11 Feb 2011 11 am eastern

Readability 2.0 is disruptive two ways

RELEASED LAST WEEK, Arc90’s Readability 2.0 is a web application/browser extension that removes clutter from any web page, replacing the typical multi-column layout with a simple, elegant, book-style page view—a page view that can be user customized, and that “knows” when it is being viewed on a mobile device and reconfigures itself to create an platform-appropriate reading experience.

In so doing, Readability focuses the user’s attention on the content, creating an enhanced—and often much more accessible—reading experience. It also subverts the typical web browsing design paradigm, where each website offers a different visual experience. Instead, to the Readability user, all web content looks the same, once she has clicked a button to engage the Readability view.

If Readability did only this, it would represent a significant directional departure for the web and for site owners, in that, for the first time in the history of designed websites, branded look and feel is subordinated to a user-focused content experience that transcends the individual site.

Of course, this was always supposed to be possible in HTML, and it always was possible for users of some assistive devices and for CSS experts who felt like creating intricate personal style sheets, but those are edge cases, and Readability is for everyone.

Readability 1.0 was released as open source. Apple used its code for the “Reader” view in Safari. The creators of Flipboard used its code too. And the creators of the open-source Treesaver swapped code and rights with the makers of Readability to enhance both products. I’ve never seen a humble open-source project, created by a not-terribly-well-known shop get so quickly accepted and absorbed by companies like Apple and by the creators of cutting-edge web and hybrid apps.

That was Readability 1.0. What Readability 2.0 adds to the mix is automatic payment for content creators. How it works is simple: I pay a small fee each month to use Readability. Most of that money gets divided between the creators of the web pages I’ve viewed in Readability. This makes Readability 2.0 disruptive two ways:

  1. As mentioned earlier, for the first time, branded look and feel is secondary to the user’s desire to engage with written content in a visually comfortable environment. (That Readability 1.0 premiered around the same time as the iPad is not coincidental.)
  2. For the first time, content monetization is no longer the problem of content creators. Writers can stop being salespeople, and focus on what they do best: creating compelling content. The better the content, the more people who engage with it via Readability, the more money writers will make—with no bookkeeping, no ad sales, and no hassle. This is a huge subversion of the ad paradigm.

Many of us who watched Arc90 develop Readability worried that short-sighted publishers and site owners would misunderstand and reject the app, maybe even sic’ing their lawyers on it. But in the hectic two weeks just ending, publishers have had time to absorb what Readability 2.0 does and what it could mean to them—and according to Readability creator and Arc90 founder Rich Ziade, the reaction is positive.

Have publishers suddenly grasped the web? Perhaps not. But it’s a rare publisher who’d say no to extra money, risk-free. We are in a wait-and-see, try-it-and-see phase of publishing and the web—past the initial Web 2.0 euphoria and into the hard business of creating great stuff (and finding new ways to keep old great stuff, like great writing and reporting, alive). No one is quite sure what will work. And publishers risk nothing by participating in the Readability program. If the program succeeds, they make additional revenue for their content. If it fails, it’s no skin off their budget.

I’ve interviewed Rich Ziade on The Big Web Show and I’m an advisor on the project but it was only last night, when Rich was addressing my MFA Interaction Design class at School of Visual Arts, that I realized for the first time how profoundly disruptive—and powerful—Readability 2.0 really is. (Video of that class session is available.)

If you love reading and the web, I urge you to give Readability 2.0 a try.

Filed under: art direction, Authoring, Best practices, business, CSS, Design, Platforms, Publications, Publishing

30 Responses to “Readability 2.0 is disruptive two ways”

  1. Joshua Porter said on

    “for the first time in the history of designed websites, branded look and feel is subordinated to a user-focused content experience that transcends the individual site.”

    What about RSS?

  2. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Fair point.

  3. Lauren Thomson said on

    Interesting product. But what if you are reading something horrid–reading simply out of morbid curiosity–think Sarah Palin or “Snooki”? By doing so you are automatically giving them money…

  4. Tim Murtaugh said on

    I will believe that publishers have “grasped the web” when they put Readability’s links on their sites themselves. Which will certainly happen if Readability is making them significant amounts of money.

  5. orionlogic said on

    New readability is less desirable than the old readability.

    First, it took more time to convert pages than the old readability. This is an obvious fact when compared the old one.

    Second it puts its own favicon by which promoting themselves. But when you open several tabs of readability converted pages they all have the same favicon. Where as old readabilty didn’t touch the favicon.

    Third, when you refresh you don’t return the original page, but stay in the same framed readability page. You have to take effort of pushing your pointer to icons on the left. However in old readability, when you refresh it just returns the original page.

    I am glad i still have the old readability but it a question of time when they will shut down the old readability service.

    Old Readability: it just works.
    New Readability: it somehow works, but there is other thing we want to push forward.

