Taking time to read on the web: Instapaper gets ready for the big show

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Marco Arment. (Photo via davidville's flickr stream.)
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A couple of years ago, Marco Arment, who was then the lead technologist of the social-blog platform Tumblr, became frustrated with the way the web made his ideal reading diet difficult.

He couldn’t read articles during his commute on the subway because there's no Wifi in the tunnels. And when he was connected, either on a computer screen or a phone, it was taxing to browse through sites designed with seas of links, come-hither slideshow promotion-boxes and “interactive” advertisements and find the articles he actually wanted to read. Anyway, for most of us, moments in which we have time to tame our darting eyes and twitchy mouse clicks seem few and far between. There’s an instant message conversation blinking in one tab, a Twitter feed auto-refreshing in another and an inbox screaming to be read next to it. Welcome to the path of most resistance.

“I’ve become frustrated with the quick-consumption nature of many devoted blog readers,” Arment wrote on his website. “There’s no time to sit and read anything when you’re going through 500 feed items while responding to email, chatting, and watching bad YouTube videos.”

So he created an application to fix his reading experience. It was a simple bookmarking tool, custom-made for Arment, that allowed him to save articles to read at a time and in a digital environment more conducive to reading. He called it Instapaper.

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He could bookmark articles from The New York Times, The New Yorker, the tech blog Gizmodo; load the text form each piece into a simple, custom-made template that stripped away formatting and distractions; and queue the articles into an account so he could read the articles whenever he liked, online or off.

Soon, friends, neighbors and followers started using it themselves. Publishers, from the Associated Press to The New Yorker, sat down in meetings with him to discuss how they could use his features on their own sites and applications.

Arment recently stepped down as Tumblr’s lead developer to expand Instapaper into a full-fledged start-up. He told The New York Times that 800,000 people have signed up for Instapaper, and 200,000 of them use it on a regular basis.

Instapaper is ad-supported (in the form of small, square ads on users' account pages and at the bottom of the article pages). Although a basic form of the Iphone application is available for free, Arment gets a cut any time someone downloads the $4.99 version, which is Ipad-friendly and includes more features. This week, he announced his very first, albeit small, scheme for more direct funding: "subscriptions," for three dollars for three months of service. Currently, "subscribers" don't get anything special for giving him money, besides the ability to "turn off" the advertisements appearing on the Instapaper website. But they will later have access to more exclusive features (like, say, a search function, as Arment mentioned on his Twitter).

"Please don’t buy a Subscription solely because you expect these exclusive features to be mind-blowing," Arment wrote on Instapaper's site. "They might be, depending on how easily your mind is blown, but I’d feel better if you bought the Subscription because you wanted to support Instapaper."

Perhaps, for the small (relative to the whole web) world that has adapted his product, mostly by word-of-mouth, there is a feeling of contributing to the next-next thing by sending Arment a small donation. The fact that Instapaper seems to be heading in the opposite direction from so many sites starting up now—one that encourages reading long-form writing instead of short bursts of text and picturesis part of what makes Instapaper refreshing. It's also what makes it a risky bet.

“THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF DESIGN,” SAID RICH Ziade, the creator of Readability, another online service that strips article pages from their original design and places them into formatted text. He was standing next to Arment, and the pair were in a carpeted room at the Sheraton in Midtown last week, presenting their tools at the Web 2.0 Expo for a discussion titled “The Reading Experience and the Web.” A young man dressed in fitted jeans and Vans sneakers stepped up to a microphone and introduced himself as a user experience designer for websites and applications. He said he is a fan of Instapaper, but wondered if the applications essentially make his job irrelevant.

There was nervous laughter from the crowd, about three dozen or so young people. They were mostly men in button-up dress shirts and khakis (investors and ad sales types) or t-shirts and Converse sneakers (coders and young entrepreneurs). “A few users talk about [our applications] in that it's a little addictive and I think what they're speaking to is consistency,” said Ziade.

Take one article on the web and it could be read in dozens of formats. You can view it in a rolodex of web browser choices (Opera! Firefox! Safari!). The text size, font, color and background images can look completely different in each browser, not to mention if the text is squeezed onto a tiny mobile phone or bloated onto a widescreen P.C. “You have particular dimensions and constraints, and all sorts of shapes and sizes on platforms,” Ziade said. “We’re giving people control.”

This control and consistency in the web browsing experience is one of the reasons why some people are so attached to their Google Reader—they can view the cluttered, noisy Internet through one prism, gathered together by R.S.S. feeds. Instapaper offers this control in a carefully curated, elegant application with a crucial feature: mobility.

Arment said that he has been sitting down with publishers to form partnerships and teach them how to use the tools in their own design. A "save to Instapaper" button on article pages, for instance, would allow users to "save" lots of articles they might not otherwise read, and get to them later. (Existing users can already download such a button right into their browser; but embedding it onto the actual article pages introduces a whole new user base to Instapaper, and a new service to a publisher's readers). New York Times articles are the most frequently bookmarked, but that's only 2 percent of stories overall on Instapaper, he said.

Of course, that means that Instapaper isn't exactly driving traffic around a publisher's website precisely as the publisher might wish. The application also sometimes strips the the advertisements from the article pages.

So Instapaper does not solve that tension in the media business, which is still struggling with disrupted revenue models.

When M.I.T.’s Technology Review approached Arment with this contention, he responded: "If ads do get removed by the text parser, it's not as bad as some initially may assume: since each customer saw the complete page on the publisher's site before clicking Instapaper's Read Later bookmark, they already viewed the ads on the page,” according to Arment. “I've spoken with many publishers about Instapaper, and their reactions have been almost unanimously positive. Many of them have even worked with me to ensure that their content is parsed properly by my text parser, and some have even integrated Instapaper links into their sites.”

Publishers would be excited about any application, or technology, that encourages people to read. Why else would they be so obsessed with Apple's Ipad, which is now in the hands of an estimated 8.5 million users? But Arment warns that flashy, $500 tablets aren't the only antidote to our frantic content consumption.

“The perception is that good design is part of a package on an Ipad,” Arment said. “The web is written off, and they have to reconcile that. Tools like this resonate with people. And viewing the web as a place where a great reading experience exists is a good step.”

There is something charming about Instapaper's innate faith in great writing, which comes from Arment himself. After stripping away the publishers' flashy design and careful branding and nestling the text into the same, simple format, the article essentially sits naked next to its competition. There is no armor, no screaming headline, no SEO trick or scandalous photo tricking the reader into reading the piece—it's simply the quality of the writing itself that has to propel the reader to keep going.

It's no wonder that people inside a certain type of media organization have been among Arment's most fervent early adopters.

“They all love the tools,” Arment said. “The staff actually uses it themselves.” You’ll find that at most publications, they are “staffed by people who love reading,” he said.

At least, the ones that care about writing, too. And that is what Instapaper is all about.