A nice place to read

THERE’S a movement to make the web beautiful, and Readability is showing how to do it. With the click of a button, you can turn a typical web story with its sick clutter of ads and flickering site promotions into a something you might actually want to read.

Gone are uncomfortably wide columns, the feverish zigs and and zags that route a hapless reader around extraneous promotional junk, dull carpet of anonymous system fonts, noisy clutter of little Facebook and Twitter logos, and sprawling litter of cheesy network ads (“Cut 4 lbs off your belly every week by using this 1 weird old tip”).

Some say that the web was intended for short interactive transactions, either of commerce or information. That’s like saying a dictionary is primarily for settling bar debts. The hypertext link, the core idea of the web, sets up a certain kind of jumpy behavior that has been wonderful something like Google, but not so great for reading. 

There is nothing inherent in the web that says it has to stay that way. We don’t have to live with crappy layouts for ever—and I have to say that the level of web site design has lowered graphic design standards generally—I mean, the ugliest truck stop placemat in Oklahoma in 1971 was better designed than most 2011 web sites. The chaos of web pages at the content sites that I’m interested in is just an artifact of the low priced of ads.

But I am starting to rave. The point here is that Readability is solving the problem. Not by one trying to do web sites the right way one at a time, like some of us have. But by main force. They just go in, rip the content out of a site, and reformat the way a good book designer would.

Their “Read Now” bookmarklet has been available for free for the last year, like the Instapaper “Read Later” tool. Once you’ve grabbed it and put it in your bookmark tool bar, you just click on it to transform any web page into something you might want to read.

Last month, with some help on caching from Marco Arment of Instapaper, they’ve come out with a more robust offering that puts an extension on your browser. On Mac Chrome this appears as a little red Art Deco lounge chair icon with a drop-down for Read Now or Read Later.

You are asked to pay $5 a month, which is shared with the publisher of the content. Seems a bit stiff until you use the service heavily and you realize that you’ve started reading much more on the web. You feel good that they are actually helping make a better environment for reading on the web—and sharing the money with the writers (or their bosses, anyway).

To give an idea of what a great improvement it can make, here is a Washington Post story, zoomed out in Mac Safari.

If that’s not scary enough, this is on the first page of three. If you want to read more, you have to push the Next button and wait while a similarly thrashing page loads. No wonder session time on most news web sites is short.

Push the Read Now button, and it’s like the difference between the Delta terminal at JFK and Terminal 3 in Beijing.

There is hope for civilization!

Disclosure: After they were in beta, Readability asked me to join an advisory group, but I can take no credit. Rich Ziade of Arc90, Readability’s parent, was the main proponent. Chris Dary made it happen, and the “visual” design was led by Darren Hoyt. These guys represent a new breed of tech-oriented developer/slash/designers. There was much give and take within the group, and they’ve now opened the discussion to the community. It’s great to see everyone working together to create a better experience for reading.

And you thought designers and developers didn’t read! (Well, we do move our lips.)

My only quibble: The graphics are nice, maybe too nice. I like a little more bite in my news pages—Ionic No. 5 instead of Minion (is it?) . But you can choose alternate skins with backgrounds and fonts closer to your own taste, so maybe a wider range will be added. Ultimately this point leads to a bigger question, which is do I want to read all the interesting long-form stories on the web in the same format. It’s like the Kindle, where every book looks alike.

Longer term, maybe Readability will work with their royalty recipients to tune pages that are a little closer to the design of the original site, or the print edition that commissioned the piece. It would be nice to see a few Postoni headlines in the Washington Post resin.

And, I have to say we have some work to make Treesaver pages work with Readability (not that you’d need to). But all in all, they’ve made the web a better place to read.