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Intelligent Machines

Browser Plug-in Pays Publishers as You Surf

Readability wants to make it easier to read stuff online—while directing a little cash toward the content’s creators.

When design firm Arc90 relaunched its Readability Web service last week, it tried to solve two problems at once: that ad-cluttered Web pages make reading long articles a chore; and that no way exists for Web publishers to accept small sums of money for the articles that people read online.

In return for a monthly fee of $5 or more (depending on a person’s generosity), Readability users get a new button in their browser that lets them make micropayments to publishers while reading articles with no unwanted clutter. Clicking the button while viewing an article on a webpage extracts the text of that article and places it on a plain background in a clean, e-book-like format. Each time a person reads an article in this way, a portion of their monthly fee is allocated to the article’s publisher. After taking a small cut, Readability splits a person’s monthly fee between the sites they used the tool on, in proportion to the number of articles read from each source.

Readability originally launched in 2009 as a free service. Its strategy of slurping up the text of Web pages to provide a better reading experience helped inspire others. Instapaper, for example, is an app that helps people read long-form content on smart phones and the iPad; Flipboard creates a magazine-style layout from Web articles collected from multiple sources. Apple has even incorporated Readability’s open-source software into its Safari browser, adding a “reader” mode. However, some publishers have complained about such tools because they take away the advertising that readers would normally see.

If successful, Readability’s new feature could help offset such feelings by creating a new revenue channel, says Richard Ziade, creator of Readability and a founding partner at Arc90. The new model has also been embraced by Instapaper, providing it as an option for its more than a million users.

“The iPad has shown that people will pay for a better reading experience,” says Ziade. “We’re offering that on the Web.” Many magazines have popular paid-for iPad apps despite also offering the same content for free, in a less readable format, online. The free version of Readability will remain available, but the subscription version has new features, including the ability to save articles for reading later, even when offline.

Readability’s new release provides a new take on the older and troubled idea of micropayments-charging small sums of money for Web content. Previous efforts to implement micropayments have been scuppered by the high transaction fees relative to the small figures changing hands, and the distaste of users for anything that slows down browsing. “We don’t slow down readers by asking them to make purchasing decisions all the time,” says Ziade. “The payments are implicit and based on your activity.”

Readability holds the money allocated to a particular website until its publisher takes action to claim it, after which it get the funds as well as access to a tool that provides statistics on how people access the site using Readability. Hundreds of site owners have already signed up, says Ziade, who describes them as a mixture of individual bloggers as well as larger publishers. Tools are available for any third party to build Readability’s new payment service into its own software, for example iPhone apps or a browser.

Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, is a user of Readability’s existing free service. “I can’t say I’m as enthusiastic about this new direction,” he says. “I think that mandatory micropayments makes some sense, although progress has been slow—but making it voluntary seems less promising.”

However, Kennedy notes that a not-dissimilar funding model has proven capable of supporting media. “This model isn’t so different from public radio or TV—most people don’t pay but some do voluntarily,” he notes.

Ziade argues that subscribers will get more than just a warm glow: “They also receive a great reading tool that works across reading devices and makes reading on the Web far more enjoyable.”

Tom Simonite is the I.T. editor of software and hardware for Technology Review. 

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