Sunday, March 11, 2012

Readability vs Instapaper

First, I want to say that I have been an Instapaper user for several years. I think the service is wonderful, and I think Marco is a cool guy. If Readability hadn't come out with a native iOS app, I'd definitely still be using Instapaper today. The fact is, I didn't switch to Readability because I like the app better. I think both apps are great! This post isn't about which app you should use, it's a response to the negativity surrounding Readability's subscription service.

As soon as Readability hit the App Store there was a flurry of articles and blog posts condemning the service. Why? Well, supposedly people are upset with the way Readability collects money on behalf of publishers. This is the dumbest thing I've read in a long time. First off, it's an opt-in service. If you don't want money from them, you won't get money from them. Second, what exactly is the downside of offering publishers a little bit of money versus nothing? It's the equivalent of a tip jar, and in my opinion it's brilliant. It's the sole reason I switched to Readability and became a subscriber. I feel better knowing that I'm helping replace any ad revenue lost due to my scraping of a site's content.

Now, lets get to the real reason behind the negativity. It's not about Readability sending money to publishers. It's about Readability swooping in and kicking Instapaper in the nuts, and Marco's friends stepping in to help a brother out …nothing more. The problem I have with all these people isn't that they are backing Marco/Instapaper, it's the fact that they are trying to make it seem like subscribing to Readability is pointless and/or doesn't benefit anyone but the people behind Readability. Bullshit. I don't remember reading one negative story about Readability when their service required you to subscribe. It only became controversial when Readability plopped their fully-functional free iOS app into the mix and undercut Instapaper.

If you are going to hate on Readability, there is plenty real motive to go around. Tell people you are backing Marco. Tell them about all the nastiness that's gone on behind the scenes of these two competing products. Tell them you hate red god damn chairs. I don't care, just don't try and tell people Readability's collecting of money on a publishers behalf is shady or nefarious unless you can show us proof. And no, Readability taking $1.50 out of $5 to support their service doesn't count. That's called a business model.


After a short chat with @BenjaminBrooks on twitter I can see how Readability may upset some publishers. Readability earmarks money for publishers whether or not they have signed up to receive payments. This money will sit in a little jar with that publishers name on it for a year. If that publisher chooses not to register with Readability their jar of money goes somewhere else instead. (Back to supporting the Readability service, to a charity, or straight to a bookie …it's apparently a mystery.) Regardless, it's not benefiting the publisher even though the reader probably assumes it is. If I were a publisher that, for whatever reason, dislikes the Readability service (hates content scraping in general, thinks Readability takes too big of a cut, or just loves Instapaper) I would have to take action to make sure that my money jar wasn't used elsewhere. This means a) Begrudgingly registering with the service while trying not to vomit, or b) Contacting Readability and asking for your domain to be added to their black list. Either way, it's forcing me to act and that makes nasty feelings emerge.

As a reader, I see things differently. I subscribe as a peace offering to the sites whose content I scrape. If those particular publishers don't wish to accept my offering, I have no problem with it going back to improving Readability or being put towards a charity. Although, If I find out they are making illegal bets with it... >:(

Regardless, my original opinion still remains largely unchanged. I haven't read a negative story from anyone outside the Mac/5by5 blogosphere.


  1. I'd been leery of using Readability since before they became a direct Instapaper competitor and I think you're a prime example of why. I don't mean this as a personal attack on you, but an unfavorable view of how Readability tries to represent itself to users. (Perhaps "tried" since their business model has apparently chaged now).

    You say that that Readability's money collection is an "opt-in service" and "the equivalent of a tip jar" for publishers.

    The opt-in is disingenuous. Sites don't opt-in to allow Readability to function. The article is formatted and saved, all while the user doesn't know if the site participates in Readability's revenue sharing. I don't know what percentage of sites I go to a) know about Readability b) participate with Readability c) have asked to "opt-out" of Readability. I don't know where my money is going and that just benefits Readability's bottom line.

    It's easy to say they collect 30% and 70% goes to publishers, but they don't provide users with actual hard numbers. Perhaps even if there was just an indicator -- small green tag showing it's a partner, an orange tag saying they currently have no knowledge/realtion, and a red tag saying they don't want to participate -- then I can decide for myself if my money is actually benefiting the sites I visit as opposed to going back to Readability after their 1 year publisher grace period.

    You see it as a tip jar. I see it as a panhandler standing in front of a store without the owner's knowledge or consent. The panhandler will tell you they only keep 30% but the other 70% can also be kept if the unknowing store owner doesn't ask for it.

    1. I definitely understand where you are coming from. In the end it all really depends on your personal feelings towards Readability. If you see them as panhandlers instead of a company with good intentions it's definitely going to change your opinion of what they need to do with their money. One thing that makes me feel like I'm not being swindled is the mere fact that Marco himself didn't see it as a scam. He now sees it as a business model with obvious issues, but from all of his discussions on Build and Analyze he hasn't changed his opinion on the sincerity of the service.

      I agree that it would benefit subscribers if they could easily distinguish who has registered and who hasn't. As for people who have opted out of the service, that's quite obvious. You get a nice big notice saying they have opted out, and Readability refuses to scrape the content. (see Ben Brooks site for example)

  2. Amen, brother. Exactly what I thought when Gruber (who I normally really respect) et al turned their guns on readability.

  3. Thank you for putting this into writing. Even apart from the idea of making money for publishers, Readability is just a better-designed app than Instapaper on both iOS and the web. Good products should be recognized as such, even when they compete with our buds.

  4. So does Readability's business model rely on publishers not knowing that there's money waiting for them, or does it rely on accruing interest on that money?

    In other words, would the business model fail if 100% of publishers took the money? If that's the case then its a bit dodgy. On the other hand, if they just make money from investign the money, then I think that's entirely legit.

    1. No, they take a 30% cut of your subscription up front to support their business. It doesn't rely on the number of publishers who fail to register with them.

    2. They take a 30% cut up front, but nobody knows whether that is enough, or they really need the unclaimed revenues to be profitable.

      This is not an opt-in service, this is an opt-out service. Like all such services, while it may certainly be a business model (and might be legal), it's slimey and even downright evil.

      I'm not actually a user of either service, and have no real horse in the race -- but it sure wouldn't be readability if I started to use one of them.

  5. Well, for one, for all his usability blog posts, etc, Marco could bloody hire someone to design a better web interface for Instapaper. His (homemade?) UI is ugly, non intuitive AND non capable.

    It's minimal, though, I'll give it that.

  6. I'm intrigued, where is the flurry of posts?