Readability, Instapaper, the Network and the Price we Pay

This is a long-ass post. In summary: Readability and Instapaper are two awesome reading tools that actually aren’t in competition since Readability is mostly a network and Instapaper is mostly an app. But, foolish fanboy enthusiasm on both sides has got people choosing “sides” between the apps and turning legitimate feature debates into some sort of moral judgment of the people building the tools. Based on what I learned during a similar stage in the evolution of the blogging market, I fear these petty squabbles will hurt both tools and leave the market open only to the biggest, best-funded, most soulless competitors and that both these cool, innovative tools will lose.

It’s an interesting time for those of us who care about reading on the web. My friends at Readability have launched an awesome API that marks the maturation of a really powerful network for synching the things you read across a ton of great apps and devices. It’s pretty exciting.

And also, it’s a time for the nascent space of reading improvement tools, as pioneered by Instapaper, Read It Later, Readability and others, to reach that inevitable point in a young tech space’s development where things develop into a shitshow flamewar that nobody comes out of unscathed. Or, maybe this time, we just don’t have to go through all of that again.### Where We’re At

First, I should loudly and clearly disclaim: I’m theoretically conflicted all over this. I am an enthusiastic and proud advisor to the good people at Readability and consider them friends. I am a long-time fan of Marco Arment’s from even before Instapaper was created, and whenever we’ve seen each other socially, I’ve been really impressed by his thoughtfulness. I still have some equity in Say Media (the successor to Six Apart), which theoretically benefits from publishing sites that run ads which these apps hide. And I’m sure there’s more little details you could suss out if you were already convinced that I’m acting in bad faith or don’t mean the words that I say here. Rest assured, after a dozen years of blogging here, I write what I write here because I mean it, and I know it to be true, and I hope that’s enough to explain my motivations.

Until a few weeks ago, Instapaper was the inarguable mindshare leader in this space, pretty much synonymous with the concept of saving articles on the web for later reading, even though the other apps in the space have also been very popular for some time. Meanwhile, Readability has been pursuing a network strategy, building its reading functionality first into an API that’s been adopted by a bunch of apps, then launching iOS and Android versions of reading apps under its own name. These were very well-received, and for the first time, another reading application got as much attention and praise from the tech elite as Instapaper’s been getting.

That’s when things got complicated.

You see, Readability’s original plan was to work with Marco to license a version of Instapaper as the flagship Readability client. Marco describes much of this in great detail on a recent episode of his Build and Analyze podcast, which I think is generally very fair, but you can get a brief description of the story from the posts that both Readability and Marco wrote about the end of their partnership. It was amicable, well-handled and resolved as happily as could be, given the circumstances.

In fact, the only thing I disagree with Marco about in his assessment is the most direct cause of the business partnership between the two companies being unsuccessful. Simply put, Readability and Instapaper weren’t able to work together because Apple changed the rules of the market. The deal they had made would probably have been something that could work, if Apple hadn’t changed the rules about in-app subscriptions at literally the moment when the joint app was submitted for consideration in the app store. That is, of course, Apple’s right to do, but it means that whatever schism happened didn’t occur because of malice or ill intent or duplicity by either party; It happened because sometimes shit happens.

This matters because, since the success of the recent Readability app on iOS, things have gotten tense, not between the creators of the two apps, but between supporters, fans and enthusiasts in the community for both apps. And, since I’ve been through this kind of stupid fanboy battle before and know exactly what it costs, I want to explain what I think is at stake and why we’re headed down a dangerous road.

Legitimate Debate

There are a few points of inarguable agreement and a few points of legitimate debate which it’s important to dispense with if we can have a useful conversation about the future of reading tools online. Here are the premises from which I’d start:

  • Most content sites on the web are unpleasant to read, and conventional advertising is a big part of the reason why.
  • The behavior of sending content from the web or apps into other services and synchronizing between those apps is only going to become more common, and hopefully will become mainstream.
  • People like the creators of Readability, Instapaper, and the other early tools in this space are real web people, who are both able to, and interested in, hacking on the web because they care about it. This hasn’t yet attracted the folks who just have dollar signs in their eyes but don’t care about it.
  • Sites which publish original content can’t survive indefinitely if a substantial percentage of their readers either block ads or read their content in apps which don’t display those ads, unless there is some other way for them to generate revenue.
  • Advertisers will not be so dumb as to continue buying ads on sites at current rates when a significant, or particularly valuable, segment of the audience starts viewing the content through reading apps.
  • Nobody’s solved this problem yet, and it’s still very early days.

