Home Is Readability Just an Instapaper Ripoff or Something Bigger?

Is Readability Just an Instapaper Ripoff or Something Bigger?

Like the rest of the iOS device-toting, lots-of-stuff-reading geekosphere, I rushed to download the Readability app pretty much as soon as it dropped yesterday. The service has long existed as a Web browser add-on, but its presence on the iPad and iPhone had been delayed after a public dispute with Apple over subscription revenue sharing. The startup initially threatened to go Web-only and skip the iTunes App Store, but evidently had a change of heart that led to yesterday’s much anticipated launch.

At first glance, Readability is a very attractive app. Like its chief competitor Instapaper, it strips down text-based content from the Web and presents it in a clean, easy-to-read format. It forgoes the sharing widgets, banner ads and varied CSS styles of the originating site and presents everything in the same simple format.

Readability is beautiful. From the fluid, responsive UI and flyover menus to the premium typography, the app’s designers have taken care to ensure that the user experience is a pleasant one. This is one area that Instapaper could stand to improve.

Other than that, though, this offering mostly feels like an Instapaper copycat, but without the content discovery, social sharing and organizational features of the original.

As Instapaper creator Marco Arment himself said, there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be multiple competitors in this space. After all, the way content is formatted on the Web is not always conducive to an enjoyable reading experience. That’s why Apple added its Reader feature to Safari in Mac OS X and iOS (which, it’s worth noting, uses some code developed by Readability).

But as an avid user of Instapaper for the last three years, I fail to see what about Readability could conceivably draw me away from the service I know and love (and admittedly, paid for). Readability’s UI is very nice, but it’s going to take more than a pretty interface to get users like me to dump Instapaper and leave behind folders upon folders of saved articles and a user experience that, while less polished, is still a pretty solid one.

Of course, not everybody agrees with me. For some users, the extra design polish in the UI is enough to make the experience markedly more enjoyable than that of the competition. Also, there are those that appreciate the shorter feature list. As my esteemed colleague Jon Mitchell said to me earlier today, “It’s different in what it left out.”

If Readability seems like it’s late to this party, there are good reasons for that. First, there was the subscription revenue dispute with Apple. Then, once the app was submitted, it took quite some time for it to be approved and arrive in the App Store. Along the way there was some internal rethinking that needed to be done, including about where to pivot and ultimately, whether they could continue to partner with Arment. It’s not like the Readability folks woke up one day last month and decided to make an iOS app. This has been a long time coming.

The Readability folks are presumably working on upgrades and enhancements, as this is only the service’s first iteration on iOS. In its current form, it might not be compelling for many seasoned Instapaper users, but for those who are just getting started with this type of service, it might just have enough potential to make for a compelling first choice.

Lead photo by Alexandre Normand

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