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Instapaper crosses the “tricky line”

My read-later service of choice, Instapaper, recently added a signature feature: multi-page stitching. When activated on articles split into separate pages, Instapaper will now fetch all the content and splice it together for you. Very handy!

The addition represents an about-face for Marco Arment, Instapaper’s developer. As he wrote last July,

Nearly all of Instapaper’s competitors… offer automatic multi-page fetching and stitching into one long page. To date, I’ve intentionally not offered this feature on Instapaper. I’ll seek out publicly available “single page” links and automatically fetch those instead, but I don’t create a single-page view that doesn’t otherwise exist publicly on a publisher’s site.

I’ve been torn about this for a while, since I’m losing business to competitors because of it. It’s a risky move for me to even talk about it like this. But I feel like multi-page stitching is a tricky line to cross, and for the time being, I don’t feel comfortable crossing it.

Marco Arment, “Saving John Siracusa’s massive Lion review to Instapaper”

Why does (or did) Marco consider multi-page stitching a “tricky line”? My guess: it undermines (or, at least, side-steps) many online publications’ business models. Ads get stripped out and go entirely unseen by the reader. Sites that make single-page articles a premium feature (e.g. Ars Technica) lose out on potential subscribers.

Whatever Marco’s reasons for toeing the “tricky line,” he crossed that line on Thursday. He unveiled a brand new version of Instapaper’s page-saving bookmarklet–one that fetches, then stitches together multi-page articles.

The change’s timing was interesting. Earlier that same day, Readability (arguably Instapaper’s main competitor) released their own long-awaited iOS app. A few hours later, Instapaper integrated stitching, one of Readability’s marquee features. It seems unlikely that the near-simultaneous releases were coincidental.

Readability has enjoyed massive attention these last few days. Apple featured it as “App of the Week.” Its stylish typography and attractive font options have earned admiration from the designer crowd. Perhaps most importantly (and unlike Instapaper), Readability is completely free. Did Marco counter the Readability hype by adding a long-hoped-for feature to Instapaper? Did Readability’s encroachment into the App Store prompt Marco to finally “cross the line”?

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Readability is Apple’s featured iPhone app this week.

On yesterday’s Build and Analyze podcast, Marco addressed the situation. He shared candidly about the challenges of “competing with free.” He recounted how his history with Readability’s developers left him feeling screwed. Surprisingly, however, Marco didn’t mention his change of heart on multi-page stitching.

Instead, Marco lambasted his competitors for stealing features from his own app. “I am very concerned with appearing like a copycat myself, even though they pretty much copied my whole product,” he said. He then went on to assert that “The fonts [in Readability] are pretty much the only major thing their app does that I would want to ‘steal’.” This seems disingenuous to me, considering the recent addition of multi-page stitching to Instapaper.

Again, I’m a happy Instapaper user. And I enjoy Marco’s blog and podcast. But I’d love to hear a bit more from him about two issues:

  1. Why “cross the line” now? Was the addition of multi-page stitching a nod to pragmatism? Has the competition grown too fierce to leave it out—even if publishers resent the lost ad views? Even if it makes Marco feel uncomfortable?
  2. Did Instapaper copy multi-page stitching from its competitors? If this doesn’t count as copying, why not?

UPDATE: Marco responded on Twitter (the tweet below is part 2 of 3):

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UPDATE 2: My follow up (and his reply):