Just before the weekend, a new Read Later app launched. Yes, you rightly shout, there are a ton of these apps around already. Hell, even Safari can save pages off line for reading later. But the new app/service, called DotDotDot, shows what these services should be. It’s not polished (it’s an early beta), but it already shows up the competition.
Which brings me to “the competition.” I just ditched Instapaper, the grandaddy of read-later apps, for Pocket. Why? Read on.
First, a little about the future, in the form of Dotdotdot. This app does a few things:
- Saves pages to read later via browser bookmarklet.
- Lets you annotate and highlight sections, just like iBooks and Kindle.
- Reads and stores EPUB files.
- Rolls in a whole social aspect.
The biggest part here is the annotations. I’m not going to review the app – frankly it’s pretty confusing to use right now, and there’s no easy way to add pages except from the browser (there’s no way to e-mail stories in right now, and obviously no third-party app integration yet) – but the concepts it uses are all excellent.
You can load in EPUBs, Google Reader articles, clipped web-pages and just about any text you like.
You can load in EPUB books from your Dropbox (you can browse your Dropbox folders from right there inside the app), or you can grab content from the people you follow (a little like Twitter, or Instagram for documents) or you can add web pages. And once there, DotDotDot Treats it like your own library. You can highlight and add notes, just by swiping and typing, and – very important this – you can search any of your notes.
Compared the the Kindle’s walled-off approach, or iBooks’ in-app-only notes browsing, this is huge. What’s more, any document that has also been annotated by other people is marked up with their notes and highlights (like the Popular Highlights in Kindle books).
Read Later apps are as essential to me as a place to save my iPhone’s photos, but lately I have been wanting a little extra. For years Instapaper was the gold standard, but it’s slipping further and further behind. It might have great fonts, and it certainly has the best-looking (and cleanest) reading view, and it arguably has the best parsing engine (the thing that removes the cruft and leaves just the sweet, simple article text), but it’s feeling a little old-fashioned.
For instance, Pocket – probably Instapaper’s main rival – also saves video and pictures for you, and does it without cluttering up your list. And Pocket’s list, with thumbnails of your saved articles’ pictures, is way more appealing and makes it much easier to find what you’re looking for.
Worse, Instapaper’s management of articles is terrible. Want to archive a batch of articles at once? Bad luck. Drop a bunch of recipes into the same folder? Nope. To do anything other than one-by-one management of your files you’ll need to visit the Instapaper web site. In 2013.
What Instapaper does have is integration in pretty much every app around – you can even send articles to it from big titles like the NYT – plus great sharing features. But these, too, are as old-fashioned as the popover menus that clutter the app, only letting you send the articles out to other places, and not share them back-and-forth with other services. It’s a little like Apple’s Pages and Numbers apps which, on launch, only let you share stuff by email, and any document edited outside of the iPad had to be reimported. Say hello to Proposal_Doc_final_2_final.pages.
Pocket doesn’t help with this aspect; it boasts a similarly impressive sharing list, but things still end once the export is done. And its choice of just two typefaces (one serif, one san serif) is laughable. But it brings several features I use the heck out of:
I don’t watch much video, but when I find something good, I want to save it. But where? I have been mailing the URLs to OmniFocus, but that works about as well as you’d expect it to. Pocket lets me leave the main view set to articles only but keeps all my video ready for when I want it.
Just like in every other iOS app, like, ever, I can tap the “edit” button, select as many items as I like and then perform an action on them. In Instapaper I have to perform a swipe and then two taps for every single article I want to delete or archive.
I’m not talking about a full export of all your content, which both Instapaper and Pocket can do from their respective sites. What I mean is ongoing export, or what I like to call “Playing Nice With IFTTT.” Instapaper appears in IFTTT as a target; that is, you can send things to it from other services. What you can’t do is use it as a “trigger.” Pocket, on the other hand, does both.
Thus, you can have every article you save in Pocket send to another service: Evernote; a Dropbox text file; e-mail or even – yes – Instapaper. But Old Man Instapaper ain’t sharing with nobody, no sir. This alone makes Pocket the best choice for your default Read Later client, as it’ll pass everything along to Instapaper too, if you want.
Rolling My Own Clippings Service
Faced with Instapaper and Pocket’s lackluster support for clippings, and complete lack of highlighting and annotation features, I thought I’d have a crack at making my own. And for that I turned to Evernote.
Evernote has slowly crept into my life, and now stores pretty much anything that isn’t a plain text note (that’s the job of SimpleNote and nvALT). So I figured that it would be great for keeping clippings. Surely, I thought, I could highlight a passage, share it to Evernote (which both Pocket and Instapaper support, right from the popover on the selected text), and enjoy my quotes and notes from there.
Another app, EverClip, monitors your iOS clipboard from the background and captures anything you copy: pictures, text, even PDFs. You can tun combine these clips into one super clip, or send them individually to Evernote. The important part is this: The URL of every clipping you make from the web is included as a neatly formatted link at the bottom of each snippet.
I hoped that Instapaper and Evernote sharing would do this, allowing me to use Evernote’s great search to find a snippet, from where a simple click would take me to the full text (at the original site). But no. Both apps let me choose a destination notebook (Instapaper remembers the selection, Pocket defaults to your inbox every time), and both let me add tags. But they also send the entire article, and not my clipped text. This happens even when I switch off the “Include Full Text” option in Pocket..
And trying to use the aforementioned EverClip does no better, as the URLs aren’t supplied.
And so we come back to DotDotDot, the service designed around sharing. Right now I can’t send anything to it from my RSS reader, or Twitter client, or anywhere, really, but that will change (even a simple mail-in address would let me use IFTTT to pipe things in straight from Pocket). You can, however, browse your Google Reader feeds from inside the app, as well as grabbing texts from Dropbox or even find things using the built-in browser.
Once your documents are in the app, though, things get way better. Any time you come across something you like, you can highlight it just by swiping over the text. A box pops up and lets you tag it (memorable quotes, say, or things to remember for a research project), or add a comment. And from there you can share the result via Twitter or e-mail. E-mailing sends a nicely formatted message complete with the highlighted quote and a link back to your own timeline on the DotDotDot Site.
Add to this the ability to read EPUB files (which is the format I convert my Kindle books to as soon as I have bought them) and you see that DotDotDot, or another service like it, is set to take over from Instapaper and Pocket.
If you can read anything you find on the web, or any ebook you buy and keep it fully marked up in you own online shareable and searchable library, then why would’t you?
After all, if you can read anything you find on the web, or any ebook you buy, right there in the app, and keep it – fully marked up – in you own online shareable and searchable library, then why would’t you? Add in a way to easily keep track of what people you know are reading (or what your professor is adding to your class’s reading list) and you see the power of something like DotDotDot.
And here’s one great irony: Given that Instapaper increasingly seems like abandonware now that developer Marco Arment has moved on to developing the excellent Magazine, and that clipping options are sparse in that app, the best way to share and discuss the articles might be by Instapapering the article, and then sending it to DotDotDot.
Do I suggest switching to DotDotDo full time right now? No way. It’s far too early in the beta cycle, and the lack of ways to import things is a real problem (as is the complete lack of export options). But it looks like it’s going to be my new default reading app, just as soon as it fixes this.