Read this Later

There’s a lot to read on the internet. The more twitterers you follow, the more you subscribe to in Google Reader, the more you start to be frustrated with all the amazing stuff you don’t have time to learn about.

That’s where ‘read later’ services come in: Instapaper, ReadItLater, and most recently, Readability. There’s a history to them all that I won’t go into: suffice to say, the people at Arc90 came up with the idea of a bookmarklet that would just show you the text on the page, Marco Arment came up with a service that would send them to your device to be stored for offline reading, and the ReadItLater guys fit in somewhere: I’ve never quite gotten around to them.

Recently, Readability launched a service and iOS app which has caused me some consternation. Do I stick with venerable old Instapaper, or move to the new hotness? And so, my fascinating discussion of the differences between the two, and what’s actually important when you’re reading later.

If you want a more political look at this, and a bit more history of the whole thing, Anil Dash recently summarised some of it in his article about the Instapaper/Readability rivalry.

Everything here, in contrast, will be entirely practical.

The list

Once you start using one of these services, inevitably, you’re going to end up with a horrible, forbidding list that seems insurmountable. The idea that you’ll actually ever read everything there will seem more and more insanely optimistic. There’s a few ways to manage this, though, and unsurprisingly it’s the more mature client that has the edge here.

Surprisingly, one item I find really important is the sort order. By default, Instapaper and Readability put new stuff at the top. That’s a pretty common layout these days, but to me, it sucks for the purpose here. It means that the thing you’re more likely to have actually started reading gets buried by new things. And inevitably, it creates this increasingly irrelevant end-of-list where good articles go to die. Instapaper allows you to keep the older articles at the top, meaning that the app remains consistent between launches, and the lure of the newer articles waiting for you encourages you to get through the older stuff.

To feel like you’re actually making progress, you’ll want to throw a few smaller, bite-sized articles in betwen your Rolling Stone political profiles. Instapaper has a cute little row of dots underneath each article that show you how long the article is: perfect for spying out those smaller morsels. These also help with the longer articles, as the dots are coloured to represent your progress. Which brings us to:

Progress: remembering and syncing

I can’t even start reading a large article on a client without memory of your progress. Reeder has had Readability support for a while, but the idea of getting halfway through a big article and then being interrupted always kept me from using it.

Readability’s new client remembers your position on your device; Instapaper goes one better and syncs this position between multiple devices. At time of writing, even Readability’s normal server-to-client syncing is a bit ropey, in that the client keeps forgetting everything it’s learned about your list between uses. I assume this will get cleaned up shortly, but it’s a pretty irritating bug to launch with.

Stealing content from publishers

Well, alright, it’s not as cut and dried as this. But it is possible to feel vaguely guilty that all the articles you’re reading have been yanked from websites you’ve never seen.

Well, it is until you actually visit those shitty, click-desperate, gaudy, tiny-fonted sites. But in between visits, that’s when the guilt might hit you.

Readability have something for that: the idea that you can give them some money, and what they don’t keep (30%) they’ll distribute amongst the publishers of the pages you read. The awkward trick here is that if those publishers don’t sign up, then what you think or hope is going to people you’re reading, in fact ends up with Readability.

Is there a better way? I personally like the sound of Flattr, a similar proposition, but one that requires you to actively 'tip’ from your monthly allowance, and only to people who’ve explicitly set up Flattr support on their site. Podcasting app Instacast added it recently, and it seems a nifty way to contribute to content providers safe in the knowledge that they’re actually going to get it. I’d like to see this in Instapaper–it seems a relatively simple way to compete with Readability’s monopoly on guilt-avoidance.


Well, this is important. For a while, Instapaper was bland and native to the point of rather dull. Things have taken a turn for the better in the last year or two, with a grid view, some nicer icons, and the recent addition of some much more pleasant fonts.

This was, by Arment’s admission, inspired by the competition in the rather attractive Readability iOS client. Looking at stills, you’ll probably find Readability the prettier; but in actual interaction, it’s occasionally a little rough around the edges: toggle buttons that can be dragged but not tapped, and irritating ‘you need to sync everything again’ messages when you try to view your archive through the app. That said, their fonts and sharing dialogs are gorgeous. I’m sure they’ll come good with the rest quickly.

Perhaps the sexiest feature in Instapaper’s repertoire, though, is the automatic day/night shifting. Give the app your location, and it’ll change from black-on-white to white-on-black between sunset and sunrise. I’ve become so used to it that I’m constantly disappointed when iBooks’ similar black theme refuses to automatically adjust itself. Another happy little detail in Instapaper is the ability to paginate articles rather than scroll, which is particularly pleasant on the iPad.

Here’s a few screenshots for your consideration.

The bit at the end

These are both nice apps, but the venerable Instapaper unexpectedly has several features up on the newcomer. I’m sticking with Instapaper for now: mostly because the syncing is more fully-featured and reliable. But I look forward to this competition playing out in such a way that I’m spoiled for choice.

Tom Charman Mastodon