The End of Standardized Readability

It started with Instapaper.

The idea was to boost efficiency by employing the batching technique to article consumption, particularly mid- to long-form journalism found online. Saving an article for later separates the act of browsing content (say, from an RSS feed) from putting in the time commitment to engage with longer pieces of writing. As an app, it was also one of the first ways to transmit data from desktops to mobile devices.

With some success came competitors like Pocket, Readability, and eventually Safari’s built-in Reading List. They’re all similar products that take the core of bookmarking and article-parsing, and try to establish businesses by adding auxiliary features. Unfortunately, as the functionality is simple to replicate and the cost of switching is low, the core feature set has become a commodity.

One of the primary workflows is the ability to parse and save an article for offline reading, reformatting its contents to be typographically easier on the eyes. On an internet full of banner ads and artificial slideshows, stripping out distracting content and reshaping the font, color, and text size are indeed major readability improvements. For Readability the startup, fixing this aspect of the web alone was enough to raise funding, although eventually they did expand to add the bookmarking and article recommendations.

And currently, Readability is the bookmarking service I’m using – after stints of exclusive use of the other aforementioned services – but only for its open API and integration with the excellent Reeder app. Even then, there are bugs in the parsing engine: some due to increasingly complex multi-page demarcation techniques; some due to an imperfect facsimile of magazine-like pull quotes and inserts and embedded media; some due to the inability to take interactive content like the NYT’s Snowfall and present a suitable translation without losing much of the source’s value.

At the same time, websites as a whole have upped their design prowess, and sites like Wired and New Yorker and Medium have made crafted their reading experiences beautifully, across consumer devices and browsers alike. With the evolution of an even more connected lifestyle, it’s no longer preferable to save and reformat articles for offline perusal, but instead to simply save a disposable bookmark to be retrieved later.

Which may not bode well for the long-term sustainability of these startups. For users, though, solutions are just a signup away.

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