The Power & Peril of Saving the Web for Later

Today, Read It Later relaunched as Pocket, a free app for saving any Web content for later. It breaks content shifting out of the mold of apps specifically for reading. Pocket's clean, colorful interface may be the first in the category suitable for a mainstream audience. Is that a good or bad thing?

Content shifting - the act of saving stuff from the Web to one central place to check out later - began to take off last year as smartphones and tablets reached critical mass. But it's still a challenging thing to explain. It's the quintessential Internet problem you didn't know you had until you solved it.

Until recently, the leading apps' price barriers and focus on reading held back the floodgates of mass adoption. That barrier has come toppling down.

From Articles to Everything

The technological heart of content-shifting apps is the engine they use to transform the saved content. The developers of these apps have focused mainly on text articles so far. It's easier to reformat text and images into the clean, uniform styles of these apps. It's also easier to save those small, text-based pages for offline reading.

One obvious limitation of this approach is that articles aren't the only kind of content users want to save. Before the relaunch, Read It Later published some telling stats about the amount of video its users were saving, despite the fact that the interface was made for articles.

The strange results of saving nonarticle pages to these apps surely drove away some impatient users. Nerds might sympathize with the app's shortcomings and open up the page's Web view, but saving video or other nonarticle content in these apps was not a welcoming experience.

Yesterday, Readability made a well-timed announcement of its new content parsing engine, Iris. It can understand the context of something on the page, be it text, forum thread, image or video, and generate a clean Readability embed of it. A day later, Read It Later became Pocket, demonstrating the same capabilities.

Today's Pocket pivot is a huge win for the potential of mass adoption of content shifting. It organizes saved links by content type, with separate tabs for articles, videos and images, and it displays them in a vivid grid with previews. Pocket has a real chance to reach mass adoption because it practically explains itself.

It also never hurts when an app is free.

The Price of Free

Last year at this time, Instapaper and Read It Later both offered native apps that cost $5, and Readability's Web-based app had a subscription model. This year, when Readability launched its iOS and Android apps, it set the price at $0, making the subscription plan optional. Read It Later's rebirth as Pocket also made the app free. Evernote's new Clearly browser extension for time-shifting articles? Free. Apple's Reading List is built into Safari, which is free.

Only Instapaper still has a price tag. Is that insane?

Pocket founder Nate Weiner posted his rationale for making his app free. He has two essential arguments.

The first is that "it is hard to ask most people to pay for something they don't understand." Content shifting is best understood by experiencing it, so Pocket - like Readability before it - decided that getting users in the door was important enough to eliminate the entry fee.

The second argument is that value of an app like this increases over time as users get more invested in it. It doesn't make business sense to Weiner to just capture value once and then support users for free forever.

Apple and Evernote can subsidize their content-shifting apps with other businesses. Presumably Readability and Pocket will find business models later built on top of their evolving everything-saving services. That is guaranteed to change the product for users eventually. These apps will have to find a way to make money off of them somehow.

So what about Instapaper, the most established app in this category? It's $5, plain and simple, and its die-hard fans also spring for a totally optional subscription. That's enough to maintain the Instapaper its users know and love. For a while, the market was crowded with Instapaper competitors. But today, Instapaper looks all alone in its simplicity, both as an app and as a business.

Is the future of content shifting the ability to reformat and save everything? Or is Instapaper going to be glad it stuck to its guns?

Forking The Web

In response to Readability's announcement of Iris yesterday, Drew Breunig wrote: "By accounting for and normalizing multiple types of content, Readability is forking) the web." He sees a near future in which Readability offers a complete Web browser, reformatting the entire thing in its "white-washed viewport," according to limited user preferences.

In the same way that Readability intervenes on behalf of publishers to design their reading experience, Breunig sees Iris as the first step toward Readability trying to monetize and standardize the whole Web. That may offer convenience for content shifting, but it sure doesn't sound like fun. More joy and creativity comes out of a chaotic Web.

We don't know what Pocket's business model will be yet, but its UI is notably similar to Flipboard, whose approach has caught on with publishers. Media organizations are willing to package their content for discovery in Flipboard, where everything looks like Flipboard, rather than requiring readers to go out on the Web and find it.

If Pocket becomes a mainstream client for consuming content of all kinds, the same trend will play out. It will be more important for publishers to get into people's Pockets than to provide a standout experience.

One Woman's Feature Is Another Man's Bug

And then there's still Instapaper being exactly what it always was: the best place to read an article. For $5, users get an inbox for their saved links. It's ideal for sharing to social networks, it offers simple technological touches like tilt-scrolling and twilight mode, and that's it. If a page doesn't parse properly, you open it in a Web view. It can't handle every kind of content like Pocket can.

Is that a bug or a feature?

When I look at Pocket, I see yet another eye-popping multimedia interface. All I want is a clear, black-and-white inbox of the things I've saved. I don't need any more distractions. I saved these things so that I can peruse them calmly later, without distractions. I save all kinds of things to Instapaper, but I don't need them all jumping out at me. It's just the interface I prefer, and I plan to keep using it.

For most people, it's probably a compelling idea to have all of one's saved content go to one place that "just works." Pocket is a great thing for the trend of content shifting. It might not be the better option for the Web, and its business model might not be the better option for consumers in the long run. But this we know for sure: Attention is scarce, websites are broken, and the growth of content shifting will drive the Web to work better for the people who make and use it.

See also: Instapaper's Marco Arment On How The iPad Is Changing Reading

Lead image via Shutterstock.