Instapaper, the handy offline website article reading service, is testing out a subscription model. With recent moves by Amazon, this indicates Web-based e-publishing has a sophisticated, paid, layered future ahead of it.
Instapaper styles itself as facilitating "easy reading of long text content" for later consumption when you discover interesting online writing. It was born out of the frustrations of inventor Marco Arment, who notes there's "no time to sit and read anything when you're going through 500 feed items while responding to email, chatting and watching bad YouTube videos" and also that there's pressure to write in less meaningful, but more easily digestible chunks when writers craft content for the Web. With a couple of in-browser tools, Instapaper lets you save articles into its Web-based archive. There's also an iPhone and an iPad app, which let you take your discoveries mobile—and turns the Wi-Fi-only iPad into a Web-document e-reader when you're remote from a wireless connection or prefer not to use one for cost reasons.
In effect, Instapaper is riding the coattails of the mobile Net browser device revolution by very simply and conveniently extending the usefulness of a device for reading documents.
Now Arment has announced Instapaper's trying out a subscription service. At first it's in the same spirit of simplicity as Instapaper itself: When you pay the nominal $1 a month fee you can switch off the in-service ads, for a cleaner reading experience. And the cash is also partly intended to support Instapaper's ongoing operation and future development—Arment doesn't hide this. The future does involves clever new features, possibly including advanced search powers (which haven't made economic sense in the service's non-subscriber mode) and some of these may be subscriber only, though the "majority" of services will be freely accessible according to Arment and users shouldn't hand over subscriptions just because they hope these exclusive features will be "mind-blowing."
But what Instapaper's monetization effort indicates is that the e-publishing industry is creating wholly new ways to consume published content, as well as whole new types of writing. These changes are successful and novel enough to create an ecosystem that can power new businesses. With other evidence that blogs—Instapaper's "fuel" if you will—are evolving into becoming important mainstream content sources in their own right, and the e-reader/tablet PC revolution only just beginning to kick into gear, Instapaper is unlikely to be one of the only paid-service apps to exploit these changes that arise over the next couple of years: Soon you'll be able to pay for small apps that'll let you tailor your reading experience pretty much exactly how you want it.
Indeed, market-leading Amazon last week revealed it was trying out a new Web portal into its Kindle e-book ecosystem, meaning your purchased books will be accessible wherever you have access to a Web browser, adding another wrinkle into the e-publishing game. Amazon's Kindle publishing model is actually embroiled in controversy right now (demonstrating how powerful a publishing platform it's become) because two new books are actually priced higher for Kindle versions than the physical hardcovers cost.
All of this points to a bigger question: With such a rich future ahead for digital writing, how are the traditional newspapers and magazines going to adapt their business model so that they stay relevant?
Update: Marco Arment has been in touch with a few more tidbits. This first blush of subscription is to test out a PayPal integration model on a large scale, ready for meatier uses of the subscriber-only mode in the future. Incoming soon is "more fine-grained Kindle functionality" to Instapaper subscribers and he'll have a bigger announcement later this week (or possibly next).
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