Readability, Revisisted

Last Thursday the folks at Readability finally released their long-awaited iPhone/iPad app. Having switched back to Readability for a few days in order to give the app a fair trial, in general I think it's well executed, with high production values, but still not quite as robust or solid as Instapaper.

My biggest nitpick: Readability relies way too much on gestures without always providing button- or icon-based navigation as a fallback. For example, on the iPhone UI you can't get back to the reading list from the article view except by swiping right, you have no way of knowing that besides having seen an on-screen hint when running the app for the first time, and there is no back button. When I demoed Readability for my wife she had no idea how to get out of an article until I explained it. That's a poor user experience, in my opinion.

Other than its existence after a year of App Store review limbo, at least two changes in Readability's business model, and one total app redesign, the big marquee news in this release is the inclusion of several new, screen-optimized fonts from Hoefler & Frere-Jones (H&FJ), including my favorite of theirs, a Clarendon-ish slab-serif called Sentinel. This is the first time H&FJ has licensed their fonts for embedding in an app, but they may not be very well suited to reading long blocks of paragraph text, which is basically this app's whole purpose. Sentinel seems a little too chunky, Gotham Narrow a little too thin, and Vitesse is just a weird choice. Whitney, a sans-serif also featured in the redesign of kottke.org, is the best of the bunch. It's pleasant to read and looks great.

Up to now, Readability's biggest turn-off for me has been its confusing, will-they-or-won't-they relationship with my money. Initially, the "new" Readability (the original was a free bookmarklet) required a paid subscription starting at $5/month, where 70% of the monthly fee was to be shared with authors whose work you'd bookmarked. Late last year, they shifted to a "freemium" model: users could sign up and bookmark up to 30 pages for free, but could remove the limits by subscribing to the paid service.

Now, in 2012, they've changed it again. Anyone can sign up for free with no limits. You can also subscribe, and have your contributions shared with authors. But the two have nothing to do with one another, and you don't get anything in return for your subscription except a warm, fuzzy feeling.

New users won't know or care about this history, but it makes me think a little too much about this post from last year about free web services. Clearly, charging money for this service wasn't working for them. They also clearly care deeply about giving authors a way to be compensated for their work. But apps, especially ones this polished, cost money to provide. I don't know how comfortable to feel storing my data — even something as silly and ephemeral as a reading list — with someone who may not be around next year.

Instapaper may not have my favorite font, but it's profitable and well run. The service is solid, and it just added my favorite Readability feature: the ability to store multi-page articles to read later. I'm keeping Readability around to see if the H&FJ fonts and gestures are really that much better, but I expect in the long run, I'll be switching back. Readability's app and newly free service are nice, but nice is not as important in this context as reliable.