10 Apps & Sites That Bring Back the Joy of Reading

2/3/12Follow @wroush

You wouldn’t throw a fancy dinner party in a 7-Eleven. You wouldn’t hold a symphony concert in a subway station, or teach a meditation class on a tilt-a-whirl ride.

So why does anyone expect readers to read long articles on the Web?

Call me a traitor to my kind, but I think the World Wide Web is a terrible medium for long-form writing, precisely because of the mismatch between content and venue. The basic problem is that browsers are for browsing. Today’s commercial Web, where no morsel of exposition is more than one saccade away from a link, a logo, or an ad, is an impossible place to do any deep thinking.

No one designed this outcome. It’s just that the medium grew up so fast, evolving in less than 20 years from a hypertext file-sharing system at a European physics laboratory into today’s infinite digital bazaar. There wasn’t much time to think about whether it really made sense to translate our collective creative output into HTML, dump it onto Web servers, and pay for the whole operation with hyperlinked ads that, by their very nature, take readers away from whatever they’re trying to read.

Fortunately, there are folks scouting for ways out of this mess. Over the last few years, programmer-entrepreneurs like Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, have come up with a series of clever applications for separating or “parsing” the Web’s text from its context. This new menagerie of minimalism includes browser-based apps that zap the clutter around Web posts and replace it with a peaceful white background. It also includes mobile apps that let you store these pared-down posts for on-the-go consumption whenever you choose. And in this general category, I’d also include a few new curation services intended to spotlight contemporary and classic long-form writing and make it easier to consume.

I’ve picked 10 of my favorite reading apps and services for quick summaries on the following pages. If you’re like me and you spend a lot of time using the desktop or mobile Web, yet you also love getting lost in a long, thoughtful non-fiction article, then you’ll find some of these services to be life-changing.

But I wouldn’t say that we’ve reached an apotheosis—not by a long shot. At best, the Zen approach to repackaging Web articles is only one element of the solution, and it’s not one that will scale up very well. Already, critics are arguing that this kind of republishing is impolite at best, copyright infringement at worst. As soon as the big online publishers realize how many people are bypassing ads by saving parsed text to Instapaper and the other reading apps, they’ll freak out, the same way broadcasters did when TiVo came along. (It’s no accident that people have called the reading apps “DVRs for the Web.”)

What’s needed now are business models that would make publishers happy about providing more content in these ad-free environments. But we’re a long way from finding payment mechanisms that appeal to readers—let alone equitable ways to split up reading-app revenue between publishers, authors, developers, and platform providers, as a tussle last year between Readability and Apple illustrated (more on that below).

For now, damn the torpedoes—here’s my list of the 10 most interesting and useful reading apps and curation services. I’m going to describe the apps first, because once you understand those, the curation services will make a lot more sense. (For a single-page version of this article that you can export to one of the reading apps, click here.)

First app: Clearly.

1. Clearly

Evernote, the Mountain View, CA-based online note-keeping startup, introduced Clearly in November. It’s a browser plugin—currently available only for Google’s Chrome browser, but coming soon to other browsers—that reformats any Web page for easy reading in one click. It removes all ads, navigation, and graphics, leaving just the text (including links). You can customize the Clearly page’s typeface, font size, and the background color, and there’s a button that lets you save the stripped-down content directly to your Evernote account.

At the moment, that Evernote button is the only big feature that differentiates Clearly from other browser-based reading tools. But Evernote CEO Phil Libin tells me that the product will evolve fast. “The goal of Clearly is not to get rid of things, it’s to make things clearer—to make a beautiful long-form reading experience and increase your comprehension of what you’re reading,” he says. “The first step of that is to take away the distractions that take away from comprehension. The next step is to add, in a way that doesn’t get in the way, things that will help with comprehension, like related information, definitions, and other things”—possibly including links to related information you’ve stored in Evernote.

(By the way, I’ll be interviewing Libin on stage next week at our Xconomy Xchange event, “The 100 Year Company: An Evening with Evernote, Morgenthaler, and Sequoia.”)

Next app: Instapaper.

2. Instapaper

The granddaddy of the minimalist reading apps, Instapaper was released in 2008 by former Tumblr CTO and independent developer Marco Arment, who bills it as “a simple tool to save Web pages for reading later.” When he set out, he was concerned not so much with decluttering the Web as with finding a way to facilitate time-shifting, so that readers could access high-quality content when they’re away from the distractions of the Web. As Arment points out in the Instapaper FAQ, “The times when we find content aren’t always ideal for consuming it.”

Instapaper works like this: Once you’ve signed up for the service, you go to the Instapaper website and grab the “Read Later” bookmarklet, a little button that you can drag and drop into the bookmarks bar of your browser. Then when you come across a Web page that you want to read later, you just click on this button, which activates a script that extracts the article text and saves it on Instapaper’s cloud servers (or, optionally, sends it straight to your Kindle reading device).

