This is weird: Readability won’t allow me to be a reader and a publisher at the same time

Readability, this week's 'app of the week' on the App Store, is everyone's talk of the week. It's in every way a copycat of Instapaper, which I've been using for three years. The main feature that distinguishes Readability from Instapaper, however, is its economic model: it purports to reward publishers by asking its readers to make an optional five-dollar payment that is then shared, pro-rata, among the publishers of the articles they have clicked on.

I like trying pretty much everything when it first launches, so I installed Readability clients on my iPad and iPhone and created an account with them. And since I happen to be a publisher (of this blog), I thought I'd also register as a publisher—not that I was expecting this to make me instantly rich: publisher accounts, which started last year, have been reported to earn their holders as little as one dollar a month.

It then turned out, rather curiously, that you can't. In fact, I couldn't log in to my brand new Readability at all [i]. Grumbling about the issue on Twitter brought an immediate response from Readability support:

Readability doesn't support being a publisher and a reader
A quick discussion over Twitter brought the explanation: Readability's accounts weren't designed to allow you to be a publisher and a reader at the same time.

To their credit, Readability support reset my account credentials to reader (you can't do this out of the box) within less than twenty-four hours, and I was able to log into both my iOS accounts (though I had to delete them and carry out a fresh reinstall for this). My publisher account, alas, is now no more as I can't really fathom the idea of having to maintain two separate accounts for the same service.

I use Reeder for all my online reading—one of the reasons I like it being that it has built-in support for sharing anything you've read on pretty much any link sharing or storage service under the sun, Readability having been on the list, from day one. Sharing worked with Reeder for iPhone (though not, Reeder's developer may care to know, with the iPad version). But once that content was in my Readability account, there wasn't a lot I could do with it, other that read it, archive it and share it on Twitter or—you guessed it—Facebook:

Readability's sharing options
On Readability, you can only share content on Twitter and Facebook—and you can't choose which client to use to do so. And you can only store in one single Archives folder.

By contrast, here are the options I'm presented with when I want to share content on Instapaper:

Instapaper's sharing options
On Instapaper, you have a full range of sharing options, with an immediate choice of any of your installed client apps to push it to. You can also—optionally—seamlessly share your 'liked' items with your contacts who also use the service and store links in any number of user-specified folders.

Because of Instapaper's built-in 'like' feature, I can also control seamlessly which of my links I want to share with my social network contacts who are also users Instapaper users. This really clever feature works in the background, out of the box, and my only grippe about it is that it isn't more widely known and is thus rather under-used.

The ability to store links in folders, and the wider range of sharing options, mean there's no reason other than the admittedly beautiful interface (it's already seduced Justin Blanton) for switching. And the interface aspect rather neatly brings me to my third point, which is what one should feel about Readability when one goes beyond the interface and looks beneath the bonnet.

Joe Clark, a Toronto-based tech blogger, yesterday posted a rather thoughtful article that actually goes beyond the scope of this short review, provocatively titled 'Hot new iPhone apps by irresponsible developers':

Nº 1 with a bullet: Readability. You can’t actually read with Readability, since most icons are unlabelled, you can’t switch fonts, and none of the navigation gestures, all nonstandard, actually work. Plus each article page secretly holds a plethora of hidden buttons that VoiceOver errantly reads out. Skill-testing question: Who was the developer on this one? (UPDATE: I filed a bug and got a form-letter response).

While he focuses on the fact that Readability fails under Voiceover (which, to be frank, most people haven't even heard of), he effectively makes a wider point: the app was designed first and foremost with an aim to be as pleasing to the eye as possible, to the detriment of real usability [ii]. Not labeling icons, is just sloppy. And I couldn't help wondering whether the bugs I encountered when signing in, which went beyond the fact that I was using an 'incompatible' publisher account.

None of the above negatives is irrevocable: Readability support is clearly attentive to user comments, so it could easily fix the broken code, add new sharing service, etc. But the wider point here is the bizarre trend towards superficially attractive apps that attract raving reviews from the likes of, say, Robert Scoble, and yet haven't been thought out to be easy and powerful to use: the list includes of the recent successes, starting with the much-hyped Clear. For the time being therefore, I reserve judgment and will be sticking with Instapaper.

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  1. If you try to log in with a publisher account on the iOD apps, the application hangs: no error message, you're just left wondering what went wrong. []
  2. Joe Clark followed this post up with a further look at Readability, 'When Readability harms readability', which makes further rather damning points. []