Reading is Fundamental

A few months ago, I wrote about fat pages, the unbearable burden of clutter that often makes reading on the web so much less pleasant than it ought to be. It ended with a sincere wish:

So, if these smart folks are right, and lots of people value a clean experience, and right now publishers are making zero dollars off of readers who prefer uncluttered reading, who is going to be the first to charge for a clean version of their site? And which bloggers are going to choose to eschew all the flashing ads and obnoxious sharing buttons, forgoing a few dollars in revenue in exchange for a better presentation for their ideas?

We already know people will pay for more control over presentation and the ability to skip ads on TV. That same drive has helped satellite radio take off. We see even the Gawkers of the world headed towards designs with fewer ads. And lots of us pay a premium to use computers that aren't pre-loaded with spammy software or covered in advertising stickers. Hell, I've been linking to the (cleaner, less ad-cluttered) print versions of articles on this site for the better part of a decade. Why not simply give the people what they want?

I didn't think it would happen so soon, but today there's an answer. Readability has launched, with a brilliant and simple web experience that gives you the control to make reading on the web as pleasant as it ought to be. It also offers a straightforward value that's not just worth paying for, but rewarding to pay for, because the lion's share of the low cost goes to the original publishers of the content. (You get to choose how much you want to pay each month, starting at five bucks.)

Be warned: This is an unabashed and enthusiastic endorsement of what Readability has accomplished, and what the team strives to do in the future. I've put a Readability button on every post on this site. And I've come on board as an advisor to Readability, and once you see what it can do now, I think you'll immediately understand why I had to jump on board.

What is Readability?

You might already be familiar with Readability's first incarnation: It was a javascript link you could install in your browser that would simplify the page you were reading to make it more comfortable. Tons of people made use of it, and the open source tech behind it was so good that in just a matter of months it got built into Amazon's Kindle, Flipboard's namesake app, and even Apple's Mac OS X itself, where it was bundled into Safari as the "Safari Reader" function. Not too shabby.

But Rich and the team at Arc 90 weren't complacent with all that early success. They kept building on that core reading function and ended up with a rich set of tools for both readers and publishers that's incredibly thoughtful and well-designed. It does a few key things:

  • You can click "Read Now" on any page to get a more readable version of the current story or article. Or you can click "Read Later" to save that article in your account for when you have more time to read. The "Read Now" and "Read Later" buttons can appear on an article because an advertiser adds them there, or because you installed a browser extension or bookmarklet on your computer's browser.
  • You subscribe to Readability for a couple of bucks a month. They take care of making sure 70% of what you've paid goes to the original publishers, ever time you click one of those Read buttons.
  • You can read your articles through the truly beautiful web interface at Readability.com or by using the iPad/iPhone app (coming soon!) that is powered by Instapaper.
  • If you're a publisher, you can connect Readability to your site just by embedding a simple button, and make more money and get more information about your readers' preferences while making them more happy, too. Plus, not incidentally, you can make some actual revenue from your content that's not from ads.

Readability split

These ideas are particularly exciting if you think back a few weeks ago to "If you didn't blog it, it didn't happen". The Clive Thompson article in Wired that inspired that piece, while touching on the importance of permanence in publishing, concluded with some other key points I found evocative:

Even our reading tools are morphing to accommodate the rise of long takes. The design firm Arc90 released Readability, an app that renders website text as one clean, ad-free column down the center of your screen—perfect for distraction-free long-form reading—and it got so popular that Apple baked it into the current version of Safari. Or consider the iPad: It’s been criticized as “only” a consumption device, but that’s the whole point; it’s superb for consuming long takes. Instapaper, an app created by Marco Arment to time-shift online material for later reading, has racked up nearly a million users with hardly any advertising. “It’s for reading,” Arment says, “when you’re ready to be attentive.”

Reading Between The Lines

In all, Readability has a wonderfully optimistic and ambitious vision, aimed at supporting great writing while making readers more happy. They're a New York City startup (hooray!) and they've assembled a fantastic team of advisors. Marco Arment isn't just providing the power of Instapaper to make Readability's mobile app awesome, he's an advisor. (See his post.) Paul Ford is on board. Jeffrey Zeldman is on board. And there are even more great advisors whose tweets I don't regularly favorite.

More importantly, the team at Arc90 that built Readability is putting their hearts into this thing. It's been extremely gratifying to hear a roomful of coders and entrepreneurs talk passionately and at length about how important it is to them to support great writing, and great journalism. They speak honestly and sincerely about being on a mission, and about building a meaningful business that's thoughtful about the way it does its work and the impact this product has on the web.

So, congratulations to the team on a great first version. And if you haven't already, give Readability a try. I'm sure they'll be listening to your feedback, and I'm sure you'll find inspiration in both the beautifully-readable articles you read, as well as in the compelling app that presents them to you.

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