Instapaper 5: Can the Best Get Better?

In July 2008, when Marco Arment submitted Instapaper to the fledgling App Store, there was no preconceived blueprint of how a “read it later” service should look and behave. In fact, outside of Apple’s guidelines, there was no notion of how any app ought to do so — iPhone OS was truly open season for developers. Where others found instant competition, Marco had the enviable opportunity to define an entire genre of app himself. 5 years later, his trailblazing app is now helmed by Betaworks, and yet, time seems to be repeating itself.

Betaworks’ acquisition of Instapaper came with just a hint of serendipity, occurring just over a month before the announcement of iOS 7 at WWDC. With that, the single most drastic architectural overhaul of iOS was thrust upon developers, and just like 2008, Instapaper was handed a clean slate to work with. However, with competitors abound and a dedicated user base to consider, any missteps could prove costly. With an array of new abilities available for use, is Instapaper version 5 a chapter of consolidation or a bold invention?

Moving Forward One Step at a Time

As a stalwart of my home screen, Instapaper has consistently been amongst my most used apps. Clearly any changes were to be met with nerves and skepticism. However, within a month of its acquisition, Betaworks overhauled the service’s back end infrastructure and set out to alleviate user concerns on their blog. By offering an olive branch to long-term users like myself they have sought to establish trust, and with that, my expectation of a major overhaul quickly dissipated.

As the only paid app in the read-later category, Instapaper bears an inherent burden to deliver for its users with an expectation of continued development. Arguably, this expectation is a reasonable one, however, the app last saw an update in December 2012. As such, whilst many developers have chosen to drop support for all but iOS 7, such an option was never an option for Instapaper.

Having spoken to Betaworks’ development team one of their foremost commitments was to get the latest update into every paid customer’s hands whilst refining the app to maintain its position as the de facto standard of read later app.

White, Black, and Flat All Over

One side effect of iOS 7’s new aesthetic is the uniformity of many app interfaces. Stripping back the gratuitous skeuomorphic elements and rich textures of the past has left many sporting a minimalist design with plenty of white space — a skin Instapaper has had for years. However, having eschewed the thick grey, iOS 6-inspired toolbars at either end of its interface; Instapaper now feels entirely at home on iOS 7 with a flat, neutral appearance that allows saved content to stand out for easy selection.

Read later comparison

A slimmed down interface has allowed more content to be displayed with a far more attractive appearance.

Functionally, there’s not a great deal existing users won’t recognise here with only subtle additions being made. The Feature — the ever dependable resource of curated articles — has retained its presence in Instapaper, only now it falls under a single Browse folder complete with friends’ liked articles and the built-in web browser. By creating a one-stop shop for content discovery, the developers have an opportunity to tap into Betaworks’ prowess in discovery and ranking algorithms — read: Digg — to further enhance the experience. Instapaper has the ability to become far more than a mere storage option and the changes have begun in earnest.

Menu Comparison

Several folders have now been merged into a single Browse area.

The emergence of Digg and as a primary source of interesting reads has also begun to transmute Instapaper’s purpose. At present, the app acts like a bucket for saved articles with a stellar reading environment, however, with the addition of sorting and filter capabilities the tide is beginning to change.

Perhaps the most significant new feature is the Popularity sort, which ranks articles based on several data points taken from Betaworks’ network. In itself this feature may seem fairly innocuous, but such features may pave the way for Instapaper to become a content engine, purveying reads for users rather than being a dumb bucket. Watch this space for further enhancements.

There are now a range of ways to find an a specific article to read.

There are now a range of ways to find an a specific article to read.

Additions and Omissions

Having had an advance look at this version of Instapaper I have had a little while to consider the reasoning behind its development. What has struck me the most, however, is what the team decided to purposefully omit in lieu of familiarity and backwards OS compatibility. The new background app refresh feature offered by iOS 7 is one omission that instantly drew my surprise given the obvious benefits for read later apps. Whilst the newly incorporated pull-to-refresh adds welcome fluidity throughout the app, the sooner Betaworks implements the superior automation tool, the better.

As a huge fan of Evernote it is disappointing to find there has been no progress on properly integrating the service. The current method for exporting a selection of text via email is cumbersome, especially when you’re as big a clipper as I am. In all honesty, a complete rethink of the connected services panel is urgently needed with rival service Pocket excelling in that area. It’s not all bad, though, Instapaper’s hideous dark mode has been drastically improved with a softer grey background for more comfortable night time reading.

A dedicated video folder automatically sorts saved links for viewing.

Left: A dedicated video folder automatically sorts saved links for viewing. Right: An improved dark mode.

Instapaper’s biggest weakness over the last few versions has been its handling of multimedia content. My dissatisfaction with the app’s video playback capabilities have led me to use Pocket as a bucket for all non-reading related content. Whilst my solution is unwieldily it has proven an effectual remedy thus far. However, with the addition of a dedicated video sorting folder and improved playback, Instapaper is on the road to removing Pocket from my iPhone. The ability to tag saved videos and articles would go some way to address my concerns and I’m optimistic for such improvements having heard some of the Betaworks team’s plans.

This is Just the Beginning

I could spend another few hundred words detailing what hasn’t been added in this update that perhaps ought to have by now. The failure — or rather the plan — not to take larger strides with this version may draw ire from some users, but with its improved UI, Instapaper can build upon its solid foundation with future updates.

The release of iOS 7 has forced developers into refreshing their apps at a time when the platform is in flux, with an aesthetic direction for third parties still to be established. Patience is a virtue and a cliche yet it holds truth in this regard, the app is still the best for reading and that’s good enough for now — the real pressure is with what comes next.


Summary

The definitive reading experience in the read-later category returns with an improved UI, better video handling, and an array of article sorting features.

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  • Eric Rosario

    I tried to like Instapaper especially with all the hype it has but I found that a good number of webpages via my browser don’t get cleaned up properly where Readability was able to clean up the pages. Also the search feature is not free so paying $4 for the app and having to pay for the search feature has left me loving Readability. Readability is not only free but has a search feature that is free.

    • http://sasmith.org/ Steven Smith

      Instapaper’s text parser improved with this update, too. No service is perfect on that front but the other features offered by Instapaper make it the best for me. Quality of reading is the definitive feature I look to in app given its purpose & neither Pocket or Readability offer typography on a par with Instapaper.