Then you have several options: you can go to the Instapaper site, find the saved article in your queue, and read the text-only version there. Or you can read it on your Kindle, if you selected that option. Or if you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can download the Instapaper iOS app and read the articles in your queue there.

I love the iPhone version of the app and I use it a lot when I’m standing in line at the grocery store or killing time in between other activities. I use the iPad version for longer, more intense reading sessions at home. My favorite feature: tilt-scrolling, which uses the accelerometer in the iPhone/iPad to scroll the text up or down, depending on which way you tilt the device.

The app costs $4.99, but the Instapaper service is free, unless you want to support Arment with a $1 per month subscription, which gets you a few goodies like the ability to search the articles you’ve saved.

Next app: Longform.

3. Longform for iPad

The newest app on my list, Longform just came out this week. It’s the creation of Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky, the same team behind the excellent curation service Longform.org. We published a long Q&A with Lammer yesterday so I’ll keep this summary brief: Longform’s iPad app collects recent long-form articles (2,000 words or more) from 25 hand-picked publications, including Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Esquire, Mother Jones, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books, and of course Longform.org itself, which highlights three or four new long-form articles every day.

Lammer told me that he and Linsky originally started Longform.org as a way to help people find material to fill up their Instapaper queues, but eventually decided that Instapaper was a little too complicated, and that some readers might appreciate direct access to long articles from the websites’ top publications. Their app shows articles either in their original Web settings or in a de-cluttered reading view. It can show articles from your Readability reading list (see next item). It also lets you share articles via e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr, or save them to your Readability, Instapaper, or Read It Later accounts.

Next app: Readability.

4. Readability

Richard Ziade and Chris Dary launched Readability in 2010 as a service that let users pay a small amount to publishers to save text-only, browser-based versions of articles by clicking on a bookmarklet button—in other words, roughly the same function now available for free in Evernote Clearly and other parsers. Apple adopted Readability’s technology in June 2010, when it included a de-cluttering feature called Reader in version 5 of its desktop Web browser, Safari. Readability eventually dropped its payment scheme, although you can still sign up to pay a voluntary monthly contribution (the startup sends 70 percent of reader’s contributions to authors and publishers).

For more than a year, Readability has been working on its own iOS app for iPhones and iPads—in fact, they hired Marco Arment to help build the first version. But Apple rejected that app because it didn’t use Apple’s own in-app payment mechanism to process the (now removed) payments. The company went back to the drawing board, working with a different developer, and in November, it said that an iOS app was “on its way” to the iTunes App Store. Unfortunately, there’s still no sign of it.

But that hasn’t been a deal breaker, because Readability works well with the browsers on smartphones and tablets, and because the company has been so generous about opening its platform to other app developers. Reeder, TweetMag, Pulse, and Longform are three of the roughly 500 apps that allow you to access your Readability reading list.

Okay, that’s the long, complicated background—so why would you use Readability? Well, maybe because of its ubiquity. Many Web publishers have incorporated the Readability button, with its little red couch, into their websites, which makes it easy to send articles to your Readability queue. Or maybe because you want to support writers and publishers, who get 70 percent of your contributions. Or maybe because of the attractive design of the Web version of Readability, which is even more minimalist than the other minimalist reading experiences, if that’s possible.

Next app: Read It Later.

5. Read It Later

A direct competitor of Readability and Instapaper, Read It Later is a San Francisco-based startup founded by Nate Weiner that provides a variety of tools for saving articles you find on the Web and reading them later, on almost any device. You put articles into your queue by clicking on a browser bookmarklet, or by selecting the Read It Later function built into Flipboard, Zite, and more than 250 other apps. You access your queue using the browser version of Read It Later or the native Read It Later apps for the iPhone and iPad, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, or Android smartphones and tablets.

That’s the whole story. Because it offers native apps for so many devices, Read It Later is unquestionably the most full-service of all the minimalist reading apps. So the choice between Readability, Instapaper, and Read It Later comes down to which devices and services you use most, as well as your design preferences. I’d say Readability is the most elegant of the three systems, Instapaper is the most geek-friendly, and Read It Later is somewhere in between. As far as I know, Read It Later is the only player in this niche that has collected a substantial amount of venture funding—$2.5 million from Founder Collective, Foundation Capital, Baseline Ventures, and Google Ventures.

[Update 5/25/12: In April 2012, Read It Later rebranded itself as Pocket and released a redesigned app that's much more visually snazzy. See my interview with Nate Weiner.]

Next app: Reader and Reading List in Safari.

6. Reader and Reading List in Safari

As I mentioned above, Apple used the free parser developed by Readability to add a text-only reading function to Safari a couple of years ago. That wasn’t an earthshaking event, since Safari has such a tiny share of the desktop browser market—around 6 percent, by most estimates. But it became a bigger deal when Apple introduced iOS5, the newest version of its mobile operating system, and ported the same features to the mobile version of Safari, which is the default browser on the iPhone and the iPad.

