Given the high volume of content I read online, Readability, a new subscription based web and mobile reading app, seemed like a good fit; I decided to sign up for a month and try it out on my Mac, iPad and iPhone. Four weeks and over a hundred read articles later, while the experience isn’t perfect, I’d recommend it to almost anyone, especially those that read frequently from blogs and other online sources. The HTML5 mobile app has some bugs, but my current pairing of Readability on the desktop and Instapaper for mobile makes for an excellent experience.
Readability is a twist on existing apps like Instapaper with a built in compensation scheme for content writers and publishers. The app’s foremost objective is to deliver an uncluttered reading experience for what’s online. Users find any web page article of interest (e.g. blog post, news story) and use a browser based extension or bookmarklet to strip the article down to its essence: No ads, ample white space, clear typography, and sparse imagery. In addition, 70% of subscribers’ membership fees go directly to the publishers and writers behind articles read through Readability. That often translates to pennies to the writer per article read, but cumulatively it adds up. I see Readability’s payment system as one step closer to a paid ecosystem that doesn’t rely on traditional sources of revenue like banner ads and paywalls. The whole process also requires almost zero commitment on the part of content publishers, just a registration with readability.com to receive revenue.
For Readability to succeed at $5 a month, the reading experience itself has to be especially compelling, a significant upgrade on the originally sourced content. While that’s easily done on ad-heavy, cluttered sources like the Huffington Post, it’s a harder sell on more independent sites that are already inherently readable. Thankfully once a Readability article is queued up, I found it’s visually the best web based reading experience available. The app’s consistent look and feel between articles is especially useful and generally I found my reading speed mildly increased as a result. The visuals and typography when reading articles are roughly on par with Instapaper, but Readability edges its competition out with a bit of extra polish. For instance, I noticed the beginning and ending text on Instapaper and Read it Later are sometimes improperly encoded into gibberish or the title is written incorrectly; Readability rarely makes such mistakes. There’s also more use of varying font sizes and typographic hierarchy to give articles a bit more balance and more professional look. In addition, Readability simplifies typographic and background color choices to six curated themes within each five font sizes and five line widths. Instapaper in comparison offers far more customization (eight font faces and at least twenty line height and font sizes) but I’d argue it’s almost too much for casual users.
Readability’s visuals also one up the competition when it comes to scanning and browsing article lists. In particular, I’ve always found Instapaper’s unread queue a bit crowded, not to mention lacking a preview of each article’s opening in its web version. Readability adds extra white space paired with varying font weights and sizes to give a cleaner, more easily scannable look. I also appreciate that Readability provides a search box to filter articles (though not on the mobile version, more on that later), which I find more useful than adding tags or organizing articles in folders in other apps. Finally, Readability auto scrolls to its previous position when returning to a partially read article, a slick touch that until now I’ve only found on the mobile version of Instapaper.
While its web experience is stellar, Readability stumbles a bit with its mobile app. That’s not apparent at first glance, as mobile app users get basically the same functionality of the website, from theme selections and font sizes to sharing on Twitter and Facebook. The app also has a stable offline mode and auto syncs when reaching a connection. However, with more usage serious problems emerge: Articles added to the unread queue (the Reading List) sometimes fail to show up on at all on the mobile app until the user logs into the app again. The articles on the reading and archive lists are often listed in a semi-random order, instead of the reverse chronology on the full website (this gets frustrating when searching for one article in a long reading list.) Clicked on images and links are auto opened externally in Safari instead of staying in app. Unlike native apps, Readability can’t run in the background, which ensures an extra few seconds of startup time, especially noticeable when doing any sort of heavy multitasking. Readability also can’t take advantage of common iOS gestures, so there’s no swiping to easily delete an article, or paginated browsing like in Instapaper.
In fairness, some of these problems like the extra startup time are inescapable given that Readability is an HTML5 web app. Note utilization of HTML5 is in many ways also a strength given the tech is easily editable, takes up minimal space and ensures an article looks virtually the same regardless of which device it’s viewed on. That said, I’ve found the occasional syncing and ordering problems annoying to the point of which I’ve mostly turned back to Instapaper for my mobile reading needs. If Readability irons out the bugs and adds a few more enhancements (I expect they will), I’ll likely be tempted back.
I’m going to continue putting my money (figuratively and literally) behind Readability for now. I still read from a lot of blogs and news sites on my Mac desktop during work breaks, so for me Readability’s enhanced organization and clean, relaxed reading experience on its web site is worth $5 a month alone. However, to me having $3.50 every month to be divvied up to the sites I use Readability with is its largest selling point. As Jeffrey Zeldman eloquently wrote on his blog, Readability is potentially powerful, disruptive tech that has the ability to fuel great online writing; that’s something worth supporting.