I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

The first read-later service

I’m nervous to post this, but my readers and customers were very appreciative that I clarified the Readability story after some incorrect assumptions in the press, so I’ll take the chance one more time.

Steve Streza was this week’s guest on CMD+SPACE. Steve’s the lead developer at Instapaper’s biggest competitor, Pocket, founded by Nate Weiner and formerly named Read It Later. Weiner has commented numerous times in the press that Read It Later was the first read-later service, and that it predated Instapaper by being started in 2007. On CMD+SPACE, Steve repeated that claim:

Mike: “What sets Pocket apart from other services like Instapaper or Readability?”

Steve: … “It’s worth noting that Read It Later and Pocket, we were the, kind of, first people to develop a save-for-later service, and that term, ‘read it later’, had kind of been adopted by other companies who are building these kind of similar products.” …

Later in the episode, he made the same claim a second time: Read It Later was the first service in this category. Whether this is true depends on how you define that.

The first public mentions I can find of Read It Later are in November 2007. It was just a Firefox extension with two buttons, read later and reading list, that behaved like a bookmarks folder. There was no web service, no sync, and no support for other browsers — just a special bookmarks list stored locally in Firefox. This is what Pocket now claims was the first read-later service.

Instapaper launched in January 2008 as a bookmarklet that worked in any browser and a web service to sync your bookmarks between devices.1 A few months later, I added its text-extraction parser, and in June 2008, I released its iPhone app with customizable text settings and offline saving.

I think most people would consider these elements — multiple browser and device support, sync service, text extraction and reformatting, and offline saving — the essential ingredients that make a read-later service. And in 2007, Read It Later offered none of these.

That’s why I think it’s extremely misleading, or simply false, to say that Read It Later/Pocket was “the first save-for-later service”. (There wasn’t even a “service”.2)

Months after Instapaper launched all of these features and was being very well-received in the tech press, in October 2008, Read It Later added a web service for sync, other-browser bookmarklets, and offline saving. Then an iPhone app in 2009. And while Read It Later has introduced some original features, Weiner systematically copied almost every major Instapaper feature over the first few years of Instapaper’s existence.

This is ancient history, and while it annoyed me at the time, I don’t really care anymore. Nobody does. For the most part, it doesn’t matter.

I don’t care anymore whether people know that Instapaper defined the read-later service and was first to most of its core features. I don’t care anymore whether people know how much Read It Later copied from Instapaper in our early years. You can’t force people to know backstories.

But for Pocket to repeatedly state the opposite — that they were the first service like this, and that Instapaper followed their lead — is over the line, and I won’t sit here quietly and let that go unchallenged.

I like Steve Streza, and I don’t think he’d knowingly mislead people. I assume he’s just repeating the story he was told.

  1. I didn’t even know about Read It Later at the time because I stopped using Firefox in 2006. ↩︎

  2. In fact, Readeroo, from April 2007, was much closer to the idea of a read-later service than Read It Later was. It was also a Firefox extension that also had two buttons — add to reading list, show list — but used Delicious as the back-end, simply creating bookmarks with the “toread” tag. ↩︎