In effect, anyone with an iOS device has free, built-in access to a system that replicates many of the functions available from Readability, Instapaper, and Read It Later. But there are a few interesting differences. First off, the Reader function in Safari only becomes available once a Web page has fully loaded in the browser window. At that point, clicking the Reader button (at the far right end of the address bar) brings up a pop-up window with the clean version of the text—”sans ads or clutter,” in Apple’s words. It’s not actually a fully decluttered experience, since the browser chrome and a grayed-out version of the original page are still visible behind the parsed window, but it’s close. (I suspect that Apple stopped short of the full Instapaper treatment in order to sidestep accusations that it was costing publishers page views.)

If you just want to save an article for later reading, you can do that using the bookmarks button, which includes a new “Reading List” area. When you retrieve an article from Reading List, Safari grabs the classic Web view, and you can toggle back into Reader view if you like. So, overall, Apple’s system involves a little more back-and-forthing than the other reading systems. There’s no way to default to the minimalist view—but that’s understandable, since building that function into a browser would provoke a full-on revolt from publishers.

Next app: Reeder.

7. Reeder

When I compiled a review of “The 10 Social News Reader Apps You Need to Try” a couple of weeks ago, I pointedly left out Reeder, an app that lets you access your Google Reader RSS feeds on the iPhone and iPad, because it lacks the social-curation features and the magazine-style layouts that characterize the other apps I examined. But as a reading app, Reeder is still worth checking out, for two reasons. First, it has a super-clean, Instapaper-like interface. That makes it a soothing alternative to other RSS readers, which emphasize variety over order. Second, it works extremely well with Readability. You can access your Readability queue from Reeder, and it also has a one-tap button for saving articles from your RSS feeds to your Readability queue. (It takes just a couple of additional taps to save articles to Instapaper or Evernote.)

Next site: Byliner.

8. Byliner

With my final three items, I want to shift from app territory into curation territory. Byliner is a San Francisco-based publishing and social networking company with seed funding from Freestyle Capital and SoftTech VC. The startup focuses on works short enough to read in a single sitting. Its website spotlights new long-form writing from prominent publications. You can either follow Byliner’s links to the original articles on the Web, or save them straight to your Read It Later account.

Just as important, Byliner publishes its own line of “Byliner Originals,” pieces that are typically between 10,000 and 35,000 words in length and can be purchased as e-books for $1.99 to $2.99. All Byliner Originals are available for Amazon Kindle readers, and some of them are also available for Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Apple’s iBooks app, Google’s eBookstore, the Sony Reader line, and even Kobo’s Vox eReader. The very first Byliner Original release, a Jon Krakauer exposé about author/educator/mountain climber Gregg Mortensen called “Three Cups of Deceit,” went straight to the top of the Amazon’s non-fiction list.

Basically, Byliner is straddling the line between magazine and book publishing, and taking advantage of the flexibility of the reader apps and e-book platforms to experiment with different ways of promoting long-form journalism. It’s not a product of the minimalist-reading-app trend, but it’s pushing the industry in the same direction.

Next site: Give Me Something To Read.

9. Give Me Something To Read

A sister site to Instapaper, Give Me Something To Read is a curated collection of the most interesting articles being saved by Instapaper users. The site is edited by Richard Dunlop-Walters, a Brit who specializes in outsourced customer support and editorial services for independent developers like Arment.

The site is similar in spirit to Longform.org and Longreads. The main difference is that it’s specific to Instapaper. The highlighted articles are drawn from the flow of things Instapaper users are reading, and if you find something you like there, you can only save it to Instapaper.

Give Me Something To Read doubles as the content-suggestion feature inside the Instapaper mobile app—just click the “Editors” button and you’ll see all of the recent selections from GMSTR, pre-formatted for reading in the app.

Last site: Longreads.

10. Longreads

Longreads started out as a Twitter account operated by Mark Armstrong, the former director of content at a New York-based local directory site called Bundle. For more than a year, Armstrong tweeted about the best long-form articles he was finding on the Web; in the process, he popularized the hashtag #longreads, which many publications now use as a signal to readers that they’ve published something meaty.

Armstrong eventually started a Tumblr blog, a weekly e-mail newsletter, and a standalone website to feature the articles he was finding. Like Longform.org or Give Me Something to Read, the Longreads site features long-form writing from across the Web; it allows one-click saving to Read It Later and Instapaper. But one unique feature is the searchable archive, which comes with a filter that lets you find something that suits your available time. Got half an hour to kill? Pick the “30-45 minutes (3,750-7,500 words)” filter.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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    Clearing off the air of a sweet home protected with electronic clairevoyance..

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