Readability and Type

written by andrew

There’s a very interesting discussion going around the important Web right now about the differences between two similar services, Instapaper and Readability. These services allow committed readers of websites to bookmark, save and read in clear, distraction-free articles of all kinds–including this one). With a push of a button, these two applications strip out a plethora of advertising, navigation, logos, colors, and other visual detritus and create a simple and linear page for reading and reading well.

It’s a trend that started long ago with the launch of writing products like Ulysses, by the German company, The Soulmen. For writers that use Ulysses, a full-screen view is provided; distraction-free writing ensues. Other applications like Maine-based Jesse Grosjean’s WriteRoom, Barcelona’s Heraiz Soto & Co.’s Omm Writer and most recently, Japan-based Information Architect’s IA Writer, have followed suit with much success going to the latter. All of these tools make writing a pleasure–more like using a typewriter, which is how I learned to write essays, and less like toying with two turntables and a microphone.

Because there are 10,000 times more serious readers than than there are writers, it’s become time for reading products that eliminate distraction to start to shine. In a paragraph, journalist John Gruber comes down on the side of Marco Arment’s Instapaper. This application has been around for many years and has been lovingly crafted, supported, and developed by an army of one. I’ve used Instapaper almost since Day One and it makes saving long-form articles easy and reading them pleasurable. On the other side of the reading ring is technologist Anil Dash who implies in a post today that Readability is a more advanced application — and that arguing about which one is better verges on a kind of Russian roulette for the developer community. Anil Dash should know–he sits on Readability’s board.

Answering the questions of which is better is quite complicated. Instapaper is essentially free (its author mostly profits from the sale of the iOS app). Further, it’s scrappy, simple and plays nice with others through a substantial API. Readability, on the other hand, uses a (rather covert upon sign-up) subscription service in which a percentage of a monthly payment goes to the publisher or writer. To me, having newly signed up for a Readability account, learning only later of its pay model is disappointing; the company should have explained, from the outset, that its services are not entirely free. Gruber goes so far as to call them “scumbags,” not because of this sign-up process but because the company collects funds and profits directly from writers’ articles and publishers’ platforms–and keeps the money for unclaimed read articles.

And yet, Readability is a beautifully designed application and integrated set of tools. Unlike Instapaper, which sports a spare but not unlikable interface, Readability is gorgeous. Typographically, the text sparkles on the page–large type, clean iconography and a simple user interface in both the read and account views make it a hands-down winner. Having Roger Black and other design luminaries like Jeffrey Zeldman on its board (along with Dash) evidently helped evolve Readability’s user interface to a polish that Instapaper can’t quite meet. From a purely typographic perspective, Readability wins, for now. My fear is that that design polish is paid for by a less than forthright yet calculating business model.*
*Here, I’m obliquely reminded of a quote by philosopher and cultural critic Theodor Adorno: The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them.
[Update: I think Gregory Cox’s take that both apps are parasitic and inevitable is probably right.]

[Update 2: Had a I dug deeper, I would have learned that the fonts (such as our house favorite, Mercury) on Readability’s application are served by the inimitable Hoefler & Frere-Jones. This only serves to fully solidify my argument in favor of the UI goodness of Readability.]

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