Can Pocket (née Read It Later) Become the TiVo of the Web?

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trying to set up some different experiments. Right now there is no silver bullet, and the most important thing for us to be doing is to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. We are as committed as ever to helping publishers.

One area is data. When you save something and it disappears into Flipboard or Pocket, you have no idea whether someone read it, favorite it, shared it, or abandoned it. Publishers want that data, and we have been using that as a jumping off point to talk about what else is important to them. For some publishers, the focus is on getting more readers. For others, they need to make money. Right now we are in the discovery phase. It’s just important that this doesn’t become the fiasco that the recording industry had, where they were pushing so hard against a consumer behavior. Consumer behavior always wins out. But we want to make sure publishers can still make a living.

WR: Another big trend that’s probably benefiting you is the resurgence of interest in long-form journalism. You mentioned Longreads, and there’s also and Byliner and other new services curating the best long articles on the Web. Most of these services make it really easy to save the articles to Pocket, Instapaper, Readability, or what have you.

NW: That whole explosion, alongside time-shifting, emphasizes how Pocket is useful. Even 10 years ago, you read articles in a magazine or a newspaper and they were infinitely portable. You could take them to the beach or read them on the subway. Then all of a sudden, all this stuff moved to the Internet, and that is where we started discovering it. But the Internet was, for the most part, a computer on a desk. And that is when we started seeing the down trend [for long-form journalism], because you didn’t want to sit at your desk and read a 13-page New Yorker article. Finally people realized that there is a way to move that stuff onto your phone or your mobile device and take it with you. Now the problem isn’t so much portability, it’s getting through the noise. I think that’s where Longform and Longreads have come into play, cutting through the noise.

WR: So far, though, you guys have chosen not to do any curation or highlighting of popular content from within the Pocket app. Why is that?

NW: We do have a Twitter account that Mark runs called @PocketHits. It mentions things that are most saved, most favorited, and most read in Pocket. Mark does a good job of mixing it up, and you can surface some really good stuff there. But this is something that I have drawn a very hard line on for a long time, and I don’t see breaking off for a while. When you open Pocket, everything there is something you hand-picked and saved. You may already have 100 articles saved, so the last thing you really need is more stuff to filter through. There are many other apps for that—Flipboard and Twitter and Facebook and people just e-mailing you stuff.

For us, the thing I would like to solve before discovery is the idea of, if you have 100 items in your list, why can’t we do a better job of suggesting what to read first? Rather than just seeing your list from newest to oldest, we’d like to help you surface some things. That’s more important to me than throwing more new stuff in your face. You already have all this great stuff—why let it go to waste?

WR: It seems like we’re in an age when content is becoming completely atomized. Here at Xconomy we’ll publish an article on our website, but who knows whether people will end up reading it on Flipboard, or Pocket, or e-mail, or their RSS aggregator. I wonder if this signals the coming of a new era for journalism, and if so, do you know of anyone who’s adapting to it particularly well?

NW: I’ve seen a couple of different things, generally from the smaller guys because it’s very hard to get a large organization to move on something like this. But one of the small Mac blogs that I follow is called MacStories. The main editor there often writes these insanely long articles, and they end up being some of the most popular stuff on his site, but at the same time he has always been very vocal about Instapaper and Pocket and Readability, and it seems like most of his readership uses those apps.

The other one that’s interesting is a project that Jim Giles, a writer for New Scientist, started on Kickstarter called Matter. They are going to do a really long article every week. It’s clear to me they are very open-minded. If they do one piece a week, it doesn’t really make sense for them to have an app, because people aren’t going to come back to it. They assume people will want to read it in Pocket or something similar. But how do they exist in that world, if they want to sell it? We have been talking about how that works. It’s a really interesting conversation. I am super interested to see how that plays out, because they are trying to build a new type of publication.

WR: Are you saying that there’s a chance Pocket could evolve into a kind of marketplace, where writers or publishers might actually be able to charge for content?

NW: It definitely opens an interesting question. Does it really make sense to develop an app that somebody will open once a week or once a month? Let’s say you were a brand new publication and you wanted to write this really long-form thing and you had 1,000 people willing to pay for it inside Pocket and read it there. In the end, can we make a profit off that? It’s still a question, but there are a lot of people trying to innovate, and we are really interested in trying fun ideas. Let’s see what we can make work.

WR: So, on that profit question. Currently the Pocket app is free, and you’re not showing any ads. Where exactly do you see the opportunities for Pocket to earn money down the road?

NW: Read It Later had a free version and a paid version, and about 10 percent of people were buying the paid version, which is really high. So we know this is something people will pay for. But the single-time, paid-app thing just doesn’t work in our business. We have checked that box and we know people will pay for it and now we are working on something that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Can Pocket (née Read It Later) Become the TiVo of the Web?”

  1. Ephraim says:

    Read the first few lines and think that this should be an interesting read.  Clicked on the + Pocket bookmarklet in my browser so that I can read it when I have more time. 

    • Wade Roush says:

      Go for it, Ephraim. That’s what Pocket is all about. The app even does a nice job of reassembling multi-page articles. (Meaning, this is a four-page article on the Web, but Pocket grabs all four pages and strings them back together automatically.)

  2. Reeder says:

    4 pages?

    Tucked into Instapaper for later…