Can Pocket (née Read It Later) Become the TiVo of the Web?

5/25/12Follow @wroush

On the iPhone, the first page of the home screen—the one you see when you wake up the device—has room for only 20 apps, counting those in the dock. The iPad home screen holds 26. For me, that means the home screen is prime real estate, reserved only for the apps I use most often. So it was a big deal when I decided earlier this month to demote Instapaper to a folder on page two and give its spot to Pocket.

This reborn reading app—which was known until April 17 as Read It Later—earned its coveted position by doing just about everything Instapaper does, but with some extra visual pizazz. And what is that, exactly? Once you’ve installed the Pocket plugin or bookmarklet in your desktop or mobile Web browser, you can save anything you find on the Web—an article, a video, a photo, a recipe, or even a cool pair of glasses at Warby Parker—to your Pocket account. Then later you can peruse it, sans ads and other clutter, using the Pocket app on your mobile device.

Along with Instapaper, Readability, Longform, Zite, Flipboard, and others apps, Pocket is part of a new generation of services that treat the desktop Web as a place to discover content, but let you shift your actual consumption of that content to a more comfortable time and place—i.e., when you’re vegging on the couch with your iPad, or standing in line at the grocery store with your smartphone.

Pocket founder and CEO Nate Weiner

I wasn’t a big fan of Read It Later. Its design was dark and ponderous, which meant its only big selling point was the fact that it worked on more devices than the other reading apps (there were Read It Later apps for iOS, Android, and the Kindle Fire). So I was all the more intrigued by the app’s remarkable transformation into Pocket, which has a far friendlier design and a clearer value proposition. (One problem with the old app was that it wasn’t obvious that it could be used to save videos and other non-textual items.) I wanted to get the behind-the-scenes story of the relaunch from Pocket’s founder and CEO, Nate Weiner, and I finally got a chance to visit him at the startup’s downtown San Francisco office this week. Our edited conversation is reproduced below.

What’s clear from our talk is that Weiner pays close attention to the changing habits of consumers on the Web, and that he hopes to position Pocket to leapfrog over the other time-shifting apps by making the “save for later” experience on Pocket as simple and compelling as possible. Up to now, explaining what the app does and how it relates to the desktop Web has been tricky. So even with a user base of 4.5 million people, the app is reaching “maybe only 1 percent of the entire available market,” Weiner says.

But the battle for the other 99 percent is being fought right now. As more people buy smartphones and tablets, the contrast between the noise, clutter, and commercialism of the desktop Web and the ease, comfort, and cleanliness of mobile app experiences will only grow more acute. So it’s really only a matter of time before time-shifting one’s consumption of Web content using apps like Pocket becomes as common as time-shifting one’s television viewing using a DVR. The question is who will be the new TiVo—the company that makes saving Web content so easy it’s no longer considered a geeky chore.

All of this is scary stuff for publishers, of course. They were just starting to figure out how to monetize content on the desktop Web when the advent of the iPhone in June 2007 changed everything about digital content consumption. (Weiner, now 28, built the first version of Read It Later that same summer, while holding down a day job at a Minneapolis Web design firm.) At Pocket, Weiner says, the goal is to find ways to turn the time-shifting habit into a plus for publishers, perhaps by offering them an inside look at the data the startup gathers about how people use and share content once they’ve “Pocketed” it. In the future, Weiner says, Pocket might even provide ways for publishers to sell content or advertising through the app. (Pocket doesn’t currently show ads, and wouldn’t until there’s a fair way to share the revenue with publishers, Weiner says.)

Pocket has hired Mark Armstrong, the founder and head curator at Longreads, as its editorial director, and part of his job, according to Weiner, is to reach out to publishers and explore the various options for cooperation. “Right now there is no silver bullet, and the most important thing for us to be doing is to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t,” Weiner says. He says he’s acutely aware that the fortunes of Pocket, which is now eight employees strong, ultimately rest on the health of the content industry: “If [we] don’t figure it out, there will be no content to save, because nobody will be writing it.”

Here’s the full interview.

Wade Roush: From what I’ve read, you’d been planning the rebranding for a long time—actually, ever since you closed Read It Later’s $2.5 million Series A round back in early 2011. What was the thinking behind the change?

Nate Weiner: Yeah, I knew that we needed to rebrand by that time. For one thing, we had launched this feature on Read It Later called Digest. With Pocket, we have killed it off, but it was a magazine-type view that would auto-categorize things. I learned pretty quickly from that that people didn’t care about the categorization, but the thing they liked was the view. So I knew that the visual piece had to be brought forward a lot more. But more important, … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Ephraim

    Read the first few lines and think that this should be an interesting read.  Clicked on the + Pocket bookmarklet in my browser so that I can read it when I have more time. 

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Go for it, Ephraim. That’s what Pocket is all about. The app even does a nice job of reassembling multi-page articles. (Meaning, this is a four-page article on the Web, but Pocket grabs all four pages and strings them back together automatically.)

  • Reeder

    4 pages?

    Tucked into Instapaper for later…