Oh no he didn’t

In the beginning Jobs created the iPhone. Now the iPhone was fine and all, but had no apps. And Jobs said “let there be a native SDK and a cloud-based content repository with a delivery and payment mechanism”. And Jobs called the cloud-based content repository the AppStore, and people started downloading apps left and right and nothing that happened before that point matters anymore.

In the advent of the iPhone native SDK, of the AppStore, and of Apple’s treasure trove of a metric fuckton of stored user payment data, mobile development came out of the dark ages and a mobile application renaissance was upon us. One can easily think of some examples of poster boys of this movement. Rovio and its sullen poultry comes to mind. There are old examples like Smule and their Ocarina and newer examples like OMG Pop and their Draw Something. But this correspondent believes nobody represents the zeitgest as well as Marco Arment and his brainchild, Instapaper.

Arment came up with Instapaper as a side project while he was working as CTO of Tumblr, of which he is a co-founder. By reading the previous sentence you have already figured out he is not an ordinary developer. He’s an extraordinary entrepreneur, and his work is the driver behind two very successful products. Instapaper, for example, generates enough revenue to justify Arment quitting his position at Tumblr and dedicating himself exclusively to the app and the web service behind it.

Instapaper is very simple and useful. Let’s say you’re using your desktop browser and see an article on the web you want to read later. Just click on the “Read Later” bookmarklet and it will clean up the article’s mark up, remove advertisements and the site chrome, extract the content and store it online. The next time you open your Instapaper client on you phone or tablet, it will download the article you selected. There are a bunch more features, but this describes the gist of it. The app generates revenue through advertisement, a $4.99 download price on the AppStore, and an optional subscription of $1/month. The fact that there are who people actually pay this subscription is a testament to human generosity, since the paid version enables no real useful features. All the core features of the app are available with the one-time payment of $4.99 to download the app.

With the success of Instapaper, along come the copycats, like Read It Later and Readability. Read It Later is just a copy and its only claim to fame is being available on Android earlier (Arment only launched an official Instapaper Android client this month, after years of categorically stating his disgust for the Android platform, the business opportunity it presented and the wretched scum who used it.

Readability had other ideas. A company with some cred of its own, it has the backing of  people like Jeffrey Zeldman and Anil Dash. Readability wasn’t content with being a copycat – they wanted to innovate in the business model, and if you wish to believe their spiel, they wanted to save the print industry and the content provider, who has been arguably getting the short end of the stick in the brave new world wide web.

It’s important to understand that the “Read Later” category of apps operates in a legal (or at least moral) gray area. From the content provider’s perspective, the silent agreement with the content consumer in the web environment is that the content will be provided, but a set of constraints about how it will be consumed also needs to be respected. If the content was provided to the consumer in a 500 pixel-wide column with a 200 pixel-wide sidebar containing ads and links to related content, it is expected that the content will be consumed in this format. Of course this amounts to nothing more than an honor system, and in practice people do whatever the hell they want, and that’s the beauty of the web. They use browser extensions to strip out the ads, they screen-scrape and reuse page content in ways not authorized by the content provider and, of course, they user Instapaper or Readability.

Readability had a novel idea. They would repurpose, repackage and redistribute content like any other “Read Later” app, but they would also create a  subscription program and would share the subscription revenue with the content providers. Of course the devil was in the details, and that was the beginning of their problems.

(Part 2 here)