  6. Michael Critz said on

    The most oppressive force against web content is usually the site’s publisher. Desperate for ad revenue or continued page views they choke content to death with poor design choices. A snapshot of ReadWriteWeb.com with everything that is not content colored purple looks like this.

    Readability allows for some balance. It gives readers who might otherwise fix the web themselves with AdBlocker, Instapaper, custom CSS, or Safari Reader a chance to pay sites directly.

    To paraphrase Marco Arment, “give me money and I’ll give you nothing in return.”

  7. Dale Cruse said on

    Perhaps I’m missing something but I don’t understand how the monetization part works. If the concept is that content creators receive some sort of payment from Readability users, that sounds great – in theory. In reality, how does it work? If I have a wonderful blog post that gets read often by users of Readability, does that mean I’m getting paid? If so, how? Is Readability sending payment to NY Times & others? What am I missing here?

  8. Mandy Brown said on

    @Dale: Readability will calculate monied owed to each publisher, and cut them checks. So, say you give $10 a month to Readability; Readability keeps 30% to keep the system running, and distributes the other $7 equally among the sites you read. So, if you read five articles from the NYT, and five articles from Zeldman.com that month, both the NYT and Zeldman would get checks for $3.50 that month. Not a lot from an individual reader, but if many readers were participating, then there’s the potential for it to add up. Most importantly, it removes the friction from the transaction on both sides: the reader doesn’t need to whip out their credit card for every thing they read, and the publisher doesn’t need to fuss with paywalls and payment collection and the inevitable support requests that causes.

  9. Alexander Lawford said on

    This doesn’t make any sense to me (I may have misunderstood something). I haven’t yet used readability 2.0 but I’d only ever use 1.0 when browsing a site that was overly cluttered with ads and social networking widgets etc. When reading websites that were well designed in the first place (like this one), I’d never think of clicking the bookmarklet. I’d imagine most other folks are the same. So… Readability now rewards poorly designed, cluttered sites. How is that a good thing?

  10. John Muir said on

    @orionlogic
    The old Readability was open source, remember, and I’ve been running my own modified version from my ~/Sites folder for some time. (I find Safari’s reader mode dazzling with its white and black, with my funny eyes.) Admittedly, I can’t find the code page with a quick search, but as it’s already used in Safari and elsewhere it’s still out there.

  11. John Muir said on

    @Alexander
    That is indeed true on first glance, but I think Readability is aiming for something bigger here. The idea seems to be to set up a parallel web economy, putting readers in the driver’s seat instead of those who bid for distracting our eyeballs. It’s noteworthy stuff. Frankly, I’d be amazed if it flies, but these are interesting times when it comes to reading and it’s worth a shot.

  12. Hanan Cohen said on

    Jakob Nielsen wrote about Micropayments back in 1998.

    It’s time his vision begin to be fulfilled. Not perfect yet, but in the general direction.

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980125.html

  13. Chris Hester said on

    I tried Reader in Safari a few times but found it often showed content from the wrong column, such as a sidebar of links, rather than the content of the page. Hope they’ve improved on it since then.

  14. David said on

    Not that something should ever have to be in this direction: how does a publisher opt-out?

  15. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    how does a publisher opt-out?

    The FAQ does not address that question. But the program is opt-in.

    If you want to participate, you go to Readability.com and *register* your site with the program, inserting a unique identifier in your template that the site creates for you.

    If you don’t register, but your site is still popular enough to earn money, I imagine they’ll do their darndest to contact you and try to pay you. At that time, you could officially opt out and reject the money.

    You could also, I suppose, use Readability’s CONTACT page to write to them directly and start a dialog assuring that your site is not part of the program, and that you will never, ever be paid by Readability for your content, no matter how popular it may be.

    I don’t know why you’d want to do this, but of course you *can*.

  16. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    When reading websites that were well designed in the first place (like this one), I’d never think of clicking the bookmarklet. I’d imagine most other folks are the same. So… Readability now rewards poorly designed, cluttered sites.

    There is some truth to this. Rich and I discussed it in the video, Rich Ziadeo and Jeffrey Zeldman discuss Readability at School of Visual Arts.

  17. David said on

    I wasn’t referring to opting-out of being paid, the last step in the process, but opting-out of having your site manipulated in a way you haven’t agreed to in the first place. After that, splitting revenue in a way you haven’t agreed to. I did read the FAQ and the About page before posting and saw your were on the advisory board, so I kept the discussion here, thought you might have insight.

    I do like the idea of a cleaner web, but I don’t like the idea of a group deciding they can manipulate and monetize someone else’s website without permission, regardless of the benevolence behind the original idea. I’ll leave it at that, my simple 2c, as my goal here wasn’t to come off as troll-y and your response indicates I kinda have. It wasn’t intentional, I just kept it short and sweet.

  18. Ken Howard said on

    I have enjoyed Readability for the past year and look forward to using it in the future. There is something to be said about separation of design and content – as web designers we are to think this way as a rule, Readability enforces that concept.

