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

5/25/12Follow @wroush

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even in my own use and echoed in the user data, was the fact that the number-one saved domain was YouTube. People were not just using Read It Later to save articles. About 60 percent of the stuff was text, but the other 40 percent was videos and recipes and things they wanted to buy.

WR: Really? I sort of understand why you might save a video on Read It Later, but recipes? Shopping? Isn’t that the kind of stuff people would usually just bookmark in their browsers, or send to Evernote?

NW: I think that’s what Pocket is about—the idea that you don’t want separate places for all that. You don’t want to say ‘Here is my service for articles’ and ‘Here is my service for videos’ and ‘Here is my service for Web pages.’ There are a thousand places to discover things, but there is one Pocket. If you find something you want to keep forever, that’s what Evernote is for. And the top share-to source for people consuming something in Pocket is Evernote; they use it for that exact reason. But if you save a page from Amazon, it’s just because you want to come back to it at some point. We are a consumption platform.

So in terms of the rebrand, that was certainly one of the biggest reasons—we recognized that it wasn’t just about reading. Another piece is that Read It Later launched in 2007, and then came Instapaper and Readability and Apple’s Reading List and all these other things. Effectively, “read it later” became a feature inside all these other products. We had the trademark, but it was a battle not worth fighting. It was like Kleenex—we lost our brand. It was important to me that we have a really strong brand.

The final piece is that we wanted something that reflected what the service is. Read It Later was dark and historically very techie, and that didn’t reflect how we actually view the product. When I try to explain it, I use this visual idea of having an article on a screen and being able to grab it and put it in your pocket and take it with you. People understood the “read later” part, which was in the name, but they didn’t get the other benefits, which is that no matter where you are you can save and view things. That wasn’t clear until the rebranding. It’s only been a month now, but the difference in the way people talk about the product is radical. I don’t think my mom really understood what we did until we launched Pocket.

WR: So the rebranding alone has changed the way people are using the app, without the addition of new features?

NW: We didn’t really add many new features—it was pretty much just a re-skinning, and talking about the features differently. Users didn’t “gain” video support, for example—it’s pretty much the same as before, but many people didn’t know they could save videos before, because we never called it out, so it never crossed their minds.

WR: With the new visual design, Pocket now looks radically different from Instapaper, which is the service you were most often compared to before. Instapaper is beautiful in a very Spartan way, but I think it’s fair to say that Marco Arment, the solo programmer behind Instapaper, is more interested in features and functionality than in design. Was your relaunch also a way to pull away from Instapaper?

NW: I think Marco and I are both kind of the solo developer type. And I feel like we kind of got locked into this feature war way too early. If you look at our iTunes App Store descriptions prior to Pocket, it was almost like this daily battle. But the thing is that maybe only 1 percent of the entire available market even understands this concept. So [the rebranding] was about taking a step back and saying, hold on, the user does not need this crazy feature, they just need to understand the simple benefit of being able to save something for later.

WR: One interesting trend lately is the advent of the ad-stripper or “article view” tools—things like Readability and Apple’s Reading List and Evernote’s Clearly plugin, which all take the text of an article on the Web and present it on a clean white background. How do you see Pocket relating to that trend?

NW: I would look at that in two pieces. There are the desktop tools like Readability and Clearly, and then there is the “article view” idea on mobile. Just speaking about the desktop tools first, I don’t necessarily believe in the importance of that. If you are on a desktop browser, most people prefer the normal site. The article-view stuff is great for multi-page stitching, if something is scattered over a hundred pages. It’s also great for pages that have crazy, obnoxious ads. But for the most part, I don’t use it. My personal view is that it’s not so much about making the Web more readable as it is about getting rid of some of the more obnoxious things.

On mobile, I would say it’s an entirely different situation. People 100 percent prefer the article view over the Web view there, and the reason is that with the Web view you have to pinch and zoom and scroll, and it’s not a great experience. Article view solves the problem that there aren’t good, consistent, controllable Web views out there for mobile.

The first leap people make when they see Pocket is, “Oh, it’s an ad stripper.” But I don’t think people are using Pocket so they can take out the ads. They are putting things in Pocket so they can have a great consumption experience. Think about TiVo. They didn’t set out to build a way to get past TV commercials. They built a better viewing experience, and as a side effect, the ads that existed in that world became problematic and didn’t work very well.

WR: Okay, I was going to ask this question later, but since you bring it up: How do you think about the advertising problem? The more people who are choosing to view articles and other content in Pocket and similar apps, the fewer opportunities the original publishers of this material will have to show them ads. That can’t be good for publishers.

NW: It’s definitely a big, open question. One way to look at it is, it’s people’s legal right to time-shift stuff. The 1984 Betamax case established that you can take something and store a copy for personal use at a different time. To me that seems like an okay behavior.

WR: Right, but the question isn’t about the legality or ethics of it, it’s about the health of the publishing ecosystem.

NW: Right, the other piece, clearly, is a big problem. If they don’t figure it out, there will be no content to save, because nobody will be writing it. Mark Armstrong, the founder of Longreads, is our editorial director. This past winter, he started reaching out and talking to publishers and … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at 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. 

    • 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…