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, 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 trying to set up some different experiments. 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. We are as committed as ever to helping publishers.

One area is data. When you save something and it disappears into Flipboard or Pocket, you have no idea whether someone read it, favorite it, shared it, or abandoned it. Publishers want that data, and we have been using that as a jumping off point to talk about what else is important to them. For some publishers, the focus is on getting more readers. For others, they need to make money. Right now we are in the discovery phase. It’s just important that this doesn’t become the fiasco that the recording industry had, where they were pushing so hard against a consumer behavior. Consumer behavior always wins out. But we want to make sure publishers can still make a living.

WR: Another big trend that’s probably benefiting you is the resurgence of interest in long-form journalism. You mentioned Longreads, and there’s also Longform.org and Byliner and other new services curating the best long articles on the Web. Most of these services make it really easy to save the articles to Pocket, Instapaper, Readability, or what have you.

NW: That whole explosion, alongside time-shifting, emphasizes how Pocket is useful. Even 10 years ago, you read articles in a magazine or a newspaper and they were infinitely portable. You could take them to the beach or read them on the subway. Then all of a sudden, all this stuff moved to the Internet, and that is where we started discovering it. But the Internet was, for the most part, a computer on a desk. And that is when we started seeing the down trend [for long-form journalism], because you didn’t want to sit at your desk and read a 13-page New Yorker article. Finally people realized that there is a way to move that stuff onto your phone or your mobile device and take it with you. Now the problem isn’t so much portability, it’s getting through the noise. I think that’s where Longform and Longreads have come into play, cutting through the noise.

WR: So far, though, you guys have chosen not to do any curation or highlighting of popular content from within the Pocket app. Why is that?

NW: We do have a Twitter account that Mark runs called @PocketHits. It mentions things that are most saved, most favorited, and most read in Pocket. Mark does a good job of mixing it up, and you can surface some really good stuff there. But this is something that I have drawn a very hard line on for a long time, and I don’t see breaking off for a while. When you open Pocket, everything there is something you hand-picked and saved. You may already have 100 articles saved, so the last thing you really need is more stuff to filter through. There are many other apps for that—Flipboard and Twitter and Facebook and people just e-mailing you stuff.

For us, the thing I would like to solve before discovery is the idea of, if you have 100 items in your list, why can’t we do a better job of suggesting what to read first? Rather than just seeing your list from newest to oldest, we’d like to help you surface some things. That’s more important to me than throwing more new stuff in your face. You already have all this great stuff—why let it go to waste?

WR: It seems like we’re in an age when content is becoming completely atomized. Here at Xconomy we’ll publish an article on our website, but who knows whether people will end up reading it on Flipboard, or Pocket, or e-mail, or their RSS aggregator. I wonder if this signals the coming of a new era for journalism, and if so, do you know of anyone who’s adapting to it particularly well?

NW: I’ve seen a couple of different things, generally from the smaller guys because it’s very hard to get a large organization to move on something like this. But one of the small Mac blogs that I follow is called MacStories. The main editor there often writes these insanely long articles, and they end up being some of the most popular stuff on his site, but at the same time he has always been very vocal about Instapaper and Pocket and Readability, and it seems like most of his readership uses those apps.

The other one that’s interesting is a project that Jim Giles, a writer for New Scientist, started on Kickstarter called Matter. They are going to do a really long article every week. It’s clear to me they are very open-minded. If they do one piece a week, it doesn’t really make sense for them to have an app, because people aren’t going to come back to it. They assume people will want to read it in Pocket or something similar. But how do they exist in that world, if they want to sell it? We have been talking about how that works. It’s a really interesting conversation. I am super interested to see how that plays out, because they are trying to build a new type of publication.

WR: Are you saying that there’s a chance Pocket could evolve into a kind of marketplace, where writers or publishers might actually be able to charge for content?

NW: It definitely opens an interesting question. Does it really make sense to develop an app that somebody will open once a week or once a month? Let’s say you were a brand new publication and you wanted to write this really long-form thing and you had 1,000 people willing to pay for it inside Pocket and read it there. In the end, can we make a profit off that? It’s still a question, but there are a lot of people trying to innovate, and we are really interested in trying fun ideas. Let’s see what we can make work.