  19. Arpan said on

    @David

    Your site isn’t being manipulated. Your site remains untouched.

    What is being manipulated is what the user sees in his browser, and that too only at the user’s request. Since it is happening in the user’s browser, you have no cause to complain.

  20. Luke Holder said on

    Readability is simply a distraction. I’ll explain.

    CSS was meant to augment semantic pages. Turn off CSS and you should be able to understand the page.

    We should be encouraging content creators to support semantic accessible HTML. If the content providers wish to enable a distraction free view of the content then they should provide a different stylesheet that hides the crud and shows the content (see print view buttons publishers sometimes have on their pages). Browsers should make stylesheet switching more available and accesable to the user.

    Having a paid product use voodoo to guess the content in the page is anti accessible.

    And as a final suggestion, if content providers wish to monitize the content – provide a full rss feed with a reader monitizing like readability model.

    RSS has already solve this problem.

    -Luke holder

  21. John Muir said on

    @Luke
    The number of RSS feeds I encounter which do their darnedest to hide full content so as not to lose a pageview suggests it has solved no such thing. This is about payment, not just clutter.

  22. flashparry said on

    If the content providers wish to enable a distraction free view of the content then they should provide a different stylesheet that hides the crud and shows the content

    I think the point of Readability in the first place is to help the user in cases where the content providers don’t wish to enable a distraction free view, or don’t have the time/expertise to do layout properly. Also, different users have different requirements when it comes to size/colour/etc of the text – even a willing content provider couldn’t cater for them all, whereas Readability (and indeed browsers style overrides) do.

  23. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I’ll leave it at that, my simple 2c, as my goal here wasn’t to come off as troll-y and your response indicates I kinda have. It wasn’t intentional, I just kept it short and sweet.

    I didn’t think you were trolling, I thought you raised a legitimate question; I tried to answer it. Sorry if I somehow made you feel that my answer was anything other than sincere and straightforward (like your question).

  24. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Having a paid product use voodoo to guess the content in the page is anti accessible.

    Whoa, it uses CSS and semantics, not voodoo, and it’s an accessibility aid to many people, who have praised Readability for making web pages more accessible. I’m not sure where you get the voodoo and anti-accessibility stuff, but the facts speak otherwise.

    As for RSS, how it operates is quite different. I subscribe to an entire website’s RSS feed (or don’t). If I do subscribe to the feed, I need to remember to go into my RSS reader and browse all my feeds in hopes of seeing a particular piece of content.

    Whereas with Readability, I don’t subscribe to anything. I see a web page I’d like to read later, or would like to de-clutter, or would simply like to reward financially for the quality of its content, and I do so.

    Very different from RSS.

  25. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    And as a final suggestion, if content providers wish to monitize the content – provide a full rss feed with a reader monitizing like readability model.

    Yes, and they can also sell ads on their web page. But that’s rather missing the point, isn’t it. The point is that Readability monetizes content so content creators don’t have to.

    Pointing out things that work differently that people can already do doesn’t invalidate the purpose or usefulness of Readability. It’s like saying people don’t have to eat cheese, they can eat apples. Yes, they can. Some people even eat cheese _and_ apples.

  26. Brian Hoffman said on

    This is all well and good, but a more important question is, will the winners of the Blue Beanie Day Haiku contest be announced any time this year?

  27. Paul I said on

    Did I miss something, because the font on the new version is, er, unreadable. Should I change my browser setting?

  28. Richard Ziade said on

    Hi all –

    I’d just like to chime on some of the points and questions swirling around here:

    – We’ve heard loud and clear that Readability “rewards bad design.” We think this is a bit of a stretch, but we plan on addressing head on. In a future update, you’ll be able to “support” an article without converting the page or queuing it for reading later.

    – We all love the bookmarklet service. It’s fast, simple and does the job of cleaning any web page. We definitely had to make a big leap to this new approach but we think it’s worth it. It’s high time we started recognize that content – good, quality content – is worth paying for. While we will try to make Readability as blazing fast as possible, the bigger goal – to deliver a great reading experience and support writers – is what we’re really after.

    – @orionlogic The favicon replacement issue is already fixed and will be live soon (a few days!).

    We’re always looking for feedback. Don’t hesitate to email us…and me: [email protected].

    Rich Ziade
    Readability

  29. Emmanuel Turner said on

    Nearly ten years ago now I used to set an assignment for students to concept and prototype the web-browser of the future. One very very common thing that came up over the semester I ran this was something that separated content, branding and navigation and allowed users to easily control these. I guess Readability has the content side nailed.
    I think the next logical step is to allow for the Readability equivalent of a favico – a small defined size site-specific logo and an XML file for specifying the site structure so that Readability can build its own navigation that works uniform not matter where a user is on the web.

  30. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Emmanuel: You are not the only one thinking along those lines. Thanks for sharing, sir.

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