Thoughts on Readability vs Instapaper

by Christopher Paul on April 3, 2012

Like a glutton for punishment, I feel like dipping my toes into the contentious debate between Readability and Instapaper. Why? I wonder if the crowd of commentators is overlooking one thing that they normally place a lot of value on: the end user.

First, I think we can agree that regardless of what their actual business model is, Readability has failed to communicate effectively. Even if there isn’t anything devious intended, they look shady for making decisions that people find poorly thought out. They can help turn their reputation around if they were forthcoming on their model and quick to respond to valid criticism.

Second, I think it’s also safe to say that there isn’t one business model for a startup to use. I think both the straight app purchase that Instapaper uses and a subscription model that Readability leverages can work in their own way. Each has pros and cons. It would be wrong for anyone to say which one is the "right" one. And no matter what model a developer chooses, they need to be upfront with how the money is going to be used. Even if they said they intend to take the money and buy a yacht, it’s better they disclose that upfront than suddenly start sailing around in a 80′ boat after taking people’s money. Likewise, it’s not a good idea to promise 70% of the income to publishers when it’s not clear (or even opaque) that you will.

Third, each time-shifting/formatting service out there can and should distinguish itself to make it unique. Like business models, it would be wrong for anyone to say that one app is best for everyone when it should be clear that tastes vary. Layout, supporting services, pagination, syncing, and other UI tricks that one app applies might not work for everyone. Power users might want lots of features with a many options. Others, just want to have something simple to use.

As I said before, I feel Readability doesn’t communicate well at all. They need to improve that and quickly if they want to be successful in the long term. Instapaper has been rather open with it’s product direction and use of any revenue generated from the service; even before the competition between the two, there were regular messages delivered with what to expect and, more importantly, what has happened. And it’s very clear to Instapaper supporters that the lack of communication is one key issue they have with Readability. Transparency in this connected age is easier than ever; conversely, hiding is more difficult. Therefore, when secrecy or ambiguity exists in the age openness, it’s immediately (and often justifiably) questioned.

In the straight app purchase model, one generally assumes the money goes right to the developer and the teams that support it. Readability’s subscription model is not so clear. It earmarks 70% of the subscription fees to the writers and publishers. But it can only pay out that money if a representative registers with the site. I don’t think the end users know that immediately (more on that in a bit). But, as many have said, the service is collecting money on behalf of all publishers whether they know it or not and doing so without their permission.

For the record, I hate that phrase "collecting money on my behalf without my permission." It sounds arrogant and rather pretentious to take that attitude – like looking a gift horse in the mouth. Why wouldn’t you want the money? Altruism? I sometimes wonder if the Readability supporters look upon the opposite position and think that’s part of it. It’s not a far stretch to come to that conclusion. Though, it’s likely to lead to a confused response with an us vs them attitude that isn’t helpful and ignores a very important aspect I mentioned earlier: the end user.

For all the questions being lobbed back and forth, has anyone thought about what the average user – who don’t know the investor/creator/staff/partner/friend/whatever from either site – thinks? I don’t know if they have. Sure, some who follow the factions in the Apple App space know what’s going on. But what about the Android world? Or what about the average iOS user who just saw that Apple featured both of them in their ‘New and Noteworthy’ section of the App store? I would bet a year’s subscription or 12 purchases of Instapaper that most don’t know or care. To them, the app is a function – an experience – that supports the entire iOS experience. I don’t know any of the stakeholders in this debate, personally. I care about the features and what I want is a good app that does what I want – which is offer a beautiful reading experience, cached for offline use, the ability to share what I’m reading with others, and a way to discover and easily import articles from around the web into it. In the grand scheme of information consumption, most people don’t care that Readability’s model isn’t fully explained.

And, to be honest, I used to use Instapaper all the time. But I grew tired of the look of it and I disliked the move to a grid organizational system with one its more recent upgrades. And the bookmarklet couldn’t handle pages well. Plus, it doesn’t always handle articles from the NY Times and other services where a limited number of ad supported articles are displayed before subscription supported articles are enforced. Maybe others suffer from that fate and I don’t see it but I will say this about Readability: looks better (in my opinion), has a simpler interface, better time/format shifting, and has a diverse ecosystem supporting it. Therefore, I find myself turning to Readability more and more.

Instapaper has done a great job of responding to the new competition by introducing new fonts (which look much better than before), offering layout options, and improving the bookmarklet. That is how you respond and the team behind it continues to earn my respect even if I don’t always use their app. They’ve earned it for a long time, too, and I’ll pay for their app again for a 5.0 release if that’s what they want to do. And I hope they do because I want them to succeed. There is room for more than one market participant, here.

But I would be ignorant if I didn’t acknowledge (again) that Readability does looks sketchy, here. And while I really only care about the features of the app, I don’t have to agree that the way they’ve structured their business or maintain their reputation. Absent of the model changing, they should admit to what everyone else around them has determined: they bank on the fact that not every publisher is going to know (or want) to opt-in and they literally pocket the leftovers. That could sound like a pyramid scheme. And the chorus of complaints isn’t going to back down. In fact, it will only grow. So while I want Readability to be successful, too, they can’t and won’t without addressing the complaints.

So what should happen?

For Instapaper, it should stay low and focus on innovating. Take the high road and keep the user in mind – not another business’s or publisher’s revenu stream. Don’t rely on your morality to sway people who know nothing of the debate. The response to Readability gave me intense pride that I paid for Instapaper. And I’m glad I continue to invest in it’s future with the subscription offering that gives me API access. Ignore competitive business models unless you react to making yours more attractive.

Now, Readability. There’s a lot I feel they need to do and it’s arguably more challenging. First, they need to come clean on their payment/business model. Either admit you’re keeping the remains or don’t allocate the money in the first place or ever. Donate the 70% you take to only the publishers that opt-in. Stop holding funds in an account for a year and wait for someone to claim it like a lost and found. If there is a publisher in mind with this whole idea, those who opt-in should be rewarded for the full amount.

Second, they need to be open on how they apply the payments in a way that can be audited. It must be transparent for the publishers and certainly for the vocal opponents to the way things are handled now. I’m not saying 3rd parties like myself or even other writers (who don’t participate in the program) need to see the results. Only those who have a vested interest in the model should be concerned with it. Let the publishers get the results and say they’re happy with them. By being open about the allocation of funds to them, you take away a lot of the reasons for not liking the service.

They also have to stop doing other shady things like not giving a link credit to the source article. I know they’ve recently changed that practice but why get embroiled with it in the first place? Stop giving your detractors more reasons to hate you. I hate to say "Don’t be evil" because we know that’s bullshit. But don’t go against the journalistic code that the industry finds valuable; without respecting that, you might as well paint a big red bullseye on your back.

Lastly, they need to be better at responding to criticism. These are smart people talking about legitimate observations or asking valid questions. Don’t belittle people by suggesting otherwise. It won’t help. Be honest. Be open. Be quick. Be proactive. Don’t extinguish yourself with rookie mistakes that distract from the user experience.

And that’s what I want to end with: the user. All the time/format shifting services and apps out there have to focus on the user. For Readability, it’s improving the user’s contributions to the service and the value they place on reading and sharing articles. For Instapaper, it’s responding to challengers with better features as they have been; keep that up. Because there are differences in what users want and how they want to support developers and authors. And as long as that is kept in mind, there won’t be a need for taking sides, calling people names, jumping to conclusions, or false accusations. Only products and services that strike a good balance between user, developer, and publisher.

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