In the past five years, reading on the web has fundamentally changed. Read It Later, the first popular service to pioneer a certain kind of “bookmarking” for web articles, is reborn today as Pocket, and it promises to change the way users think of web content to “save for later”. Most importantly, Pocket wants to address what has become the scarcest resource of web citizens: time.
People never had time to check out all the cool stuff that happens on the Internet every day. As blogging platforms started taking off in the past decade, sometime during 2006 some people began to realize they didn’t have time to read every article that was posted online. The digital publishing revolution had already happened, but the explosion of blogging was just starting to produce high-quality, journalistic and well-informed pieces that, due to a simple scarcity of time and intuitive tools, people didn’t have time to read in their entirety. Whilst the act of “bookmarking” something on the Internet goes back to several years ago, the more focused, practical act of “saving an article for later” can actually be traced back in the form of popular consumer software to somewhere in between late 2006 and 2007.
Nate Weiner was one of the first developers (and avid web readers) to understand that the bookmarking systems in place at the time (Delicious, magnolia, or simple browser bookmarks) weren’t cutting it, from a technical and psychological perspective, for those users that just wanted to put off an article for later.
The difference between “bookmarking” and “saving for later” is both practical and conceptual: a regular bookmark is usually archived for good, as bookmarking services place great emphasis on letting users store bookmarks – links to webpages – forever in their accounts. There are some exceptions today, but the underlying philosophy has pretty much stayed the same. The action of “saving an article for later”, on the other hand, takes a more pragmatical approach: an article a user wants to read today or tomorrow isn’t necessarily representative of a webpage he wants to store and archive for eternity. The terminology itself – “for later” – indicates that something is going to happen “later”. Once an article is read, most users tend to go on with their lives and forget about it. Like I said, it’s different today, and there are some specific use cases in which someone might want to archive articles – but the original concept lives on. People don’t have time to read every web article ever published.
Back in 2007, Nate Weiner set out to create a simple Firefox extension that would allow him to keep articles he found at work (and wanted to “read later”) in a different place than its browser bookmarks. On August 6, 2007, he launched the aptly-named Read It Later, a Firefox extension that did one thing well: it kept articles in a cozy little extension, saved for later. Users could hit a button to quickly save an article, and they could even save multiple browser tabs at once. As the extension started taking off, Nate began adding more features to Read It Later, such as offline support in December 2007.
Meanwhile, Marco Arment, developer at Tumblr, was facing a similar problem himself in 2007. He was constantly coming across news or blog articles he didn’t have time to read at the moment, and he needed something to read while on the bus or waiting in line. Arment discovered that there was no easy way to save links from a computer and access them later from the iPhone – we’re talking mid-2007 here, when the iPhone was getting in the hands of the first millions of customers, and when there was no SDK for developers to build native apps. So Arment decided, as he would later explain, to build just the service for that: Instapaper, a webpage that collected links saved from a bookmarklet, was launched publicly in January 2008. Like Read It Later, Instapaper solved a twofold issue: it allowed users to quickly save articles, and retrieve them later. Unlike Weiner’s app, though, Instapaper saved links in a webpage that could be easily accessed from the iPhone – mobile reading, in fact, seemed to be one of Instapaper’s primary features from the get-go. As Arment’s service became popular, he also went back to the drawing board – or in his case, programming tools – to implement new functionalities for Instapaper. The service’s hallmark feature, a text mode that strips unnecessary content out of web articles, was released in April 2008.
The rest is history. As Apple kept improving its mobile ecosystem with new devices, OS upgrades, and the App Store, Read It Later and Instapaper evolved, and iteratively became two fantastic services that serve millions of users every month. Over the years, we have followed both Instapaper and Read It Later closely at MacStories. Read more