I love you, but you’re
bringing me down making me sad.
I feel like the direction you’re taking the Product will eventually lead you off a cliff.
And you can’t fly. And no, you won’t be able to assemble some wings on the way down.
And then I’ll have to find a new home for my reading list.
And I don’t know if I can go through that again after Google Reader’s shutdown.
(Also, the death of Instapaper and Readability is making me concerned about Pocket’s future.)
Disclaimer: I have no inside information on how things are going with Pocket.
This post is largely speculative and based on a purely external analysis of a very active user (me).
So, What is Pocket?
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Pocket is a service that allows you to save what you find on the web to watch and read on any device, anytime. It has a browser extension through which you can save any webpage, and mobile and web apps where you can access the content at a later time. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of its competitors: Instapaper 1, Readibility 2 or Pinboard 3.
A Brief History of Pocket
Pocket was started in 2007 by Nate Weiner as Read It Later 4. During the initial years (2007-2011), it was a 1 person operation. In terms of feature set, the product did not evolve much. But it worked fine and it supported the most important platforms.
So fast forward to today: Pocket has raised a total of $14.5M, after one more round of financing in 2015. It also started a large incursion into generating a revenue stream. They have amassed more than 22 million users 6 and seem to be doing great, but I really fear they might be going the wrong way…
The Wrong Way?
It is undeniable that Pocket has evolved quite a bit since its inception: it supports many different platforms, it has gone through one major redesign, it integrates with several different services, and the mobile apps are highly rated in both the Play and App Stores.
Not shown here: the several updates to the apps and extensions, partnership integrations (e.g. Firefox), UI/UX updates (Android Material Design, iOS updates).
But when looking at the timeline of the features, we can also see how the direction has been shifting over time, denoting a lack of a long term mission.
In 2012, Pocket’s goals were to Make Pocket Available Everywhere You Are and Continue to Define What It Means to ‘Save for Later’. While the former seems to have been accomplished, I’m not sure we can agree on the latter. By 2015, the desire was to make Pocket A Home for Everything You Want to Read and Watch, but also to continue to build Pocket as a business.
(Coincidentally, these are the same years Pocket received funding.)
Why is this an issue? Unfortunately, not having a long term mission can drive you around in circles and eventually land you in the wrong place. And that, can be fatal.
So here’s where Pocket wants to go now 7:
In 2016, we’ll be building on this foundation to make Pocket a unique place where you can not only capture, read, and watch the things you care about most, but easily discover and recommend them as well. Pocket will become your home for the best, most interesting stories the Web has to offer.
The major project for the near future seems to be the new Recommendations tab and the features around it. But the larger picture is to actually change the way the app is used and how people consume information.
Think of it this way: Recommendations is trying to make Pocket a “starter app” - an app that you open to check out what’s new. But, by design, Pocket is a “destination app” - where your interaction ends.
And this is perhaps the major flaw in the design of Recommendations. It is trying to compete with the flow that people follow: Twitter/Facebook/Other News Apps/etc → Pocket.
My Blood Type’s AB and It Will Be for a while
Personally, I think the bet on Recommendations and changing the purpose of Pocket is just plain wrong. It’s not only a very drastic change to the product’s philosophy, but it also competes in an overcrowded market and not really with the best approach. But I can understand why they’re doing it: the need for more users, for better engagement numbers, and a constant revenue stream.
So far, it seems like I’m wrong and it’s actually looking like a good idea 8, but I’m still very skeptical. So what would I do?
If I were in charge, I’d rather have Pocket focus on its true purpose and polish its products.
While the apps don’t seem to have any major bugs, there are/were smaller issues stacking up:
- The article fetcher’s quality could be improved (it routinely ignores inline images in the articles) 9
I was going to point out that the Highlights feature was buggy, but they’ve since removed it (after years of lingering)! It’s a shame, because it was actually a very useful feature - when it worked…
Tagging and tag management should be improved
Other minor pet peeves regarding the UI/UX (please don’t show a popup when asking for app-store reviews!)
