The first version of Read It Later was released 2 years ago today. It was an incredibly simple little Firefox add-on that I hacked together in a few nights after work. I installed it on my computer at work and at home and sent it off to a dozen friends. At the time, I expected nothing else to come of it. I knew that it solved a problem that I had, but I never imagined how many others had the same void to fill.
As of today, Read It Later has 1,622,538 users. Last month (July), it grew by new 222,995 users. It has expanded to a complete web service, is usable in every browser and has native applications for Firefox, the iPhone, and the iPod Touch. It has an open API that is integrated into many popular services. It currently stores several million new articles every month. It’s been covered by major blogs and featured in major publications like the New York Times.
It was unexpected.
To celebrate Read It Later’s birthday, I thought it’d be timely to take a look back at how Read It Later has changed and give a sneak peek as to what is coming in the future.
Read It Later is Born – Version 0.3
Released: August 6th, 2007
Total Users: 2 (thanks mom)
The first iteration was as simple as it can get. Two (obscenely) large buttons in the toolbar: ‘Read Later’ and ‘Reading List’. The reading list was just a simple dropdown from the button. If your list had more than 10 items, your browser would likely explode.
Getting Serious – Version 0.5
Released: November 14th, 2007
Early in November of 2007, I wrote a blog post about a negative experience I had with Facebook. This ended up on the front page of Digg and brought about 30-50 thousand visitors to my quiet little site. Somewhere in the madness, a few people happened to see Read It Later hiding out on another page and that’s when it all began. A post landed on Lifehacker the next day and suddenly there was life to my little side project.
As feedback began to fill the comments on the Read It Later page on my site, I quickly started work on new versions. Version 0.5 added options to control button actions and provided (slightly) less gigantic toolbar buttons (by far the biggest outrage from users).
Offline Reading – Version 0.8
Released: December 16th, 2007
Outside of the original concept itself, Version 0.8 brought likely the most defining feature to the Read It Later service: Offline reading.
You could now load up your list, download the pages, and take them with you on the go.
Syncing, Tags, and the Checkmarks – Version 0.9
Released: June 17th, 2008
Current Total Users: Estimated ~50,000
At the end of 2007, I quit my full-time jump and made a blind jump into the world of self-employment. I did not have much planned but knew I wanted to work on side projects like Read It Later all the time and was determined to make it happen.
Needless to say the first few months were a little rough. As a result, there was a long lull in development for Read It Later. But when it came back, it came back with a bang. Version 0.9 brought forward the Read It Later that you know today.
Most significantly it provided a syncing service to allow users to maintain the same list on all of their computers (albeit at work or home).
Additionally, the update brought a new look and design to the service: the familiar checkmark and favicon speckled reading list.
Read It Later provided new features for power users: organizing their list using tags and sharing of interesting articles to other services.
Extend Firefox – Version 0.9
Happened: August 21st, 2008
Current Total Users: 100,000
In August of 2008, I was honored to have Read It Later named a “Best Updated Add-On” by Mozilla in the Extend Firefox Competition. Though clearly a badge of honor, the most important part of this was the prize: a Macbook. It was this piece of hardware that allowed me to finally add the next piece to the Read It Later puzzle: an application for the iPhone.
Released: April 17th, 2008
Current Total Users: 1,000,000
I sat there, staring at the screen, hitting refresh, over and over, watching the number get closer and closer. One million users. I guess those first buttons weren’t so big and annoying after all.
iPhone App – Version 0.9
Released: April 19th, 2009
The iPhone app completed one of the last missing pieces for me. I had an iPhone, I had one for almost a year before I released the app, but I had a major moral issue with developing on a closed platform. At the time, the iPhone SDK was under a strict NDA which prevented any developers from talking about it. After working tirelessly on a Firefox add-on, within one of the most open development communities in the world, I just was not willing to support anything closed off. Eventually the NDA was dropped and a community began to develop under the iPhone. It was finally time.
The iPhone app carried over the core feature set from the Read It Later service: a simple way to save articles and read them on or offline. It used some of the same conventions as the existing service like background offline downloading, searching, sorting, and sharing.
The great thing about developing for the iPhone was that it pushed me as a developer. I had to learn an entire new software language and work within constructs that I had never had to deal with before. Creating an app for a mobile device is an entirely different ballgame than the powerful computers and laptops people used RIL with previously. It was these limits that ended up creating a lot of the new features and enhancements that are exclusive to the iPhone app and that will soon be shared with the rest of the platform.
Open API – Version 0.9
Released: June 23rd, 2009
A write-only version of the API (a way for developers to connect to Read It Later in their own apps) had been available since the 0.9 release in July of 2008. This provided developers a way to save pages to Read It Later, but did not provide a way for them to pull it out. I decided to change that. In June of 2009, I opened the entire syncing API to developers. Meaning developers could plug-in the Read It Later service to create their own applications, extract data and mash it up as they saw fit.
It defined Read It Later as an open service, not the walled off services we are used to using today.
The Future – Version 2.0
Released: Sometime soon
As you can see, Read It Later has evolved quite significantly over the past 2 years. It’s gone through several different faces and has added dozens of ways to making reading pages for later as productive as possible. You can also see my release early, release often style of development. It’s time to tie everything back together.
The new 2.0 version of Read It Later is heavily focused on tying together all of the enhancements from the last 2 years together in a tight, efficient package. It will bring a fresh look. All platforms will share the same features. The Firefox extension will get features that only the iPhone app currently has such as a true one-to-one copy in offline web views, text only mode, and saved positions. The iPhone app will get features the Firefox extension has long had like tagging. Plus, all devices and all platforms will neatly sync together, including your currently open articles and scroll positions.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to Read It Later over the past 2 years. RIL would not be the same without the enormous amount of feedback, suggestions, help with beta testing, and translations that all of you have provided over the last 2 years. It’s been fun and I’m looking forward to making the service even better.
Here’s to the next year!