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Reading and web standards

This week brought the pleasing news that people are reading more than ever, thanks to the internet.

In fact, the amount people read tripled from 1980 to 2008. That’s amazing considering it had previously been undergoing decades of steady decline. Suddenly people stopped watching so much television, and started reading again.

They’re just reading on the screen instead of on paper.

Two of the tools that I’ve found most helpful for reading are Instapaper and Readability. Both of them reformat web pages, stripping out everything except the core text, making them far easier to read.

Arc90’s Readability offers instant gratification — it transforms the page immediately, right in your browser — and you can choose from several different formatting options.

Marco Arment’s Instapaper saves the reformatted pages for later, so you can read them at your leisure, either on the Instapaper web site or (my preference) in the Instapaper iPhone app.

Both tools are free, though Arment offers a premium version of the Instapaper app for $5 that adds some nice features, like automatic updates and tilt-scrolling.

Both tools tell me a couple of things about the web:

One, modern web design is way too complicated and cluttered. Ads, banners, navigation bars, sidebars, and a million other things make most web pages an aesthetic and usability disaster. Readability and Instapaper fix this, giving the content back to the readers. Some forward-thinking web designers, like Laura Brunow Miner’s Pictory Magazine, have followed this trend, by creating stripped-down, content-centric web designs that let the reader focus on what really matters. I’ve tried to follow this trend by simplifying the design of this site as well as the haiku and micropoetry site I edit, and I know others who have done the same.

Two, web standards work. The reason Readability and Instapaper work is because most web pages are structured in fairly predictable ways, with a well-accepted markup language that is widely and (usually) consistently deployed. This gives readers the flexibility to enjoy published content in the way the reader chooses: On its original web page, in an RSS reader, on an iPhone, or through the filter of a reformatting tool. Readers can also easily reblog content on their own sites, which contributes to conversation and community formation, and makes it easier for other people to find the content.

When publishers consider nonstandard web publishing platforms, they should keep this in mind. Something that’s published as a PDF, Zinio mag, Adobe app, Flash file or iPhone app is by default outside the circle of web standards. Unless the designers of those platforms include tools for reformatting, reblogging and sharing content, they’ll risk taking themselves out of the broader collective conversation altogether.

That goes for the exciting new e-magazine apps under development by my employer and other publishers, too.


  1. Jessica Davis

    Hey Dylan, do you have thoughts on ereaders? Are they doomed because they are proprietary?

    (just got a Kindle for Christmas and I love it so much. But …)

    • Dylan Tweney

      E-readers are a great niche product, but their etch-a-sketch screens are going to look very dated (and lame) in a year or two. A full-color, video-capable tablet is a lot more interesting — but I’m convinced that even there, web standards will dominate. Content that’s available to *any* device will get more readers than content that’s tailored for a particular device via an app store of some kind.

  2. Chris Dary

    Hey Dylan,

    Good post, and I agree with both statements! I do have to make one tweak though – as one of the primary authors of readability:

    Web standards work, but that’s not really how Readability works, because not enough people use them! If you look at the readability source (http://code.google.com/p/arc90labs-readability/source/browse/trunk/js/readability.js), it’s a lot of logic to deal with the messes people spew all over the internet. I wish more people did use web standards; it’d make my job a lot easier!

    I think HTML5 is going to make Readability work even better (the tag especially), but until everyone is using semantic html (read: never probably) we’re going to have to use tricks to get a decent percentage of sites working properly.

    Good thoughts though, and I love the clean aesthetic.

    • Dylan Tweney


      Thanks so much for the response! And let me just say thanks for Readability, too.

      I didn’t look at the code but it doesn’t surprise me that it has to use a lot of clever logic. Still, imagine how much more difficult your job would have been if content had been distributed not just in HTML, but also in Flash, Silverlight, iPhone apps, BlackBerry apps, WAP sites, etc.

      I mean, content *is* distributed this way, but Readability only works with HTML data. So to that extent, the standards are working, and the content that adheres to the standards is more accessible.

      HTML5 will make *everything* better, I’m told!

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