I’m hoping those baseline assertions can be agreed upon; If anything there is really objectionable to you, I can’t help you, because you’re crazy. So, where are the things we can disagree about? Right here!

  • Most reading apps have a way for users to pay for the app itself, either as a one-time purchase or a subscription. Many publishers find this objectionable, as the publishers get no revenue from these applications and readers who use them do not consume ads except (usually) when adding the content to their reading app.
  • Apps like Instapaper make the argument that publishers will be able to get the same CPM advertising rates for people who save articles into their apps because the regular web page is displayed before being reformatted into a cleaner format. Some publishers object to this model on the ground that advertisers are becoming aware of this trend and will start paying lower rates as a result.
  • Apps like Readability offer a system where a subscription payment holds the majority of its revenues (in their case, 70%) for publishers, but requires the publisher to register with the app in order to receive their payment. Some people consider this objectionable because it’s opt-out instead of opt-in for the publishers, and because it’s not clear enough what happens to unclaimed payments.
  • A few people object to reading apps because they want a site’s publishers and designers to have final authority over how their content is displayed to users. Most of us consider this untenable because it’s in tension with the design of the web.

People may quibble with the wording or emphasis I’ve placed on various points above, but I think these capture the major discussions going around, and I think reasonable people can fall on various sides of these issues, or may fall on both sides of these issues at various times. Here’s the thing that I think is most clear: Reading apps give people a better experience on the web, but do so in a way that’s in tension with current publishing business models, and it will take painful, disruptive changes to resolve this tension.

Now, with the reasonable overview out of the way, we can talk about how we people who love the web continually fuck ourselves up.

Crabs In A Bucket

I’ve known John Gruber and Merlin Mann a long time. Though it’s mostly been online, I try to have dinner with them once in a while when we’re in the same cities, and if we were proximate, I’m sure our kids would hang out. They’re good guys, and I appreciate that they’re caustic and funny and am happy for their success.

When Readability first came out for iOS, a lot of people targeted their enthusiasm for the app as criticisms of the dominant player, Instapaper. Marco understandably shared a bit of his hurt at this development on his Twitter account, stoking the expected sympathy but also stoking a bit of rage as people sought to show their loyalty to Marco by “fighting back” at Readability. Marco had used the word “copycat” in a tweet, and that was the early criticism, that Readability was too similar in concept to Instapaper and that this was a dishonest enterprise. Obviously, given that none of these people had leveled this charge at Read It Later or the many other apps that were in the space, this was a reaction to the unexpected popularity of a challenger that they weren’t ready to recognize as a member of the in-group.

The second wave of the defense mechanism that had been triggered focused on our tech community’s signifiers of authenticity. I saw a number of critical posts which (falsely) described Readability as “VC-backed” or as a “big company” swooping in on the little guy. Again, these folks never criticize Apple or Microsoft’s mistakes as being due to their being “VC-backed”, and Readability’s team is a handful of folks, so certainly bigger than Instapaper, but a tiny company by any measure. The issue isn’t whether both of these apps are bootstrapped — they are — but rather whether enough small distinctions could be found to say why one is “good” and the other “bad”.

This is where things were a few weekends ago, when I was even trolled into some stupid tweets that made it look like I was picking sides, when really I was just annoyed knowing I’d have to write the post you’re reading now.

But with most disinterested bystanders finding these angles of attack ineffective, critics honed in on what they saw as the biggest area of objection with Readability, one which obviously could be legitimately disagreed about, but which would be especially useful as a wedge between the two apps if it could be painted as evil. This was the system that Readability had devised for handling publisher payments. John used this point to characterize the Readability team as “scumbags“, Merlin chimed in with a tweet on the topic, and Readability responded with an explanation of what the company is about.

