipation for Unread, it was probably reassuring to read about his dedication and attention to detail. It would, however, take more time to get the project finished and the Fall release became a winter release when it became available on the App Store on February 4th, 2014. The iPhone version had an introductory price of just USD 2.99 3 and it launched with good reviews from the most popular Apple Blogs. Cult of Mac used the title "Unread, The New King Of iPhone RSS Readers" 4 but it wasn't alone in its praise for the newcomer:

All in all, Unread is what an iOS 7 app should be — modern, fast and well-designed. It’s fun to use, and had helped me read more from the feeds I subscribe to than I ever was before while using my iPhone. It’s a winner in my book, and looks great on my homescreen
— 512PIXELS5
It was the design of Unread that hooked me right away — the app is clean, friendly, and warm, and all its type is set in Whitney — but the more I used it the more I began to appreciate and enjoy the functionality and feature decisions built into the app
— shawnblanc6
I approached Unread thinking that it was an app designed for people who subscribe to a handful of feeds and just want to read a few articles every day. What I found is an app that works exceptionally well with hundreds of feeds, that has great custom typography and interface choices that don’t look out of place on iOS 7, and that tastefully implements modern gestures, sharing controls, and iOS technologies
— MacStories7

This last remark by Frederico Viticci reflected some of Jared's on thoughts on his RSS feed reader:

Does Unread do all the things you expect from a typical RSS reader? Sure. But you won’t find a feature list here. Features don’t nourish your mind. I suggest that you don’t buy Unread if you aren’t interested in pruning your reading lists. Unread can handle dozens of feeds and thousands of articles with ease, but why would you want it to? Let Unread be an opportunity to break away from your old reading habits. Let Twitter or be the place for loud, busy feeds. Let RSS be the place where great independent writing thrives
— Jared Sinclair8

The clean style and the use of gestures instead of buttons were apparently a success, and Unread joined a couple of other apps on the top of recommended RSS readers.

Just a few weeks later Jared announced that he was working on Unread for the iPad 9 , and for me, that was an exciting announcement because all of my reading at the time was on my iPad. During the next couple of months, he shared his progress and ideas on his blog and also on Vimeo, giving us the rare opportunity to follow an app in development. Despite the work on the iPad, Unread for iPhone continued in active development and version 1.2 would arrive in mid-April with new features.

June 9th, 2014, Unread for the iPad is released in the App Store, after just four months of development 10 . As is iPhone counterpart it was astonishing, maintaining the clean aesthetic and gesture-based use but completely adapted to the new size and form factor.

You can navigate anywhere in the app from the edges of the screen. There’s no need to constantly reposition your hands. Just sit back and read your favorite online writers wherever you’re most comfortable
— Jared Sinclair11

That was my favorite feature because despite the iPad dimensions it was very comfortable to interact even when holding it with both hands while reading. At USD 4,99 it was just a little more costly than the iPhone version and in retrospect very undervalued.

Unread for iPad received the same praise than its predecessor being universally praised and recommended as one of the best RSS readers for the iPad. Two years later it was considered the best RSS app for the iPad on The Sweet Setup.

RSS arguably had its perfect device when the iPad was introduced in 2010. Suddenly, you could read the entire Internet comfortably on the couch. You could use RSS to bring the web to you. That’s why our pick for the best RSS reader on the iPad is Unread, an app designed to help you slow down, lean back, and enjoy good writing
— Robert McGinley Myers12

Reality sets in - Everything was looking promising for Unread but a month and a half after the launch of Unread for the iPad, Jared in an unusual move for the time, released detailed and disappointing App Store sales records. The favorable reviews and support of may independent writers contributed for a great launch week, but sales soon dropped sharply, even with Unread featured on the main page of the App Store in the weeks after launch. I suppose it makes sense because most of the target audience purchased it as soon as it got released and the continued exposure would only serve to capture a less invested or enthusiastic audience. Combining total sales of both versions, Unread earned $42K on the App Store, but when added the costs of taxes and health care premiums translated to a monthly income of $1,750 for 12 months of work. Considering that most of the revenue the app would earn was achieved in the first week and with the typical model of a one-time purchase, the future wasn't promising and Jared was comprehensibly discouraged.

I estimate that I worked sixty to eighty hours a week every week from July 2013 up until the launch of Unread for iPhone Version 1.0 in February 2014... My marriage and mental health suffered a lot because of that punchcard. I worked on Unread seven days a week, at almost any hour of the day. I think the quality and polish of Version 1.0 is due to all that extra effort, but it was physically and emotionally taxing. It’s not a sustainable way to live, and I don’t recommend it. However, if I had adhered to a saner work-week, Unread would have taken a year to finish and might not have launched at all
— Jared Sinclair13

He concludes with an assessment of difficulties that an independent software developer faces on the App Store, at least regarding its policies at the time.

