The Instapaper Circlejerk

A lot of the people I follow and respect in the Apple tech circles (Gruber, Dan Benjamin, Siracusa, Matt Gemmell, etc.) are very much enamored with the Instapaper app (an application which allows you to save articles for reading later in an app that beautifully cleans up these articles for reading). Instapaper is always getting referenced as an app that’s doing things right, and its developer, Marco Arment, is held in very high regard in these circles. I’ve become entirely convinced he’s getting far too much credit.

First things first: Instapaper is my current “read later” service of choice and I am enjoying it quite a bit. I also have great admiration for Marco’s simple business model and the fact that he can make a living off of doing this whole service by himself (I may be a bit jealous in that regard…). But people are jumping through hoops to compliment Marco’s app, sometimes at the cost of truth, and sometimes through hypocrisy as well.

First off, Instapaper is often (incorrectly) credited with being the “original” read later service. However, that title goes to Read It Later, though apparently just by a couple months.

More recently, Instapaper has been seen as the “good guy” in a recent spew of hate toward Readability after they released their iOS application (and it ended up functioning an awful lot like Instapaper). For the most part it seems people weren’t upset that Readability was copying Instapaper’s schtick (good thing, too, because Read It Later would also be crying foul), but they were upset at Readability’s business model, in which subscribers paid Readability to make articles around the web more readable, and content publishers could register with Readability to collect a portion of those subscriber fees. The fact that Readability collected money on publishers’ behalf without actually necessarily having a business relationship with them irked readers, many of which pointed to good old Marco as the angel child who would never do that. Marco never would try doing something like try to wedge his way in the middle between the reader and publisher, would he?

Well, actually… Instapaper kind of did just that. Last year they had announced a partnership with Readability (it’s since ended) in which you could use Instapaper to queue up your articles and also subscribe to Readability. This was hardly controversial at the time, and I have always found Readability’s idea to be a great step forward in helping both monetize web content that I’m not paying for while still letting me consume it in the way I want to (since publishers can’t seem to produce their content in a palatable form on the web on their own). But because the hivemind hates Readability, this subscription functionality is bad for publishers, yet Instapaper, which doesn’t ever give money to publishers even if they wanted to be paid, is completely innocent (Siracusa justified this in a recent Hypercritical episode by explaining that when you used the Instapaper bookmarklet, you’ve loaded the web page and all its ads so that makes it okay).

But my qualms with Instapaper aren’t related to Readability at all, really. They’re more related to Instapaper as its own product. When I hear people talking about the level of polish and attention to detail that Instapaper exhibits as an app, I have come to expect quite a snazzy application. I mean, Marco doesn’t brag about his attention to detail or anything, but did you know that his app asks for permission to use your location so that it knows when sunsets take place in your neck of the woods to it knows when to darken its pages?

With all the blog posts Marco makes about the painstaking attention to detail he puts into Instapaper, I would expect the reading flow to be natural and require almost no effort. I opened up Instapaper, tapped on an article in the grid view that suited my interests, and set off to read the article. It was beautiful, indeed, but when I was finished with the article, I hit the trash button to get rid of it/archive it, and got this:

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Odd that it gives you a choice, I thought. Must be a place in settings where you can choose the behavior you want that button to have. Nope.

Oh, then. Maybe that’s a secondary way to archive articles, and there’s a quicker way to do it from the grid view. Let’s try that. I went to the grid view and swiped that article to the right and hit the trash icon.

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Wow. So basically what Marco’s getting at is that he thought this UI through so much that for every article you read and finish (which I assume will be all of the ones you add), the process to get rid of it always requires at least two taps, or a swipe and two taps?

That’s fucking brilliant, Marco.

Now, initially I encountered this button on my iPhone and assumed that it behaved that way because of screen real estate constraints. That’s a reasonable compromise to make. But I would have expected it to behave differently on the iPad where there’s plenty of space for dedicated archive and delete buttons.

This sounds like a hypercritical nitpick, and it would be, if not for the fact that this is an action you will have to perform on every article you ever read in Instapaper. Never make a user take two steps to do what can just as easily be done in one. That’s a cardinal rule.

Okay, Aaron, so it’s one measly little thing that got overlooked. Big deal. Surely there aren’t any other complaints you have, are there?

Up until recently, I would have had the complaint that Instapaper doesn’t parse multi-page articles. I emailed/tweeted Marco about that last year thinking that he’s this baller Mac developer guy who is so thoughtful about user experience that he’d respond, but he never did. And I discovered pretty quickly that Instapaper is pretty useless if it only beautifies the first of a multi-page article, and that’s why I left Instapaper for Read it Later last summer, and I only returned to Instapaper recently after it added the ability to parse multi-page articles automatically.

But here’s my favorite quirk of the app. Go to the “The Feature” part of the app, which gives a cool grid view of some of the most popular Instapaper articles.

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Cool, look at that grid that looks just like my Reading List. Let me open one of these articles and see it in beautified Instapaper view, okay?

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What the actual fuck? It dumps me into a fucking WebView of the original article? (must be because Marco’s so damn ethical and doesn’t want to cheat the publisher out of that undoubtedly valuable ad impression that you don’t end up looking at)

So, basically, the flow if you would like to read (and then archive) an article from the featured list of articles is thus:

  1. Go to Featured list
  2. Tap on article that interests you
  3. Tap “Read Later” button to add it to your queue
  4. Go to your Read Later section and then tap the article
  5. Wait for article to download/parse, then read it in beautiful view
  6. Tap trash can icon
  7. Delete or archive it

Maybe if Marco wasn’t so busy writing blog posts about how much he thinks through every little aspect of his app, it’d have occurred to him that this flow is absolutely schizophrenic.

I’d be less bitter about these aspects of the app sucking if it weren’t for Marco’s arrogance. He jumps all over other developers and their poor user experiences, but in every instance when I’ve called him on it via Twitter, it goes un-responded to. This lack of response isn’t because he’s not a replying kind of Twitter guy, though. If you tweet something that feeds into his ego, he’s quick to retweet.

The thing that boggles me, though, is that others aren’t also calling Instapaper on these garish mistakes. I mean, if I were going on some tirade about how Instapaper sucks because it doesn’t magically read all articles to me in Morgan Freeman’s voice it would be one thing for me to be the lone critic. And although this post is not without its snark in nitpicking Instapaper, I wasn’t being a troll in my tweets to Instapaper, but I can’t help but feel a little bit snubbed when questions just go ignored on a Twitter account. It’s not my job as a customer to wonder whether your business actively monitors its Twitter account for @replies. Plus, I’ve sent emails that likewise went unanswered.

Compared to Read it Later, I am really failing to see ways that Instapaper really differentiates itself. The tiny details it sweats over are lost in the face of more glaring oversights. Anyone have any insights on this?

2 responses to “The Instapaper Circlejerk”

  1. Martha Wiggins says:

    Agreed. Marco has proven repeatedly, to be profoundly self-infatuated. He even removes features which induced many to purchase his app. Send a polite “please reconsider” note, and get no reply. Can’t believe I subscribed since the option materialized via PayPal. But, lesson learned. Sub cancelled; app deleted. Don’t need a genuine A hole’s app anywhere near my devices.

  2. aaron says:

    A shame. It’s odd, too, since he is so very thoughtful and so responsive about so many other little things. Just this morning I was listening to him on The Talk Show with John Gruber and he is always so well reasoned when talking but so much in his app seems to be kind of meh.

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