Make Reading Great Again
with 50% of content saved eventually getting read 8
As for a long term mission for Pocket? To me, it seems quite obvious: help people filter and consume information in a more efficient way. If 50% of the content eventually gets read, does that mean that the remaining 50% doesn’t get read? What can Pocket do about that?
Pocket should come up with features to make me read faster, help me clean up the queue, and help me decide on what I should read next from my queue. I don’t need you to suggest me new items, I already have plenty of stuff to read!
Here are concrete examples of things that could be and should’ve been already implemented or improved:
Low hanging fruits such as an article word counter, estimated time for reading an article (Medium has popularized this), current reading percentage (like Kindle does with books).
An article summarizer for long reads. Help me decide if I actually want to read the article or if I should discard it - remember Summly?
Global Popularity Indicators: signals that can inform me if an item is worth checking out or not - this could take the form of votes, reactions, number of times an item has been shared from the app, etc. I know that something similar exists in Recommendations, but it’s based on my social network. There’s a reason why people are trying to get their articles to the frontpage of Reddit and HN, it’s because global popularity is a helpful indicator.
Bring back the Highlights! There are still traces left around (the Best Of tag), but the automatic filtering subcategories have disappeared and they were indeed useful. I’m curious to understand the motives for removing this feature - if the numbers just didn’t support the its existence.
Text-To-Speech needs a lot more love! Why is such a powerful feature buried in the app and not looked after?
Good lord Pocket text-to-speech + running = the very best.— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) January 28, 2016
The common denominator to my suggestions? They help the user become a much more efficient consumer of content! And by doing so, you can bet users will happily add more stuff to read into Pocket and are more likely to use Pocket for reading content.
Bonus: have you seen how quotes are shared from Medium? There’s something here that I’m sure Pocket could capture.
Ugh, I’m going to avoid talking about the Sharing Echo Chamber Feeds that Pocket has built…
My suggestions are nothing new, they have been around in other products. It’s ok to take a page from Facebook and “learn” from the competition.
Fear Can Be a Great Motivator… or Kill You
I’m doing a little sidetracking here, to try and understand what’s really guiding the decisions for Pocket’s future.
In 2015, 787 million items were saved by the 22 million user base. 7 If my math isn’t wrong (I sucked at math!) that means 36 items per user in 2015.
But in the past 3 years (2013-15), users have saved more than 2 billion items. 10 That means that ~1.213 billion items were saved in 2013-14 by a smaller user base (they did not have 22M users back then).
So looking at these numbers, I would guess that there is a large set of inactive accounts 11, a large number of low-engaging users and a small group of very active users. I mean, what kind of active user has only saved ~36 items the past year?
Put it in another way: how large is your reading queue? I asked 2 friends and they have over 1k items saved up from a few years of activity. Same for me, and I’m pretty sure we’re not unique. So it’s not a wild guess to think that Pocket has a small number of very active users doing all the saving (and reading).
And when looking at the numbers this way, you can understand why the strategy is shifting towards Recommendations, perhaps to increase the engagement of those semi-active users? But is it wise? Time will tell…
Again, maybe I’m completely wrong and Pocket’s strategy is actually going to succeed! I’m just guessing without a lot of information. But from where I’m standing, Pocket’s trying to compete in a very tough field. The personal feeds and Recommendations make Pocket look like a stripped down version of Twitter.
But even if this new strategy proves to be a success, I wish they’d take my suggestions into account. I’d like to read faster, so I could read more. And then I would happily use the Recommendations tab.
Anyway, sorry for the tough love! If I sound too harsh it’s because I care. And don’t forget, everyone’s a critic.
Recently acqui-hired by Pinterest. ↩
Which is shutting down the Readability bookmarking service at the end of September 2016. ↩
The fetcher seems to have been recently updated! I’m happy that articles in HN are now correctly downloaded! That took a while… ↩
Or their numbers/my math’s wrong… ↩