The lesson to be learned from Unread is that even if you keep your costs low and your quality high, the immense scale of the App Store — 100 million credit cards — is deceptive. From the outside one might assume that an indie dev with a quality product could “fail” her way to a sustainable paid-up-front app business. The reality is that App Store sales patterns rarely support such a developer. True fans will buy her quality app within the first few days, then never give her any money again. The rest of her time will be spent trying to convince a few more users to become true fans, repeating the same short-lived, one-time purchase
— Jared Sinclair13

The new Job - Less than two weeks later on 8th, August 2014, Jared announced on his blog that following the disappointing revenue with Unread, he was starting a new job as a lead iOS engineer at Bloglovin and has a consequence, Unread would only be getting bug fixes and compatibility releases.

Due to potential conflicts of interest between Unread and Bloglovin, I won’t be adding new features to either the iPhone or iPad version of Unread
— Jared Sinclair14

In retrospect, I imagine that this only confirmed the fears of the fans that followed Jared's blog and were aware of the situation. Despite the disappointment, you couldn't fault his decision to pursue a more sustainable living. We still had a fantastic app, and at least for myself an appreciation for the work involved and for showing a different way to build an RSS reader.

One month later Unread gets a new home, giving some hope for the users, that can expect development to continue and better yet, a new team with a proven record. It's a bittersweet feeling knowing that the person behind such a good app was no longer working on it but that it also had been delivered to capable hands.

Supertop, the folks behind Castro — my favorite podcast app — are the new home for Unread, the RSS reader for iPhone and iPad that you have probably heard of by now. I am really happy for this news. Since I moved on to my new job at Bloglovin, Unread had become something akin to a beloved but grumpy family dog in a home with a fragile new baby. It’s better for everyone that Unread has moved on to a new home: better for me, for Supertop (obviously), and most of all for Unread’s users
— Jared Sinclair15

Although Supertop continued to work on Unread, over time, it seemed that the app was in maintenance mode and not in active development. With a team of only two developers that had an attractive and evolving podcast app, this was a likely scenario. Still Unread lingered until Golden Hill Software acquired the app, announced on August 4th of 2017.

Recently we’ve been so focussed on Castro that we haven’t managed to deliver the improvements that we had planned for Unread. We’ve always kept it running and fixed it when things broke, but it has been a while since we added new features. Oisin and I had a few meetings where we started drawing up plans for Unread 2, but it became clear that the more exciting ideas would require a major development cycle. We knew we’d have to either park Castro for a while to work on Unread, find someone to take over, or just remove it from the store
— Supertop16

It's not been happy times for Unread or its owners, but I can't help feeling that its users are also on the losing side. Not that Unread isn't a great app since its inception, but after using other great apps and enjoying the improvements they had over the years, I wonder about the ways it could have surprised me and maybe, just maybe carved a bigger slice of the RSS market for itself. It's time to confess, as much I appreciate Jared's concept and implementation of Unread I'm mainly a Reeder user. It's not to say that one is superior to the other, just that Reeder fits my usage habits better and it's another great option for your feeds. However I have always kept Unread installed all these years, and I use it about 20% of the time, in fact since I started writing this my daily usage has increased and I am now considering dividing my feeds into two categories. One for those sites I subscribe and read almost all the content they publish and another for all the other subscriptions that I only read one fraction of the content they post. Unread is a great fit for the first option and Reeder more adequate for the second, allowing me to scan the content fast and find the stories I'm interested.

I always had expectations that Unread would evolve into something I 'd want to use all the time, and despite that missing update and not being the best choice for my usage habits it still brings me joy for those times I do open it and can still feel amazed by what it accomplished.

Unfortunately, the realities of the App Store and the unwillingness of users to pay for quality apps don't leave me hopeful that everything will turn out fine. In fact, I've already watched some apps I liked disappear in much the same fashion, where an app is sold several times before its eventual demise. In a way that's one of the reasons I'm writing this, and I plan to follow this article with one about the realities of paying for digital goods based on a discussion I had with Diogo, my friend and co-host on episode 7 of our podcast. The other reason is, I hope some of you that are reading this article decide to try Unread. If you give it a chance, the odds are that you are going to like it, and even if you conclude it's not for you, its free to try so you lose nothing. The full unlock costs only USD 5.99 and for an application that will improve your daily reading experience, is a meager amount when you put it in perspective.

I'll just conclude wishing the best not just for Unread, but all developers who are doing quality work on the App Store, because it's not just the iPhone hardware and the quality of iOS. It's also the apps that make this platform the most desirable to have, and why its user spend more on Apple than other cheaper alternatives.

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