WR: So, on that profit question. Currently the Pocket app is free, and you’re not showing any ads. Where exactly do you see the opportunities for Pocket to earn money down the road?

NW: Read It Later had a free version and a paid version, and about 10 percent of people were buying the paid version, which is really high. So we know this is something people will pay for. But the single-time, paid-app thing just doesn’t work in our business. We have checked that box and we know people will pay for it and now we are working on something that actually works with the business. There is always very high skepticism from users and the community—people say “You are free right now, you have no business model, you are never going to figure it out, so you must be selling our data.” Which is hard to hear—they don’t know how many whiteboards are filled with the things we are working on.

But at the same time, there are so many companies out there that have a big question mark about whether they will ever be able to make money. Even with Instagram, there was not a super clear path to how they might make money. We were making money [on app sales], actually a good chunk of money, but we recognized that that was not the best way to do it. There are very few billion-dollar companies running just off of paid apps. Our biggest problem right now is trying to get people through the door, and it’s hard to put a $4.99 wall in front of them before they even understand the value. But we believe this is something valuable that people will pay for, and right now it’s a matter of restructuring how that works. I know that drives people in the industry crazy, because I am not giving road maps on when this stuff will happen, but I can absolutely assure you that our intention is not to run this company out of business.

WR: Is advertising out of the question?

NW: I’m not touching ads until publishers are comfortable with the idea. It seems crazy to say to them, “Look, we took all your ads off and put on our own. Enjoy.” That’s a line we really don’t want to cross. But if I were starting a new business, it would be an ad network that solves that problem for us and Flipboard and Evernote. Why isn’t there an easy way for publishers to syndicate their content across all of these places and still collect ad revenue?

WR: That’s sounds like the kind of thing that would require an industry discussion about new Web protocols or standards for portable content and ads. Along those lines, do you ever talk with the folks from Longform or Instapaper or Readability? Is there a tight-knit community of “content consumption app” people talking about these issues?

NW: Aaron Lammer from Longform and I generally meet up when he comes to San Francisco. He’s an awesome guy. I have actually never talked to the Readability guys. Marco and I met up and got a drink at WWDC two years ago. That’s about it. I talk a lot more with Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, and that community. A lot of them are super interested in trying to solve this stuff as well. So we are not siloed off—we are talking to a lot of people. They just happen to not be the reading-app people.

All of us should be talking more, because if we could agree on some things it would help the industry as a whole. There’s something about the competitive space here that has become very personal. I don’t know if you’ve followed the stuff about the infighting between Readability and Instapaper, but it’s all been very personal and kind of catty. It just doesn’t help anybody to drive this stuff forward.

WR: This kind of cooperation you’re talking about has happened before. Probably 10 to 15 years ago, the early people in the e-book industry got together and agreed on content and formatting standards like EPUB, even though they were all in competition. I think what helped is that they wanted to make sure that e-book standards wouldn’t end up being set by some monopoly.

NW: Things are happening so fast in this space that it’s hard to imagine there would be a monopoly. For users, the switching costs get lower every day, which means it’s easy for some guy to come out of nowhere and create a great new experience. But at the same time, we all need to be a bit cautious. If you go back to iTunes, all of these other companies like Sony were trying to figure out [digital music sales] and Apple came along and just dominated and solved it. If we just keep fighting each other and not working together, there is a good chance some big dog could come along and just solve it. And then publishers might say to consumers, “Okay, you can’t put your stuff in Pocket anymore.” That’s what we want to avoid.

WR: What should Pocket users expect to see from the company over the coming year?

NW: This year the main things you are going to see are Pocket continuing to expand to other platforms, and continuing to see how we can make “save for later” something that anybody can grok and anybody can use. We have started digging into our analytics to try to figure out why users do one thing over another, and how we can improve the experience and make it easier. Our product is one of those where it’s very difficult to get them to a level of activation where they have it totally figured out. But once we have them started, we retain those people at an absurdly high rate. So right now our big focus is on how to make everything simpler.

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…