The Web is the best thing that ever happened to people who love to read. But compared with dead-tree publishing, it's never been good at one thing that every reader cares about: readability. All that free content is usually shoehorned into pages that bulge with pulsating ads, Like buttons, menus, links to unrelated stories and other elements that compete for your attention.
Hence the increase in demand for services and apps that reprocess the Web into something less noisy and more inviting. For instance, when you come across an interesting article online, services like Instapaper and Read It Later not only save it for future perusal; they also delete ads and other fripperies and reformat the text to make even lengthy pieces easy on the eyeballs. What's more, you can get this kind of service for little or no cost, which is great for consumers--and maybe not so great for media companies, but we'll come back to them in a minute.
Instapaper (which helps you read on the Web, an iPhone or an iPad), Read It Later (which adds Android devices to the mix) and Apple's Reader and Reading List (which perform similar feats in its Safari browser for Macs and Windows) represent the readability trend in its most elemental form: these services work their magic on stories that you tell them you want to read. Another category of reading apps gathers content you're likely to enjoy. My favorite by far is Flipboard, one of the most polished, pleasant pieces of software I've ever encountered. It pulls in words and pictures from news and blog feeds as well as from links that your pals share on Facebook and Twitter. Then it weaves everything into a beautiful, addictively browsable assemblage that it calls "a social magazine."
Flipboard, which currently runs only on the iPad (an iPhone version is in the works), has plenty of competition in the realm of news-aggregation apps, including News360, Pulse News, SkyGrid and Taptu. Most of these newcomers are available on multiple gadgets, all add their own twists, and at least one has already ticked off media companies, which are understandably concerned about their stories' being displayed sans original advertising in apps they don't control. When Zite debuted in March, 10 major publishers--including the one that owns this magazine--greeted it with a cease-and-desist letter. Zite's creators immediately rejiggered it so that readers who click on snippets of some publishers' articles see the full versions as they appear on the originating sites, replete with ads.
Other apps offer similar rerouting and are starting to partner with content owners. In July, Flipboard announced it had begun working with Condé Nast to put full-page ads inside sections derived from magazines such as Bon Appétit and the New Yorker. TIME.com and other sites are testing the waters with Float, a new iPhone app that reformats news feeds. All this collaboration is happening at the same time that some publishers (including Time Inc.) are putting more of their content behind pay walls, where freeloaders--and reading apps--can't reach it. Still, it's a relief to see Big Media and the little companies behind these apps cooperating rather than bickering--and a sign that this new era of more reader-friendly reading might just be getting started.