Archives for posts with tag: instapaper

fuck you, pay me

(Part 1 here)

The road to success in technology is a bumpy one. Some rise to stratospheric heights and are acquired for a billion dollars by Facebook or (this just in) by Microsoft. Some are called scumbags by John Gruber.

Readability is in the latter group.

All the “Read Later” apps work pretty much the same, but what made Readability controversial was their original business model. It was a simple idea: collect a subscription fee from users, starting at $5 (users could voluntarily increase that value). Readability would take a 30% share and the remaining 70% would be distributed to the content providers users pulled content from  (30/70 is Apple’s revenue share model, so it’s by definition as perfect and precious as the golden ratio). This payout from Readability would compensate content providers for the lost eyeballs and maybe generate more revenue than the banners ever would.

This looks fine in principle, until you start digging deeper. There were issues with this proposed model, which have been raised by several commentators around the web, in different levels of virulence:

  • Readability was collecting money on behalf of publishers, without their acknowledgement. Users payed their monthly subscriptions, thinking they were supporting the creation of their favorite content, but publishers whose content was being consumed via Readability could be completely unaware that someone, somewhere was paying for their content to someone else.
  • Publishers had to opt-in to receive payments from Readability. So publishers  in the previous example, totally unaware that their users were paying for their content to a third party, would never collect a check because they just didn’t know Readability had forcibly inserted itself into their value chain.
  • The money Readability collected from subscriptions had a theoretical grace period. It was unclear what Readability would do with the money nobody showed up to claim.

If the fact that the paragraphs above are written in the past tense isn’t enough of a hint, here’s what happened: Readability dropped the whole model, won’t collect subscriptions anymore, and will donate the unclaimed publisher payouts to charity. In the end, they couldn’t resist a wave of widespread criticism that befell them, and had to pull the plug on the whole thing. Unfortunately, the loudest criticism didn’t come from publishers, but from people close to Marco Arment and to the Apple Khmer Rouge (feel free to use that term liberally). While some of the criticism was valid and Readability seemed interested in addressing it in good faith, they had to pull back as the situation became potentially harmful to their reputation. Which is what happens when someone who owns a very large megaphone starts saying your company “is run by scumbags”.

What this loud group of critics conveniently forgets is that the ethics of the “Read Later” category is murky by definition. These are systems designed to copy and repurpose third party content in an unauthorized manner. They do so by using the capabilities provided by an open web environment, and while nothing should be done to prevent these systems from working the way they work today, a player who seeks to compensate publishers fairly nonetheless should be praised and not vilified.

TL;DR – at least Readability was trying  to get people paid.

Readability’s decision is understandable, but unfortunate. There might be escrow alternatives Readability could have explored, and those could have cleared the most concerning ethical issues, while still providing a revenue opportunity for content partners. But alas, the environment just got too toxic. Now the “Read Later” segment is again composed of Instapaper and its copycats. And some think that’s just the way it should be.

(The image that illustrate this post is taken from an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab with an interesting take on this discussion from a content provider’s perspective)

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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)