Read-later Ethics

I deleted Instapaper from my iOS devices and have switched over to Reading List. I did this as a trial to see if I really needed everything Instapaper did for me. But the more I thought about Instapaper and Reading List I thought about how out of all Read Later-type apps, Safari’s Reading List is the most ethical.

I have had internal, ethical struggles with using Instapaper. Instapaper profits through the use of copyrighted material. It removes articles from the context of their home, removing advertising and all the other ways that an author could have made a profit from your reading of their article, and puts it into the reading environment of Instapaper’s paid-app. Oftentimes I’d send a link directly to Instapaper from an app like Twitterrific and never see the originating site.

On the other hand, Reading List keeps you on the website. Reading List merely applies a layer of cleanup and typography on top of it. I think that’s a good compromise between usability and the economy currently used by many websites of selling ads to support themselves.

If we’re going to get all high and mighty about supporting independent app developers, musicians, and others who create on the web, we can do the same with writers and look at an ad every once in a while and give a writer a page view when we read their writing.

Reading List Migration

Chris Bowler is moving from Instapaper to Safari’s Reading List.

I thought the writing was on the wall for Instapaper…and maybe it is. Reading List is becoming everything that Instapaper is, minus any favoriting and other social features (that frankly, never really picked up in my usage of Instapaper anyway). But it’s also restricted to iOS devices and Macs, and that’s where Reading List fell short. I found myself saving long articles to Instapaper so I could have them on my Kindle for weekend reading. A lot of other stuff, short things that take maybe a minute to read, end up on Reading List.

Still, I do think it would be worth Apple’s time to make a dedicated reading list app.

“Instapaper, Ars Technica and Money Dollars”

I also read John Siracusa’s Mountain Lion review, in Instapaper, after having saved it through Safari.

If you go to the article there are a ton of options for reading it, and paying for it, however you prefer, like as an ePub or as a Kindle book. But if you use Instapaper you may not be so inclined to do that.

My justification, even if it’s flawed, is that I don’t go nuts over these reviews. I appreciate them, but I’ll skip entire sections that I’m not that interested in. If you’re one of these guys you may dissect the entire thing and get your money’s worth.

Instapaper’s Copyright Infringement

Marco Arment talks about his app and the iOS App economy on NPR’s Planet Money.

I have mixed feelings on Instapaper. On one hand I love it. Instapaper provides a genuinely useful service and lets me read articles on my iPhone, in my web browser, on my iPad, and my Kindle. It enables me to read articles I probably wouldn’t bother to read if Instapaper didn’t exist.

But I also think the entire app is built upon copyright infringement. Instapaper removes articles from their original context, including the scummy Adwords blocks that may surround articles. When you view them on Instapaper.com you get an ad via The Deck. To use it on your iPhone and iPad you need to buy a $5 application. Instapaper has also introduced an optional subscription for extra features at about $1 a month.

In most cases this is taking someone else’s property and using it for a commercial purpose.1 I assume the only reason why almost nobody in the tech press talks about this is because Instapaper is so beloved.


  1. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Instapaper, but everything in the Read Later category of applications. Instapaper allows publishers to opt-out. I’m not sure you can say the same for Safari’s Reading List feature. 

“Serving at the pleasure of the King” by Jeff Attwood

Attwood writes about how Apple puts its third-party developers at risk by incorporating their features into its products.1 Attwood cites Instapaper and Safari’s Reader as an example of how Apple rips off indie devs.

Attwood argues that Apple gets a free pass because many who develop Mac and iOS apps think, “hey, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I think of that whenever a Windows user talks about how much of a pain Norton products are. Had Microsoft integrated malware protection at an OS level then maybe I wouldn’t recommend Macs as much.

I haven’t tried Reader sync yet, but I continue to use Instapaper because it sends to my Kindle.


  1. AKA – getting Sherlocked 

Using Automator to Send Instapaper To The Kindle

You could have Instapaper do this automatically, but if you’re on a sporadic schedule (you don’t want it just weekly, or daily, but with some flexibility) you can make an Automator workflow to download the .mobi, email it to your Kindle, and delete the .mobi file you just downloaded.

Here’s what I did:

instapaperautomator.gif

I know it’s dumb to upload a tall image like this, so here it is step by step.