Now, I should be clear: The Readability folks aren’t scumbags, and John’s being a bully by using his platform to say that. That’s his right, of course, but my long-time impression of John has been that his intent is to speak truth to power, and while I am all for his name-calling when it comes to giant institutions and powerful industry titans, I think it’s inappropriate and beneath him to do so for individuals who are working in good enough faith to carry on a discussion at a personal level. Put another way, if you can email somebody and find out their side of the story, you don’t need to publicly insult them, which is good because public insults aren’t particularly effective anyway.

[Update: A few people have asked why I say John’s being a “bully” here. There are a few aspects, mostly related to his unique place in the Apple/iOS media realm. First, because he routes so much attention through his links, lesser blogs will compete to restate his opinions (such as criticizing Readability) ever more pointedly, in hopes of earning a link. This is already taking a place. More broadly, instead of conceding that he merely has one of the possible positions on Readability’s publisher program, he encourages his Twitter followers to believe that Jeffrey Zeldman and I are motivated by a greed we’re attempting to hide from people rather than that we come about our opinions honestly. As stated above, I have a lot more shares of an advertising company (Say Media) than I do of Readability, so if we want to grant the premise that I have no character and am sneaky and desperate enough to mortgage more than a decade’s worth of reputation that I’ve earned for some short-term possible return, certainly I’d be betting on the side of publishers making money with more banner ads, rather than on them getting paid through some evolution of a consumer payment system. Similarly, you’d have to believe that the Readability team’s nefarious planning deduced that the easiest way to profit from publishers’ work was not by making pirated Kindle books or spam blogs, but by creating an incredibly powerful realtime content normalization and synchronization service, getting it integrated into many of the best apps in the industry, creating cutting-edge apps with what’s among the best design and typography ever done in an app, and then hoping nobody would notice what they were up to. By the same logic, John must secretly be advocating his position in order to undermine all but the smallest, most vulnerable reading apps so that people are forced to read his site in its original format, where it displays the ads that pay his bills. I don’t believe that’s true, though. I think John thinks he’s more likely to get people in our corner of the tech media world echoing either his criticisms of me and Jeffrey or of Readability if he makes them more pointed (which generally does work), and then will publish and promote the recitations of those same attacks as “evidence” of correctness. Assembling a mob where membership is earned through repeating a slur instead of adding facts to a discussion, and then rewarding those members with attention and amplification is, put simply, bullying. I point this out not because I bear some ill will against John — I sincerely don’t — but because I know how this dynamic works in tech media because I used to exploit this kind of thing myself until I thought better of it.]

As I started to get dragged into a discussion with John on Twitter tonight about how “we can legitimately disagree about the mechanics of this payment method and suggest ways to improve it”, I realized: We’re doing it again. We’re fucking ourselves. We’re crabs in a barrel, all pulling each other down, and the whole web is going to lose as a result.

How We Screw This Up

I learned a lot of lessons from the stupid blogging tools war of the mid-2000s. I haven’t shared a lot of them because, well, I’ve been busy and not that many people care. Suffice to say, there was a time when many of the same people who have Very Strong Feelings about the current wave of reading apps had strong feelings about WordPress vs. Movable Type, or Tumblr vs. WordPress, and I was delighted to troll them into either agreeing with me or battling me, either way. By the end, I was doing it with the awareness of how silly it all was, but when it began, I didn’t realize the cost it would exact.

For example, fairly early on in WordPress’ ascendance to dominance amongst more robust blogging tools, Matt Mullenweg made a stupid mistake and put some spammy links on the WordPress website. This was early on, before Automattic was even a company, I think, and it was immediately fixed. Matt learned some lessons from it, went on to make a great product, and made a strong company and has made the web better overall.

