An urban commute is a particularly frustrating experience for intensive readers, above and beyond because it’s a missed opportunity to catch up on headlines before a flooded inbox consumes the day. In New York, the lack of mobile connectivity means no downloading and thus no reading, at least not in any immediate sense, unless paper is the material of choice - and for those of us bracing the train shake with at least one hand, that’s not necessarily an option.
The iPad is positioned to change consumption entirely, but in a particularly overlooked way - through the connectivity of one app with another, as opposed to any one freestanding app. Cloud connectivity has largely eliminated the space between mobile devices, with iPads and iPhones transferring information between one another seemingly at their own will. Consequently, the data saved on one device, be it a file or an app, can magically appear where we need it an hour later.
Month after month, it seems, developers move closer toward mastering the display of the news we want. Just as there’s no universal source for consumption - be it for political, cultural, or geographical reasons - there’s no single app that provides the right content for all users. Some trust greatly in the curation of their friends; for them, valuable apps pull links and images from Twitter and Facebook and present them in reader-friendly formats, free of commentary. Others want to be the source themselves, finding the stories by way of an organic process akin to flipping through a newspaper. At Fueled, we prefer both - and below, you’ll find our favorites, as well as our processes for moving between them.
Instapaper, founded and created single-handedly by Marco Arment, is the foundation of mobile reading, and just about everyone seems to know it. Not a new source in itself, Instapaper is most heavily regarded as the solution to an overloaded schedule - a means of saving stories for later reading. Before Instapaper, interrupted reading often meant the end of a piece indefinitely, if not forever, unless it was bookmarked or emailed at a moment’s notice; now, with Instapaper, an entire piece can be saved for the right time and place
In addition to being an app for both the iPad and iPhone, Instapaper boasts two main strengths for the urban commuter: offline reading and cross-app integration. For the underground traveler, these details are crucial, and they can shape one’s consumption habits entirely. Before Instapaper, anything not copied-and-pasted into an email or document, then downloaded before walking out the door, was unreadable; it existed outside our reach. Now, headlines can be skimmed with breakfast and then consumed entirely before lunch.
Zite was co-founded by Mike Klaas and Ali Davar as Worio about 6 years ago; Zite, the iPad app we know today, was launched on March 8 as a pivot that leveraged the founders' years of research. Finally purchased by CNN the following August, it is self-described as a "zeitgeist" in that it strives to capture “the spirit of the times." More specifically, though, Zite is an app that strives to know its owner, allowing users to choose from a list of subjects while pulling information from their Twitter and Facebook accounts. The strength, in the end, is how it uses this information. Rather than broadly compile by subject matter, it subdivides that subject matter depending upon what you read and don’t read. Click on every app review, and expect to see more of them; follow Twitter feeds of entertainment news, and expect a heavy flow of gossip.
Specificity and minuteness are Zite’s strength, and they’re fully exposed, as the sidebar of each story provides the option to declare your reason for reading it. A recent story on Iran’s Google policy, for example, provides the following tags: Washington Post, journalist Elizabeth Flock, Google, Iran, “security”, or “police”. Even if you choose not to clarify your purpose, Zite will note the subject of the story, the content, how long the piece was, and how long you read it for. Over time, slowly but surely, it will learn, and thus, so will you.
Flud, like Zite, aggregates social platforms and publishers, allowing users to sort by subject matter while presenting information by publication. A winner of the Fast Company 2010 Design Award of the Year, Flud allows users to move within one source by scrolling up or down or move from source to source by scrolling left or right. Noteworthy stories can be marked to be read later, or shared instantly with other Flud users. Furthermore, as you read a story, Flud allows you to see which other users are sharing it and which are reading it, calling for engagement between like-minded readers. When you friend one another, ultimately, your shared stories appear in an activity stream.
In this regard, Flud adds a social component to Zite’s learned content, banking upon friends and collaborators to share and engage with one another. Its commitment to sorting by publication, as opposed to subject matter, builds upon our usual online reading habits, as though we’re moving from site to site. Of course, the two sources at odds, with Zite carrying the upper hand by stepping back from the direct engagement - sharing purposefully with other readers - and suggesting that our natural consumption habits (who we follow on Twitter, friend on Facebook, and so on) are more indicative of our desired sources, but not necessarily the specific content. And with so many sources available, the subject may actually be what counts.
Fortunately, Instapaper partially eliminates the value of time, placing priority on the value of content. Users are able to decide on which source they trust - friends and other readers, or an algorithm based on personal habits - then store the information for later reading as they wish. Some Twitter users, for example, use the service for purely social reasons, finding the flood of news overwhelming and, due to the need to follow links, altogether irritating. Flud creates an information-only source that can be dealt with under- or above ground, as long as it's coupled with Instapaper, allowing for Twitter-like social interaction with an informational twist.
Flipboard exists somewhere between Zite and Flud, with a heavy lean toward social networking. Its strength is turning your Twitter and Facebook feeds into magazines, allowing you to consume shared content - be it a link, an image, video, or text, among other forms - as though it were published by the original source. The interface is particularly beautiful in that it allows users to combine all information into one stream, removing the distinction between information shared by social sources and publications. Integrated with Instapaper, by way of a somewhat complex process, it’s best for a quick-social fix, removing the banter of a Facebook feed and providing the images and content friends actually want you to see - all friends, that is, not just those tech-savvy enough for Flud.
Once considered the end of publishing altogether, the iPad and its apps are redefining consumption with a touch of customization. Once daunting, leading apps are finding ways to supplement and integrate with one another, adding value to one another and, more importantly, their original sources. On the user end, the benefits are infiltrating and reshaping our daily habits, just as the iPhone did years ago. Once a frustrating hour of absolute disconnect - socially relieving, perhaps, but somewhat dull - is now a chance to reengage with friends while engaging with the world in ways we’ve never seen before.