Reading and web standards

This week brought the pleasing news that people are reading more than ever, thanks to the internet.

In fact, the amount people read tripled from 1980 to 2008. That’s amazing considering it had previously been undergoing decades of steady decline. Suddenly people stopped watching so much television, and started reading again.

They’re just reading on the screen instead of on paper.

Two of the tools that I’ve found most helpful for reading are Instapaper and Readability. Both of them reformat web pages, stripping out everything except the core text, making them far easier to read.

Arc90’s Readability offers instant gratification — it transforms the page immediately, right in your browser — and you can choose from several different formatting options.

Marco Arment’s Instapaper saves the reformatted pages for later, so you can read them at your leisure, either on the Instapaper web site or (my preference) in the Instapaper iPhone app.

Both tools are free, though Arment offers a premium version of the Instapaper app for $5 that adds some nice features, like automatic updates and tilt-scrolling.

Both tools tell me a couple of things about the web:

One, modern web design is way too complicated and cluttered. Ads, banners, navigation bars, sidebars, and a million other things make most web pages an aesthetic and usability disaster. Readability and Instapaper fix this, giving the content back to the readers. Some forward-thinking web designers, like Laura Brunow Miner’s Pictory Magazine, have followed this trend, by creating stripped-down, content-centric web designs that let the reader focus on what really matters. I’ve tried to follow this trend by simplifying the design of this site as well as the haiku and micropoetry site I edit, and I know others who have done the same.

Two, web standards work. The reason Readability and Instapaper work is because most web pages are structured in fairly predictable ways, with a well-accepted markup language that is widely and (usually) consistently deployed. This gives readers the flexibility to enjoy published content in the way the reader chooses: On its original web page, in an RSS reader, on an iPhone, or through the filter of a reformatting tool. Readers can also easily reblog content on their own sites, which contributes to conversation and community formation, and makes it easier for other people to find the content.

When publishers consider nonstandard web publishing platforms, they should keep this in mind. Something that’s published as a PDF, Zinio mag, Adobe app, Flash file or iPhone app is by default outside the circle of web standards. Unless the designers of those platforms include tools for reformatting, reblogging and sharing content, they’ll risk taking themselves out of the broader collective conversation altogether.

That goes for the exciting new e-magazine apps under development by my employer and other publishers, too.

Reading and web standards

in conversation with norbert blei

From my own experience, and the experience of friends who had spent months to years to a lifetime devoted to little magazines and small presses, I knew in my bones that tinywords had become overwhelming. This stuff eats you alive. But I also knew, it’s damn hard to let go once you made your mark. There’s that little voice that keeps calling you back.

From a long interview about tinywords, between me and poet and publisher Norbert Blei.

in conversation with norbert blei

Some haiku from November

after the last train a man works the floor polisher alone almost

snow calculus — the slow accumulation
of almost nothing

turning the corner into the sudden warmth of sunlight

in a light rain
a woman pushes a shopping cart, singing “Wish You Were Here”

new glasses: all of my mistakes now painfully clear

the wool smell
of grandfather’s army coat —
frost-tipped leaves

(contributed to the 1,000 Verse Renga Project)

Some haiku from November

Nook E-Reader Promises, But Doesn’t Deliver

You can imagine that Barnes & Noble, with 774 stores scattered across suburban strip-mall America, finally got fed up with the way Amazon’s Kindle dominates the e-book market.

“I know,” some B&N exec must have said. “Let’s pull an Apple move on their sorry asses!” The result: a nearly buttonless e-book reader that has a color LCD touchscreen where the Kindle has a broad, ugly QWERTY.

The Barnes & Noble Nook is, in fact, a handsome device, close to the Kindle in size but with far cleaner lines and a less cluttered look.

But that’s where the Nook’s radical innovation ends. For the most part, the rest of the device is a Kindle clone with a few minor, but thoughtful, improvements.

The Nook is slightly shorter and narrower than the Amazon Kindle 2, although it’s thicker. Both e-book readers use the same E Ink technology for their main screen: a pale gray, matte surface that looks a bit like an Etch A Sketch but displays text (and monochrome images, with 16 levels of gray) in far more readable fashion than an LCD, thanks to its paperlike opacity. Instead of staring into the glowing eye of a LCD screen, you’re reading light reflected off the surface of the screen, just as you do with paper, and that’s much more comfortable. E Ink also uses less power, so battery life is long (about a week of ordinary use, B&N claims). Both the Kindle and the Nook have small, 6-inch, 600 x 800-pixel screens — only a little bigger than a 3×5 index card — but they seem bigger, thanks to the crispness of the text.

The Nook’s secondary LCD screen adds a splash of color to the reader’s face. This little screen (just 3.5 x 1 inches, with 480 x 144 pixels) displays the Nook’s menus and controls, and it’s where a virtual keyboard pops up whenever you need to type (when searching for a book). It’s not multitouch, but you won’t miss that feature on such a small screen: It’s all about tapping on virtual buttons or swiping menus back and forth.

