Instapaper 5.0 as personality software

Betaworks builds on a successful platform

Just like any other sale of a software product to a bigger company, the acquisition of Instapaper by Betaworks left users confused about its future. Celebrity-status developer Marco Arment created in 2008 a tool for time-shifted reading, an app to read websites without internet on the iPhone. What initially looked like a convenient hack for geeks, initiated a new category of "Read it later" services. The release of Instapaper 5.0 is just another step to take his idea to the next level.


Before getting into what's new, let's state how until now, Instapaper was part of what I like to call personality software. These are the apps — and a lot of indie games — that sweat character, defend controversial choices and won't sacrifice user experience taking shortcuts. The end product will be recognised and celebrated as a great work of craftsmanship, propelling the willing creator to public appearances and media recognition. Marco Arment and Instapaper are the archetype of personality software.

In his various podcasts over the years, Arment has shared the motivation behind his decisions for Instapaper. The app has the same basic functionality from the first version, including small refinements with every iteration. Some very opinionated; others to please user requests. What Betaworks had to work with was not just a service or an app; it's the community of Instapaper users accustomed to drops of genius every now and then.

An easy iOS 7 transition

The design philosophy to make Instapaper a great app for reading has made the transition to iOS 7 very natural. The disappearing navigation bars on the new Safari is something Instapaper has been doing for some time now. And there wasn't much chrome in there to remove anyway.

Just like the previous version, your typography and theme choice will determine the appearance of the rest of the app. You still get the same selection of fonts, alignment and colour options — now with accents of dark red. If you are playing with the settings, take the time to try the sepia mode to turn the app into old women underwear. Other cosmetic changes include a new icon and a branded loading screen on launch, something of a requirement to match with the rest of the system.

Taking advantage of iOS 7, Instapaper (version 5.0.2) includes background app refresh. This allows the app to fetch new items without you having to launch it and pull down to refresh. The way this feature is implemented is system-wide. iOS works out the time you are likely to use Instapaper and the time it's idle, downloading new content right before you are expected to use the app. I'm happy they manage to include this in record time after having missed it on launch; mileage might improve as iOS learns your Instapapering habits.

Sorting and filtering

What Betaworks has brought from their side is a system to sort and filter articles in the Read Later view. The filter calculates the length of the article and displays content by reading time. This can be a good thing if you only have time for two quick five minute reads or up for a proper reading session with a cup of tea on the couch.

Sorting allows you to change from the traditional chronological order, sort by length, random selection or by popularity. To measure popularity, Instapaper tracks things like the amount of users who have saved the same article, if it's been opened, read and shared among other indicators. There's a very interesting post on how this data is weighted on the company blog.

The thing with apps like Instapaper is that I launch them to use them, not tinkering much with the settings. I admit there might be missing features on this release that I haven't noticed as I rarely divert from the "give me something to read" usage. This could be the case with pagination mode, which has disappeared quietly, as well as the automatic scrolling option, which moved the text like a teleprompter adjusting the speed with tilt.

A shifting platform

Instapaper 5.0 is a solid release that doesn't break with the past and adds a little bit more than the bare minimum to adapt to iOS 7. There are hints of interesting things to come, though. The sorting and filtering functions are a demonstration of how Betaworks can leverage its experience with data mining to give something meaningful to the user.

The much-needed revamp of the browser reader shows a great deal of skill and design focus. It demonstrates how Instapaper is becoming more platform agnostic. Along with the fantastic desktop version, you can login and use Instapaper as a web app on your phone or tablet too, independent of the operating system you use. From now on Instapaper will be thought more as a service, as a platform and less of an iOS-exclusive app.

How the product continues to evolve won't be constrained as much by the limitations of the App Store and the decisions will take other ecosystems in consideration. The challenge for Betaworks will be to improve the app building on the existing uses, trying to keep alive one of its biggest assets: the sense of Instapaper as personality software.

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