I use a bookmarklet called Readability every day: one click, and it transforms any article, blog post, or long feature from a Flash-addled, ad-encrusted headache into a calm, humane... readable experience. Now Arc90, the web design and development firm behind Readability, is relaunching the bookmarklet as a "premium" (ie, paid) subscription service with big ambitions: not just making the web a more readable place, but rebooting the way online publishers and content creators get paid.
Tools like Readability and Instapaper are often, and erroneously, described as "undesigning" the web by readers who equate "design" with distracting layouts and irritating user interfaces. To them, Readability is a cleansing purge. To some designers and art directors, the rise of Readability augurs something more sinister: a wholesale rejection of design choices that turns the web into a bland, homogeneous tapioca. And to publishers, any webapp that strips out ads — their sole, feeble revenue stream — is something to be eyed with suspicion at best.
Rich Ziade, the original creator and designer of Readability, thinks that his rebooted service will address all of those concerns. To readers who cheer "undesign," Readability actually offers better design optimized for its eponymous use case: a "business class" reading experience versus the "coach class" that already exists as the web's default. (The "Read Now" functionality will remain free; a new "Read Later" option, integrated with Instapaper, is part of the premium service.) To publishers, the new Readability provides tools to track what content is being pushed through the platform and frictionlessly monetize it without resorting to paywalls (more on that below).
And to designers caught in the middle of what Ziade calls the "cynical" transaction between readers and publishers — "One side says 'I hate this,' the other says 'shut up, it's free'" — the new Readability offers "a new design opportunity, a blank slate," he says. "It's not true that you have to go the iPad to create exceptional art direction. With Readability, we're starting to hand that opportunity back to designers working on the web."
Big talk, but what does that mean? Ziade admits that in its current incarnation, Readability is a "brute force tool." But to designers who chafe at Readability's supposed wiping-out of their layout and design choices, Ziade makes a blunt argument: it's that default presentation that should be called "undesigned" — 99% of the time, at least. "Look at this," he says, pulling up a feature article on Esquire.com. "It's a shitstorm. Are we really doing art direction here? The CMS is just pouring content into a shell. For all practical purposes, the art director was asked to leave the room."
And Readability's brute-force days are numbered anyway. The platform uses a standard called hNews that let will let publishers — and soon, designers — add metadata to their text content to make the Readability experience more visually distinctive. "Right now, the text can often look kind of naked, like it's being smuggled out," Ziade says. "But with hNews, Readability can parse out and display bylines, pull quotes, captions, anything a designer would want to add richness to the page while maintaining a good reading experience."
Even better: publishers and designers don't have to formally partner with Arc90 to take advantage of these tools. Readability offers free code to embed "Read Now/Read Later" functionality — with built-in options for redesigning the display text — into any webpage as-is. But if publishers do choose to partner with Readability, they can leverage the platform's unrestricted API to build their own custom-designed "themes" that get activated by those buttons.
But the most radical part of Arc90's plan to redesign online reading is its revenue scheme. Readability only keeps 30% of a user's $5/month subscription fee: the rest is automatically allocated to individual publishers whose content the user is actually reading. For example: if I read 5 New York Times articles and 5 BoingBoing posts next month in Readability, the service will split that $3.50 (ie, 70% of my $5 subscription fee) equally between those two publishers: $1.75 for the Times, $1.75 for BoingBoing. The funds are placed into an escrow account; publishers who choose to partner with Arc90 can claim that money as profit. Otherwise, it sits untouched — for now. (Ziade says that Arc90 might one day choose to donate unclaimed funds to nonprofit or charitable organizations, but no such plans are currently in place.)
Sound loco? I said as much to Ziade, who laughed and didn't necessarily disagree. "This is a start; we don't know how it'll play out," he says. "But I do know that tollbooths and paywalls don't seem to work on the web. I don't want to read an abstract of something and be forced into a purchase decision before reading the whole thing. I want to 'pay it forward' after reading something great. That's what our model does: it lets you reward and support content creators whom you've already decided are worth your attention. And if they're Readability partners, maybe they're even worth more to you, because of their commitment to enabling and designing a good reading experience."
There are a zillion reasons why it won't work. (For one, Readability-ing something is a poor proxy for actually reading it: just look at my dust-gathering Instapaper queue. Another: in Arc90's percentage-allocating payment system, the more articles I read, the less publishers get paid. Wha?) But if it does work the way Ziade hopes, Readability may accomplish something that no digital publisher has yet figured out how to do: please readers and make money, using the power of good design. It shouldn't be that simple. But maybe it is.