Why it might be okay to whistle past the graveyard with Instapaper’s creator

There are several ways to interpret how Marco Arment, creator of one of my favorite omni-platform application/apps, Instapaper, responded to the “Reading List” feature announced by Steve Jobs on Monday. It will be included in the next version of Safari when the operating systems of the Mac and iPhone/iPad are released later this year. One might assume the feature, which sounds very similar to, okay, identical to, Instapaper, would be viewed as a threat. (The New York Times placed it on a post-announcement list of endangered apps, two others of which are similar in function to Instapaper.)

So when Arment writes the following, it’s only natural to wince at what could be interpreted as blatant denial, wishful thinking or whistling past the graveyard.:

“…I’m tentatively optimistic. Our world changes quickly, especially on the cutting edge, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen. (Nobody does.) But the more potential scenarios I consider, the more likely it seems that Safari’s Reading List is either going to have no noticeable effect on Instapaper, or it will improve sales dramatically. Time will tell.”

Anyone who, like me, has spent nearly 30 years connected much of each day to devices adorned by Apple logos, knows that Apple has a history of doing what platform companies can and always do: When an independent developer creates an application that is more “a feature” on another company’s platform than “a product” and that application begins to become popular with a niche group of power users, you can start counting down the days until a “feature like ‘X'” appears in an upgrade of the Mac OS.

Always has been, always shall be.

As I’ve written before, “features” are not “products.” So if you create a utility that adds some incredibly cool feature to Gmail (say, Rapportive), then don’t be surprised when Google comes out with something called the people widget that may not be as cool, but will baked into Gmail. (Sorry to pick on Rapportive as, it too, is a favorite of mine and is doing a mad dash to add more and more features that Google will be able to knock off later, as well.)

But wait

However, there are times when things that appear to be mere features turn out to be entire products. The most dramatic example of this is Twitter (it started life as a feature on a failed product). These transcendent feature-to-product exceptions develop ecosystems of users and developers who grow to depend on the service for reasons beyond the obvious “feature.”

For Instapaper, an emerging ecosystem can be seen budding in places where readers have experienced a shift in perception of reading “long” magazine-style articles on the iPad. What once was thought impossible on a computer screen (reading longform, text only, book-like text) has become a practical — even enjoyable — experience on a pad device. At least from the screen shots on Macrumors.com, Safari’s Reading List doesn’t transform the saved article into a book-like format.

But more important, Apple has bolstered the potential of Instapaper and other feature-products by creating the app store which is filled with examples of one-function applications that are, when you think about it, only a feature.

Moreover, at a time when Apple is promoting downloadable “native” apps, it says something that Reading List will not be an app, but will be a Safari feature. In other words, we may have reached a point where a separated dedicated app raises a feature above the level where it can be bulldozed by a mere feature from Apple.

For this reason, I think Instapaper will be little affected by the Reading List feature.