Instapaper and Safari's Reading List

Jeff LaMarche wrote an interesting (and very entertaining) article about being a developer for iOS vs other platforms. The piece is in response to an article by Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror where he argues that third party developers in the Apple ecosystem "serve at the pleasure of the king".

The example Jeff Atwood uses to illustrate his point is Instapaper.

The essence is that Apple basically took (or stole) the idea of a successful app and built the same functionality into their software with the new Reading List feature in Safari. Thus, screwing Marco Arment, the Instapaper developer.

It's a valid point, but I think it's flawed for a couple of reasons.

First, Apple may have had that feature planned for a while now. Maybe even before Instapaper even existed.

Apple, like most successful businesses, has a roadmap for their products and services and they don't launch everything on the list in one go. Who knows what they're working on now, but I'd be willing to bet it's something amazing we can't even imagine today. They're probably already working on the iPhone 6 and we, the consumers, will be amazed at the iPhone 5 whenever it comes out. That's just how things work.

This is one of the reasons publishers and movie studios don't accept unsolicited scripts. If they do, they run the risk of someone sending a screenplay for a movie that is too similar to one they're working on. Imagine the lawsuits.

Second, and most importantly, I agree with Marco that Safari's Reading List could increase his business instead of hurting it.

Yes, at its core Safari's Reading List does the same thing Instapaper does. It allows you to save web pages to read later and keeps them in sync across your devices. For many, that's all they need and Reading List will suffice. But I don't believe those people are or would have ever been Instapaper customers.

As Marco said, Instapaper is "like Safari's Reading List, but better, in these ways", and those ways are what will keep Instapaper users, like myself, loyal to the service and will no doubt bring in new users once they outgrow Safari's Reading List.

The key for Marco is to explain the ways Instapaper is better.

I'm sure there are many, but the ones that make Instapaper so much better than Safari's Reading List for me are:

  • Integration with other apps: Pretty much every iOS app where you'll find stuff to read has "Save to Instapaper" links. I can be reading in Reeder, Twitter, Flipboard, The Early Edition, etc. and just tap a button to send the article to my Instapaper queue. Safari's Reading List saves stuff you find in Safari only (as far as I know).

  • Email straight to Instapaper: If I happen to be reading something somewhere that doesn't have the above link, I can just email the article to my account and viola, like magic it goes into my queue. I've done this a few times when a friend shows me something in their iPad or iPhone. All I need to do is ask them to email it to me.

  • Browser agnostic: Even though I use Safari 90% of the time, every now and then I use Google Chrome when I need to see something that requires Adobe Flash. If I find something I want to read later while browsing in Chrome, saving to Instapaper is just a click away. Safari's Reading List works only in, well, Safari.

  • The reading experience itself: Instapaper is beautiful. It's obvious Marco has spent a great deal of time obsessing over every single detail. Instapaper 4, just released a few days ago, is superb. It's a joy to read in Instapaper. This alone will be enough to convince anybody that truly enjoys reading that Instapaper is so much better than Safari's Reading List.

If all you want is a better bookmarking feature that keeps links for you to read later, then Safari's Reading List is enough. If you want more, check out Instapaper. I'm sure you'll become a fan.

And this is what I think (and hope) will happen. A bunch of people that have never heard of Instapaper will start using Safari's Reading List, they'll love it, and some of them will realise they need more and buy Instapaper.

Only time will tell, but maybe "the king" actually helped "the merchant" by introducing a relatively unknown service to all its citizens.

UPDATE: Just to add 2 more things that I enjoy greatly about Instapaper that I didn't mention: The ability to create a task in OmniFocus directly from the app and the fact that I have a queue of interesting things to read (curated by myself) even while offline. Today I stopped at a car dealership to get an oil top up. It took only 15 minutes, but the service bay is underneath the dealership with limited mobile reception. The iPhone had no signal and actually said SOS Only. I spent the 15 minutes reading Instapaper not missing 3G or Wi-Fi at all.