A great and completely unexpected Read Later app

Probably six years or so: that’s how long I’ve been a subscriber to Kai Brach’s excellent newsletter Dense Discovery, previously known as Offcreen Dispatch, and The Modern Desk before that. I think it is one of the best newsletters out there: it feels like a well-curated magazine in my inbox every week. Definitely one of my favourites of the genre, alongside Meanwhile and Minimalissimo’s newsletter.

My favourite part of Dense Discovery is the Apps and Sites recommen­dation section. I’ve actually became a paying subscriber mostly to be able to search the previous issues, for this section in particular. Every now and then, I discover an app or a service that piques my curiosity, or I know could be useful to someone I know. I’ve lost count of how many cool little tools I found this way.

This week’s edition introduced me to the “read later” app Cubox.* This is how Brach describes it:

I’ve been looking for a more powerful read-it-later alternative to Pocket and Cubox ticks a lot of boxes. It offers highlights, annotations, email-import and connects with a range of other tools. The only thing currently missing is browser extension support for Firefox.

Cubox is indeed very good. You know it has to be good for me to install an app, but here we are. The fact is that I can’t find anything wrong with it, and I’m thinking “this can’t be real, it’s too good to be true.”⁠* It seems to be fairly priced, it is fast, and I don’t see any feature missing. You can even export side notes as little Markdown text files, which could be very useful for me and replacing this bookmarklet system. OK, the name Cubox is pretty bad and the Mac app appears to be Electron, but that seems to be it?⁠*

This app reminds me a lot of Matter, which is also a great “read later” alternative to the usual — and aging — Instapaper and Pocket. Matter is more straight-forward than Cubox which I tend to appreciate more, but the fact that it looks “venture-capital funded” makes me a little itchy regarding privacy and the future direction of the app: how can this app be free? The obnoxious warning message of the Safari extension that appears when you allow it on all websites surely doesn’t help me trusting its privacy practices:

This extension can read and alter web pages you visit and see your browsing history on all websites.

This includes sensitive information from web pages, including passwords, phone numbers and credit cards.

Maybe it is just one of those Apple-being-careful thing privacy-wise, and Cubox — like many others — also suspiciously asks for the same permission. But for Matter, I’d rather pay 4 euros per month and be at peace with it.

Regardless of the privacy questions, my main issue with Matter was that the Safari extension appears to transforms some links into frames: when I want to right-click a link on a page for instance, the menu says “open frame in a new tab” instead of “link.” Probably a temporary bug, but annoying enough for me to stick with Apple’s Reading List for the time being (it appears to be fixed now).

Cubox coincidentally costs around 4 euros per month and doesn’t do the frame thing in Safari. Looks like we have a winner.⁠*

I used to be an avid Instapaper user, but it has aged quite a bit in recent years and it is simply not a delight to use. One day I realised that the app on my iPhone homescreen was barely used at all and I switched to Safari’s Reading List. Same goes for Pocket: it feels a little bit more joyful and modern than Instapaper, but feature-wise it is more or less is the same app it was ten years ago. I am not what some would call a power-user, but if I’m spending 30 to 40 euros per year for a service, I expect a little more than just a fancy way of displaying a list of articles. Pocket focuses a lot on editorial recommendations and this is something I don’t really need, hence me sticking with Apple’s Reading List, despite all its flaws and the fact that it didn’t gain a single feature since its introduction ten years ago.

This is what I like about Cubox so far: it feels very product-driven, and you can tell the people behind the app love a well-crafted website/app. If the app continues to grow and gain well-implemented features, it may even start to overlap with my use of Feedbin in some areas (Feedbin has a limited but useful read later feature, and Cubox too has an email-adress-for-newsletter thing)

Watch this space to know how my Cubox trial goes, but so far — and it’s just been a few hours, so time will tell — I’m very impressed by what I see, and I didn’t expect that such a great app could stay below my radar for so long.

*UPDATE: Well, Cubox might indeed be too good to be true after all: reader of the blog Dan pointed me to the fact that Cubox is based in China, and that it can obviously be a concern for the privacy reasons I mentioned earlier. This might be the catch that I feared finding all along; extracts from their privacy policy and terms of use (looks like we’re pretty far from GDPR regulations):

If you violate relevant Chinese laws, regulations, or the Cubox service agreement or related rules, you need to disclose it to a third party;

When the user starts the registration process, he/she should have the civil capacity that is compatible with the user’s behavior as stipulated by the laws of the People’s Republic of China.

Thanks Dan, maybe I will not use this great-looking app after all.