But at the time? I took it as proof that we were right, that we must be the good guys, and that he was wrong and probably bad. That there was something about our competition that I thought had to exist on a moral level. And even though I never explicitly egged them on to do it, our community picked up that baton and ran with it. We’d always prided ourselves on how we never asked people to switch from (the then constantly-failing) Blogger to Movable Type, but Matt was regularly asking people to switch to WordPress. The nerve! Asking people to use his product! Dave Winer used to get similarly hurt that we “let” Movable Type users attack his Userland tools, but we’d never known how to appease his frustrations because we hadn’t ever encouraged them to attack. In hindsight, though, it’s clear we could have set a tone of disapproval of those kinds of criticisms if we’d have understood what he meant.

That’s the nature of how our insular tech communities are when they’re in their early stages. I got a sense of the shoe being on the other foot when one of the first times I mentioned Tumblr in a marketing page I made for TypePad, I got an angry response from Marco. I hadn’t said anything negative about Tumblr, but had clearly struck a raw nerve with my offhanded mention, and I realized that Tumblr was then still young enough that Marco saw any mention by a competitor as existing in that moral ground of the competitors having to be motivated by some nefarious goal. We settled things amicably right after, but it was striking for me to see how easily I could offend someone whose work I admire.

What About Our Friends?

The worst part of seeing how these petty scuffles play out was that the insidious desire to recast a competition between a number of really good tools as a battle between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys was encouraged by well-meaning, supportive people. I know exactly how good Marco feels to see John and Merlin go to bat for him because I’ve been on that side of it; Back in January John and Merlin spent the entire first segment of a podcast together talking about how much they loved Movable Type, and it warmed my heart. They used to do the same when Movable Type was in a category as vibrant as reading tools are today, and when the stakes seemed high enough to be worth tearing a competitor down.

That’s not to say that folks like John and Merlin aren’t sincere in their reasons for supporting Instapaper and criticizing Readability — I think the points they use to back up their arguments are their honest beliefs. But their motivations? It’s their wonderful, horrible personal loyalty. It feels good to pick a team and go to war for it. And the thing is, it can be effective, because it does help the eventual winner.

Which is never either of the players that are engaged in the stupid battle.

Because when I would spend my time flinging zingers at Matt Mullenweg about the merits of Movable Type vs. WordPress, you know who was winning? Mark Fucking Zuckerberg. Facebook won the blogging wars. The web became a more closed place than if either Movable Type or WordPress had evolved into the tool that powered social networking.

How We Lose

I strongly fear we’re about to cause the same damage to the reading tools market that we did through our stupid fights in blogging. We’ve got two great, vibrant reading tools that are innovating in the space. To my mind, they’re entirely complementary and should really be working together. As I see it:

  • Readability is a really useful network for encouraging and supporting reading, that syncs up your reading content to apps on any device. Its own apps are just a few good choices among the many that connect to the network.
  • Instapaper is a powerful, best-in-class reading app for serious readers. It has a passionate community that supports it, and focuses on being a great iOS experience.

To me, they’re just not competitors. It’s only the most short-term thinking that would make them so. But those who are fixated on that short term thinking might want to get their shots in on their less-favorite player. And if they do so, they’ll destroy both.

Because if we succeed in vilifying Readability for trying to figure out a publisher payment model, Instapaper is going to go down with it for charging for its app. If we succeed in attacking Instapaper for providing ad-free views of content within its app, Readability is going to go down with it.

And the only survivors will be the competitors with inferior products who don’t have nearly as good an experience, as much passion for innovation, or as much love for the web. What those competitors do have, in some cases, is $100 million in venture capital funding. Enough to wait it out while these two tiny little bootstrapped players get torn apart by their own fans.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I think fans/supporters/whatevers of both these tools can keep their strong opinions but back down their rhetoric while still saving face. Simply ensuring that critiques of any of the debatable points above are, as they say, insightful and not negative would go a long way. But it’s just as important to understand the larger industry trends that are being influenced here, and how they tend to play out. Directing our fierce loyalty to one of a small number of early players in a space usually encourages either an arms race or a war of attrition. And the victors end up being the giant lumbering competitors that don’t even get caught up in the battle.