A punch to the gut always hurts

Getting punched in the gut hurts, even if you know it’s coming.

Today I find myself feeling deep sympathy and a fair bit of anger over what happened to Instapaper and its founder Marco Arment. Even though the series of events that lead to today has been in motion for months, today things seem to come to a head. Marco is far to much of a gentleman to call out the people who punched him, but it needs to be said.

For those readers who don’t know what I’m talking about, here is the story. In 2008 Marco created an app that fulfills a need you probably didn’t know you had. Instapaper is a system for saving articles you find online to be read later. His implementation is elegant, novel and shows incredible pride in craftsmanship.

Over the last few months a large sweep of me-too copycats have jumped into the article saving business. It is a bit hard to keep track of them all. This summer Apple jumped on the wagon by releasing Reading List in Mac OS X Lion and iOS 5. Today Readability announced they were radically shifting their business model from a paid-only model to a free service that matches Instapaper. Then, in an astonishing coincidence, today Evernote announced a new service, Clearly, that also jumps into the fight.

The Readability move is particularly galling. A few months ago they were working with Marco to create a forked version of Instapaper for their service that complemented Instapaper’s own feature-set and integrated with it fairly tightly. They aren’t an unknown third party. Their move feels more like back stabbing.

I don’t know Marco personally, but my guess is that he is not having a great day. Instapaper is his livelihood and the result of hours of careful craftsmanship. It is now threatened. I’ve had a similar situation happen to me. For me it felt like I was robbed. Like someone stole something dear to me. To come up with a novel idea, implement it well and then see someone else jump in, learn from your mistakes and capitalize on your success just feels plain wrong.

What all these companies are doing isn’t illegal. It it is totally understandable and reasonable for businesses to seek out areas where profits are being made and try and take that for themselves. That doesn’t make it any less shameful.

Some might say that patents would be the answer here. That he should have patented his idea and then he’d be protected against encroachment like this. The problem is that patents (as they are currently implemented) are a far bigger evil. After seeing what happened to the Iconfactory and more recently to Duncan Davidson, I’m more convinced than ever that all patents do is give everyone a gun. Now you could say there would be less robberies if everyone walked around with AK-47s, but more people would also get shot.

I’m not at all concerned for Marco in the long run. The skills and intrinsic qualities that helped him make Instapaper so great would continue to serve him well should he be forced to move on. Getting punched in the gut hurts, but after a while the pain wears off and you are a stronger person for it. I am, however, concerned as an Instapaper user. I’m worried that I’ll end up being left with a market full of clones and copycats, rather than the real deal.

If you came across this article and aren’t an Instapaper user you really should be. You can get the app, and support a great independent developer, here.

David Smith