Tablet users want simple reading interfaces (and will pay for them)

Instapaper does less than its competitors, costs a great deal more, and is, at its core, a black and white list of text articles you’ve expressed an interest in reading. It was a decidedly iOS-only app for a long while, but now it has arrived on Android, and it’s getting enough attention to force some brief server maintenance outages this morning. You can just imagine the look on the face of the business major trying to figure this out.

It turns out that once smartphones and tablets achieved something of a critical mass, people started treating them like real household objects, and occasionally wanted some quiet, contemplative time with them. Hence the bumper crop of releases and upgrades in what you might call the web-shifting market. The players are:

  • Instapaper, an early entrant in the read-when-you-like field, given that its iPhone and iPad apps launched the same day as those devices were released. It’s one developer, Marco Arment, it’s self-sustained through app sales and voluntary “subscriptions” from dedicated fans, and, as mentioned, it’s the most single-purpose app of the bunch: click a button and read a text-only version of it later. Instapaper had roughly 2 million users at the end of 2011.

  • Pocket, formerly named Read It Later. Read It Later was a paid app in the iOS and Android markets early on, but is now free. The company has taken on $2.5 million in venture capital, and broadened its goals with the change to Pocket, aiming to save almost anything on the web: videos, pictures, galleries, products, and so on. Pocket and its Read It Later legacy users number around 3.5 million, though that number includes inactive users.

  • Flipboard, initially aimed at sorting out the links your friends and followees post to Twitter and Facebook, but now offering more options for those who want to read feeds and pipe over web pages. Its primary aim is to convert lists and links into a magazine-like experience, complete with flipping pages. It was originally iOS-only, but recently launched on the Galaxy SIII, with a general Android release to follow.

  • Pulse, something of a hybrid news reader and link collector for iOS and Android. The app encourages you to choose news sources, like TIME magazine, Engadget, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and so on, and then flip through picture-filled headlines to read and save stories for later. You can also import RSS feeds, social accounts, and other sources.

The boom in reading apps seems to match a common line of growth for new categories of devices. Think of the first laptop you owned. “I can work from anywhere!” shifted into “I can work from anywhere with a decent number of outlets!” to “I can generally work with some constraints in any place with good Wi-Fi, outlets, no loud and angry people, and as long as my hands don’t get too cramped from the keyboard.” Eventually, the powers and limitations of laptops became well known, and people started using them not for futuristic sales pitches made from the beach, but for, you know, opening browser tabs to read blog posts like this (thanks!).

With tablets, we were all going to be throwing our hands around the screen, flipping through 3D diagrams of the projects we were building, keeping up on a few spreadsheets while our kids played soccer, and so forth. Now there’s the reality that a lot of us grab them for mornings, bedtimes, and other moments when we don’t have pressing business. When that happens, we often want to read, and we don’t want to spend a ton of time typing in search terms to find that reading.

As for Instapaper for Android itself, it is quite simpatico with its iOS companion. It was developed by a third-party firm Mobelux, with obvious input and guidance from Arment himself. It is centered around text, with lots of attention given to typefaces, margins, and parsing. It’s missing some of the advanced features of its iPhone and iPad, but it looks quite nice, and has a smart feature that turns on white-on-black “Dark Mode” based on your local sunset time.

Arment told The Verge that the growth of Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablets pushed him toward launching an Android version, after vocally opposing the idea. But it feels to me like it’s just that point in the development of smartphones and tablets that we’re starting to stop viewing them as new, and start accepting them as fairly neat tools.

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