Instapaper API Goes Read/Write, But Only For Paying Users

Read-it-later service Instapaper has released what it's calling a "full API." With it, developers using the Instapaper API can create applications that both write to and read from the service. The full API is free to developers, but only paying users can read from their Instapaper account using third-party tools.

Usually when we cover read/write APIs, the write is the method added second. And usually, if there's access the provider wants to restrict to a premium account, it is again write access. However, with Instapaper, adding to its database of content is easy. Its usefulness comes in reading content you've saved for later. Instapaper is charging for the value they create for users.

Founder Marco Arment explains his decision:

I was reluctant to make a full API before now for a few reasons:

  • Instapaper has nontrivial operating costs. If a large number of people used it exclusively via someone else’s API app, and never saw the Instapaper website’s ads or purchased the Instapaper iOS app, I’d lose a lot of money supporting those users.
  • One of the biggest uses of a full API is to make mobile apps. But Instapaper already has an iOS app, and this generates nearly all of its income. If someone else’s Instapaper app significantly reduced its sales, or forced it to become free to retain a significant userbase, the service might not survive.

As one commenter in the Hacker News thread worried, the requirement that a user pay Instapaper to use third-party apps might be confusing. Granted, the $1 per month subscription isn't likely to get much complaint if the service is worthwhile. But the fact that Instapaper is charging anything means that developers creating applications on the company's full API will be the ones in charge of communicating the news to users--users who may not understand who they're paying and why.

On the other hand, this sort of approach might help homegrown services and developer side projects become more viable businesses. Do you think more APIs should find a way to charge for what's valuable, or should they give it all away and hope to make it up in volume?

Be sure to read the next Financial article: Tap Me Launches iPhone Ad Platform, Plans API