Reading the web: why Instapaper is a feature and not a product

I was one of the early Instapaper enthusiasts. I showed it to friends and regaled them with its ease of use, explaining how perfectly it sat into the ebbs and flows of working on the Internet. No longer should you feel the need to read everything sent your way, instead just mark it with Instapaper and come back at a more convenient time. It is a brilliantly simple idea and to paraphrase my colleague Humso:

Simple things are among the most complex to master.

It stretches beyond just the idea too. The execution is wonderful. It looks great, works on multiple devices and even gives you that warm fuzzy feeling - that only great UX does - when you realise for the first time that you can tilt to scroll. Despite this however I contend that Instapaper is nothing more than a superb feature. It’s not a product. And here’s why.

Friends of mine will know that I have a distaste for RSS readers. Reading shouldn’t be reduced down to a number of unread items, it’s not email, you’re more emotionally involved with it than that. Similarly you shouldn’t feel the need to read everything. I can’t remember the last time I read any magazine or newspaper cover to cover, I cherry pick the stuff that’s important to me and avoid the rest. “Personal magazine” startups like Flipboard and Feedly solve these problems elegantly by ditching unread labels for recommendations and algorithms that push the content they think you’ll like to the top, while still allowing you to subscribe to more sites that you’re ever going to read in one sitting.

Unsurprisingly Instapaper is built into both Flipboard and Feedly. If I don’t finish reading an article inside Flipboard I can send it to Instapaper to read later. And therein lies the problem. I want to read in Flipboard not Instapaper, and what’s more I want to be able to send articles I see in my browser to Flipboard so I can read them there as well. Instapaper would make a wonderful additional feature to either of these products but it’s not a product in it’s own right.

So what happens next? I think Instapaper has a few options:

  1. Become a full reading experience not dissimilar to Flipboard or Feedly. This would certainly take the most amount of work and puts them up against some well funded and well established opposition; however it’s the only one that leaves them in control.
  2. Sell up. Instapaper would be a great addition, as described above, to any of the reading services out there. Futhermore Marco Arment is clearly a really talented guy who probably has a ton of other ideas up his sleeve making him a great addition to any product team - assuming he wants that of course.

There is of course a third option, and that’s to do nothing. However, following that course would see Instapaper left behind by other more fully formed reading experiences, and that would be a terrible waste of potential.

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My name is Dan, I'm a product manager and entrepreneur living and working in London. Check out my blog archive or read more about me.