What's Next for Reading Technology
What's the state of reading technology? In this article we'll explore.
After virtually no forward progress in reading technology in the past decade, we are starting to see more companies taking the "save now, read later" concept really seriously. With Readwise Reader's announcement earlier this week, we now have two companies, Readwise and Matter, that are focused on this problem. In this post, we'll take a look through Pocket, Instapaper, Matter, and explain why Readwise might want to enter the arena.
Launched in 2007, Pocket was really the first "read it later" application developed for the web. Unlike the Kindle, Pocket focused on allowing users to save articles and web pages so that they could read it later. The application began as desktop-first and was eventually acquired by Mozilla in 2017 as a way for the company to increase market share in the mobile browser market.
Distribution. The application is bundled with the Firefox browser and is available as an extension to download with most major browsers including Chrome and Edge. In addition, you can download the app in both the Android and iOS app stores. As of 2018, Pocket had an estimated 30mm users.
Monetization. Pocket is monetized through a freemium model. It's free to save, read, watch and listen to an unlimited number of articles. However, to get access to a permanent library, an ad-free experience, full text search, unlimited highlights, and premium fonts users have to pay $44.99/year or $4.99/mo.
Functionality. In terms of functionality, Pocket an extension which lets you save pages and then add tags so that you can thematically search for content.
The main page online has a list of the media that you've saved and this can be sorted either from newest to oldest or from oldest to newest.
Once saved, the text of an article is scraped and added to Pocket in a unified format which is meant to make things easier to read (in practice it homogenizes all the text). When reading, you can then highlight and share various passages, add tags at the document level and favorite, archive, or delete a given article.
Instapaper is another "read it later" application that was cofounded back in 2008. The company was acquired by Pinterest in 2016 but was subsequently spun out in 2018 and is run, part-time, by Brian Donohue. Similar to Pocket, Instapaper lets you save anything, read across devices and take notes. The biggest difference between the two apps is price (Instapaper is ~33% cheaper) and the way files are organized which uses folders vs. tags.
Distribution. The application is available on the web, iOS, Android, and Kindle. As of 2011, Instapaper had around 2mm users. Though no recent statistics have been released, I'd estimate that they have at most 5mm users today.
Monetization. Instapaper has a freemium model. In the free version, you're able to save unlimited articles. In the paid version ($2.99/month or $29.99/year) you're able to take notes, have text-to-speech, enable speed reading, and have an ad-free experience.
Functionality. From a purely functional standpoint, Instapaper is roughly identical to Pocket. Typical workflow would be for a user to save an article. From there the article will be placed in a queue in the app and you can like, highlight, and archive articles. The biggest difference is the organizational structure. In Pocket there are tags, while Instapaper has the ability to store articles in folders. That's a small detail, but it ends up having a meaningful impact on the user experience.
Matter is a new YC company that is "a social reading app for articles, blogs, and newsletters." In a job description page, the founders write
Reading is important. So it's surprising, in 2021, just how little help we get from technology. Many key problems have barely been addressed, let alone solved: helping people decide what to read in a world of near-infinite content; making reading socially and emotionally relevant; helping people prioritize attention, remember what's important and learn. We believe reading technology can be much better than it is.
Distribution. The app is a standalone and is currently in private beta on iOS for the Interintellect, Progress Studies, and Long Now communities.
Monetization. Right now, the app is free. Eventually, I suspect they will either 1) need to charge users for premium features like integrations or 2) insert ads into their recommendations.
Functionality. In terms of functionality, Matter is hands down the best reader app I've ever come across. And yes, that includes the entire gamut of reader apps including Kindle, iBooks, Pocket, and Instapaper.
The team has an impressive release cadence and launched new features that includes
- Reading Inbox
- Audio Narration
- Audio Highlights
- Favorite Writers
- User Profiles and Reading Feeds
- Queue Control
Most interestingly, Matter really focuses on helping readers discover content that they otherwise might not see. Indeed, back in May, Ben Springwater pointed out that "counteracting newness bias is one of Matter's most important projects."
In short, Matter is basically a much better/more featureful Pocket. However, beyond that the company seems to be trying to enable discovery of novel content agnostic of the age through a nascent social network inside the app that's bootstrapped on top of Twitter's social graph.
Readwise is a company started by Tristan Homsi and Daniel Doyon that started with the goal of letting users resurface highlights from books they had previously read. Gradually, they added integrations to every product that had an API that let you export highlights.
From here, Readwise lets you surface 5-15 highlights in a Daily Review.
So why do I bring any of this up? Well, earlier this week, Readwise announced they would be launching their own "save now read later" app called Readwise Reader.
My first question was "If Matter is so good, why would Readwise do this?"
To start answering that, it's worth reading their 5000 word blog post titled "The Next Chapter of Readwise: Our Own Reading App". Their justification for this move seems to be along the following lines:
- Our mission is to improve the practice of reading through software by an order of magnitude.
- Users were asking for features/functionality that they weren't able to address in Readwise since they simply consumed the highlights from those other systems.
- Users have kludged together their own workflows with these unbundled software products.
- We are now at a place where bundling of features and functionality under one app make sense as that will ultimately help bake in features that enable our users to absorb the most from the content they consume.
- In addition, we view these types of systems as fundamentally single-player (rather than multi-player) and don't think that a new social network of meaningful scale will be built around these kinds of communities.
All of that strikes me as both reasonable and correct. That said, I think the explanation for why Readwise can/should do this is quite a bit more simple. Consider the following Knowledge Management Workflow posted by Martine Ellis. Her system is a familiar hodgepodge of different systems, but, crucially, Matter sits between Readwise and the newsletters and web articles that are the crucial piece of any "save now, read later" product. In short, Matter is a competitive threat since it has the potential to disintermediate Readwise from the highlights it needs in order to be useful.
Readwise has already trained users to go and visit its application once a day through the Daily Review. By building their own Reader application, Readwise builds on this simple behavior and gradually expands the scope of their product surface area. Where you once went to the app to review highlights you now go to review highlights AND read your newsletters and favorite long-form content. Additionally, Readwise already has an existing customer base which makes marketing/discovery quite a bit easier. Plus, they already have your credit card information.
Whatever happens, I'm glad that both Readwise and Matter are pushing the envelope with reading technology. However, I'll note that these are undoubtedly two approaches that are fairly tied to the desktop and iOS ecosystems, respectively. While we have plenty of examples of games specifically built for VR, there haven't been any great examples of reading experiences built specifically for VR (that I've seen). Given Amazon's virtual monopoly on the sale of digital books through the Kindle ecosystem lock-in, I'm excited to see if anyone is able to build a truly great, immersive Library of Alexandria.