Even as Readability and Read it Later have released and improved their apps for Android devices, Instapaper developer Marco Arment has firmly and repeatedly said that he has no real interest in building an app for the platform. However, in December he issued a challenge to developers: the first good third-party Instapaper app for Android would become the de facto "Instapaper for Android" application, with his blessing and promotion.
There are already plenty of third-party Instapaper apps for Android — EverPaper, InstaFetch, and Hard Copy, to name just a few — but most are unattractive or work poorly, and almost all scrape Instapaper's content, trying to circumvent the app rather than work within its terms. Papermill, a new app from developer Ryan Bateman, is one of the first apps we've seen that falls in line with Arment's challenge: it uses the official API, contains a number of the iOS app's features, and it's not free — it'll cost you $3.99, in addition to the $1 / month Instapaper subscription.
"If I was trying to make Papermill my life, I don't know if I could get away with charging $4"
As Instapaper was born out of a love for reading, Papermill was born out of love for Instapaper — and a bit of a competitive edge. Bateman had been an Instapaper fan for a long time, reading on his iPad, but had never really thought about using the service on his Android phone. "Then it was really a perfect storm," he said. "(Arment's) statement came out, I was looking for a project, and the compatibility standards and design guidelines for Android had just come out. So for the first time, there was a way to actually create a good experience across various Android devices and versions. So I thought, yeah, it'd be kind of a fun project."
The $3.99 price is certainly the most controversial thing about Papermill, and Bateman knows it. The app is a side project, he said, apart from his job as an Android engineer for mobile application developer Indusblue. If it weren't, well, he's not sure it would work. "For a shop, or someone who's motivated by money, I'm not sure (this price) would make sense. If I was trying to make Papermill my entire life, I don't know if I could get away with charging $4 as I do." Android is positioned as a mid-range device, he said, and that reflects in what people are willing to pay for Android apps. Papermill is actually cheaper than Instapaper for iOS, though, and Bateman thinks that could help his case with users. "Marco's created such a great service. The core users who love it, and love the idea, are happy to pay for a continuation of that same level of design, and kind of love for it."
We tested the current version of the app (v1.0.5), and though Papermill still feels like a 1.0 product, it's already quite good. The swipe-based, blue and black interface is beautiful and simple, letting you switch between your Read Later, Favorites, and Archive lists. It's a Holo-themed app, and fits right in with the Android 4.0 aesthetic — most Instapaper apps for Android feel like poor copies of an iOS app, but Papermill is all Android. The app is fast and smooth, without so much as a single crash while we were testing it. The reading experience is good, though it's incredibly basic at the moment. Your only customization options are "increase font size" and "decrease font size," or you can switch into a white-text-on-dark-background "Dark Mode." The lack of options might frustrate those who love customizing margins, line heights, and fonts to suit their exact desires, but at least for us the app's overall aesthetic and functionality are worth giving Papermill a long look.
Bateman is committed to improving the app, but wants to be careful. He said he's looking into adding new fonts and reading options, as well as integrating some more Instapaper features (like folders) and Android features (like widgets). But he's taking it slow, making sure that he does it correctly: "I want to make access to your bookmarks, and the way you view and work with Instapaper's features, happen within the guidelines and the Android UI...There are so many apps out there for big services and big companies that are just iOS ports, and the Android Market has grown to the point where people are smart enough to notice that. But an Android-specific app for a service people love? I think that's always going to do well."