Downloading and sending the .mobi file

This uses Mail.app, so if you don’t use that you’ll have to find some other way. You’ll also have to make sure that your Mail.app email account is authorized to send to your kindle.

  1. Get specified URL. In this case we want “http://www.instapaper.com/mobi” which is the .mobi file for Kindles.
  2. Download URLs. Could be whatever you want, I use an “inbox” folder for everything I download.
  3. New mail message. Put your Kindle’s email address here. I also gussied it up with some variables to enter the day’s date in the subject line.
  4. Send outgoing message.

The one downside here is that Mail.app comes to the front. I’d rather not have it activate, but I don’t know how to do that.

Cleaning up after yourself

This part feels a bit kludgy, but I can’t think of a better way. We want to find the .mobi file and send it to the trash.

Ignore the previous action’s input.

  1. Get specified Finder items. I pointed it at the download folder from the previous part.
  2. Get Folder contents.
  3. Filter finder items. I search for files where the name contains Instapaper and the file extension is mobi
  4. Move finder items to trash.

That’s essentially it, but I’ve also made this throw up a Growl notification.

This seems to work for me pretty well. I can run it from Launchbar while my morning coffee is brewing. Then I sit in my favorite recliner and turn my Kindle on for the latest delivery of Instapaper.

How is Instapaper still around?

I wonder why the Times et al. haven’t complained about Instapaper yet. It might not technically infringe on copyright, but magazines and newspapers can’t be too happy about an app that strips out all the advertising from their articles…as much as we would all be sad to see it go.
Kottke.org

Indeed. I love Instapaper, but often wondered this same thing when I see most of the recommended articles seem to be from The Atlantic or Newsweek.

I loved reading the recommended articles from The Atlantic so much that I bought a subscription. But they take forever to arrive, and by the time the issue gets to my mailbox I’ve already read the interesting articles online with Instapaper.

But now I have an iPad, so why should I bother renewing my subscription? (I suppose the easy answer is I’d renew to support The Atlantic.)

Shame on them (or maybe my local USPS branch) for even letting this question pop up in my mind.

Instapaper: The Kindle Killer App

The buzz is that the Kindle will die after the iPad is released. I’m not so sure. I think there might be room for both, simply because I think the iPad will not be a good reading device.

I don’t know that for sure, but I do know what it’s like to read long articles on my Macbook. It sucks. My eyes get tired. They start to get watery sometimes. You know that feeling of relief you get when you close your eyes for a moment after reading a website for a while? That’s what it’s probably going to be like reading on an iPad. You’ll still read articles in an F pattern, skim, and uh – actually not read anything.

Which is why I’m interested to see what Amazon does with Kindle 3.

The struggle to read long-form content on devices not really meant for it is why I’ve fallen in love with Instapaper, the web service that sends web pages to a list with just a click (or keyboard shortcut). You can then read from that list and even choose to strip the article of everything except text.

It’s great. If you haven’t tried it out you should. I used to used delicious for this, but Instapaper is so quick I rarely use delicious anymore. Delicious asks me to tag my bookmarks, but I don’t want to do that – I just want to read it later, which is what Instapaper excels at.

Screen shot 2010-02-25 at 9.24.20 PM.png

Of course, there’s still the problem of actually reading all this stuff. I think a laptop isn’t ideal, so I think the same of the iPad screen doing the same disservice to this stuff. It’s gotten to the point where if I see a single source in my reading list multiple times, like The Atlantic, I just get a subscription now. It’s like if I heard some great new music and bought it on vinyl. I don’t really want a vinyl record, but I have to do it since I don’t have an iPod. I have an old record player from my grandma’s attic.

But with Instapaper’s ability to send your reading list to a Kindle, and a software development kit for Kindle in the works…I don’t know if I’ll hold out much longer.

That Instapaper is such an attractive development for the Kindle feels a bit backwards. The Kindle sends you books over the air, but I don’t really want that, I’d continue to get most of my books from the library. I don’t have this problem of “wow – I wish I had an ENTIRE book to read IMMEDIATELY.”

I have plenty to read, there’s just no good way to read it. They aren’t all books.


Photo by scurzuzu, used under CC.