Readability And Intention

The latest launch I’m ecstatic to share with you all: My friends at Readability (whom I advise) announced their amazing new platform! Though it’s best known as a simple way to clean up the formatting of an article that you’re reading on the web, there’s an incredible depth to what Readability now offers:

  • A terrific service that integrates with any web browser to make reading more pleasant either now or whenever you have time to read — and now that service is free!
  • A brand new HTML5 web app that lets you read on the go on any platform, soon be joined by a beautiful iOS app that will let you read on your iPhone or iPad
  • A robust and inspiring API that powers the entire Readability platform, which is already starting to upgrade some already-amazing apps like Reeder and TweetMag

But as cool as all that news is, I’m even more excited about what’s in store in the future for Readability, and I thought I’d explain why.

Things Can Be Beautiful

Just one small, wonderful detail about the upcoming Readability apps for iOS epitomizes why I can’t wait for Apple to approve them: Every time you’re reading in the new apps, you’re seeing typography by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. I’m certainly no designer, but even from a layman’s perspective, I know what a big deal it is to be the first app to have this level of type expertise be applied to the reading experience.

It’s not just the font-hipster value of reading a headline set in Gotham or body copy in Whitney; What I’m struck by is the sheer commitment to quality in an app experience down to the finest level of detail. The Readability team teamed up with Teehan + Lax to make what I’m comfortable calling the best-designed, most attractive mobile apps I’ve ever seen. In a world where every Apple blogger is wringing their hands over skeuomorphism, it’s delightful to see a family of apps go the other way into pure, beautiful function.

A Real Platform

The geek in me cares about what’s under the hood, though, too. And as no less an authority than Dave Winer noted, Readability’s new API is formidable. I frankly didn’t get it a few years ago when Dave was always so excited about OPML and reading lists, but these days I understand that a simple, synchronized list of the content that matters to you is something that should almost exist at the operating system level. It should just be baked into everything you do.

The experience of an “it just works” synching system in the cloud is powerful. For files, I get that experience from Dropbox. For notes, I wanted that experience from Evernote, but always got too much other crap. (Note: Evernote’s a very nice app, and I know lots of people love it, but I just want things to be clean and simple and not full of all kinds of bells and whistles for tasks as important as reading.) Managing that type of synchronization across all my phones and tablets and laptops and desktops and other systems is a significant task, and it’s impressive that Readability is poised to do that for me not just in all the Readability apps, but even across my other apps as well.

That’s not to say that the basic “let’s clean up this page” capability of apps like Evernote isn’t valuable — it’s great! But that much is built in to the browser on my phone these days. What I care about is having the information that I want to read be available wherever I am, in the format that’s most readable. It’s a capability that I firmly believe will be baked in to all of my most commonly-used tools and apps in the years to come. And it’s a vision that’s much bigger than any one app.

Trust and Values

Of course, as I noted yesterday, I also care a lot about owning and controlling my data. Readability’s API makes it very easy for me to manage and maintain a list of what I’m reading without giving up my ownership of that list. I can take my ball and go home, but just as importantly, I can take my list and plug it in to whatever else I’m doing.

That’s critical because, as I’d noted at the beginning of this year when I first joined Readability as an advisor, reading is a profound and meaningful experience, and in my opinion is among the most valuable things we can do with our time on the Internet. I need it to be everywhere that I am, and I need to trust that the platform which powers my reading online shares those values. Even for simple things, like not sharing my reading behavior without my express permission.

The best way I can show the character of the team behind Readability and the community around it is by talking about who’s not working with Readability’s platform — yet. Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and a former fellow Readability advisor, had a thoughtful and respectful note about the fact that he and the Readability team have gone their separate ways now that their respective apps are slightly more competitive with one another.

I don’t mean to tell tales out of school, but I know the Readability team respects Marco as much as he respects them, and the fact that innovative, creative entrepreneurs can work together (or work apart) in such productive ways is why I’d feel safe as a developer building on Readability’s platform. And I hope to see Instapaper and the Readability platform (both of which I happily pay for) work together at some point in the future.

But, for that matter, I hope to see Readability baked into Google Chrome and Microsoft Word and iBooks and all the other apps I use every day, too.

Read Later

There’s a lot more I can say about Readability because I’m so excited by the platform’s potential. But for now, there are a few key points I’d start with if you want to explore more:

  • Readability’s API is going to be one of the most meaningful tools that developers can bake into their apps in the months to come. It really does remind me of the early days of Twitter’s API, in the feeling that it inspires in me to want to spend a weekend hacking on it.
  • Readability is also one of the key APIs that support this year’s NYC BigApps challenge, where you can win your share of $50,000 in prizes as a developer. I think this year’s apps are guaranteed to be the best ever in a BigApps contest.
  • You may want to revisit Reading is Fundamental, where I mentioned earlier this year the ideas that made me so passionate about Readability and its potential.
  • CNN has an odd, but sort of charming, look at the new Readability. I preferred Ben Popper’s take at Betabeat.
  • And, going back more than four years, To Read is To Be Human, when I first started reflecting on the optimism and idealism that’s captured in the simple action that so many of us do every day when we save an article with the intention of reading it in the future.