Like the Kindle, the Nook lets you browse, purchase and download books via AT&T’s 3G wireless network. Most books cost about $10, or less than half what they’d cost as new hardcovers — but twice what they’d cost as used paperbacks. The Nook also has Wi-Fi support, although it’s perplexingly limited to B&N’s in-store networks, where you can use it to download books as well as special, location-specific offers (like free cookies).

There’s a built-in MP3 player and a headphone jack, which works for playing music while you read, or for playing audiobooks. You can load the Nook with e-books, PDF files, images and MP3 files via a USB connection simply by dragging and dropping, just as you can with the Kindle.

The Nook has some nice touches that the Kindle lacks. When shopping for books or browsing your library, you can swipe through color representations of their covers on the lower screen. While reading, the display lets you pick between 5 font sizes and two or three different font faces, depending on the title — so if you really like reading text in Helvetica Neue, go for it. And the Nook supports e-book lending for some titles, depending on the publishers’ preferences. If lending is enabled for a title, you can send to a friend, who can then download and read it on their Nook (or, soon, on Nook applications for the PC and iPhone). While they’ve borrowed the book, you can’t read it, but it automatically returns to your library after 14 days. Some people have also reported success getting the Nook to work with library e-books and audiobooks, via software called Overdrive.

Unfortunately, the Nook is marred by a frustrating interface and persistent slowness. Switching between the lower and upper screens is sometimes confusing, and the lower screen’s “back” button sometimes takes you all the way back to the top menu, clearing out whatever was on the upper screen. Occasionally the lower screen takes a few seconds to respond to a tap, so you impatiently tap again, accidentally triggering something you didn’t expect. The upper, E Ink screen is slightly slower to refresh than the Kindle’s — it takes about a second, instead of about half a second — which means these kinds of interface glitches quickly get very frustrating.

It seems reasonable to expect that the Nook’s software engineers will iron out these glitches in the next few months, and they’ve promised to deliver software updates wirelessly, with the first, minor update rolling out next week. When they finally get the kinks worked out, the Nook will be an elegant, customizable, competitive alternative to Amazon’s Kindle. Until then, it’s a slightly awkward runner-up.

WIRED Attractive, well-designed hardware. Color LCD makes menus and covers look pretty. Ability to switch fonts is a welcome change. Book-lending works with friends and with libraries. Easy reading experience. Expandable via MicroSD slot. User-replaceable battery.

TIRED E Ink screen is noticeably more sluggish than the Kindle’s. Occasionally poky interface on the touchscreen. Annoying interface glitches keep tripping up the browsing experience. $260 plus $10 per book might be cheap if you’re used to buying dozens of hardcovers a year — but it’s expensive for those accustomed to buying used paperbacks or visiting the library.

Originally published, with lots more gorgeous photos by Jonathan Snyder, on Wired.com

Nook E-Reader Promises, But Doesn’t Deliver

Tiny Reader Puts Wikipedia in Your Pocket

WikiReader photo by Jonathan Snyder / Wired.com

When the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll want to have a copy of Wikipedia with you. And you’ll want to make sure it works even if the power is out, cellphone and internet connections are nonexistent, and you’re hunkered down in a remote cave. That way, you’ll be able to consult the sum of all human knowledge to figure out if that mushroom you’re looking at is a healthy and nutritious snack, or a fatally neurotoxic toadstool.

Yes, what you need is the WikiReader, a simple, $100 touchscreen device that contains a cached version of Wikipedia.

Even if you’re not planning on a zombie apocalypse, WikiReader is handy because it doesn’t require (or have) an internet connection. That’s useful if you’re traveling, on a train, hiking or just too lazy to get up and reboot the Wi-Fi router. It’s small, so it’s easy to carry with you, and it runs on readily-available AAA batteries. And it has a minimalist and subtly asymmetric design that I find kind of cute (albeit cute in the way that those ugly dogs with smushed noses are cute).

The 3.5-inch touchscreen doesn’t have iPhone-like sensitivity, but it gets the job done, with a pop-up virtual keyboard for typing text into a search box. There’s also a “random” button which could be useful for diverting party games, or if you’re having trouble coming up with a name for your band.

WikiReader does have its limitations. The screen is merely functional, with low resolution, very low contrast, a nasty gray-green background and no backlight. It needs to be in bright light to be very readable. There’s no color here — not that you need it, since there are no images in this version of Wikipedia. (Better hope that the mushroom’s textual description in Wikipedia is detailed — and accurate.)

And of course, since it’s a completely offline reader, the information is only as up-to-date as when you bought the device. It’s possible to update the WikiReader by popping out a little microSD card inside the battery compartment. You can either pay $30 for a subscription service (the company will snail-mail a new card to you twice a year) or download a 4-GB file and update the card yourself (though you’ll also need a microSD card reader, or an adapter for your SD card reader).

Is it worth $100 to carry an offline Wikipedia in your pocket? That depends on how addicted you are to reading the encyclopedia — or how convinced you are that the end times are coming. Just make sure to pick up a few extra AAAs.

WIRED Massive, crowdsourced encyclopedia in a portable package. Simple search interface. Requires no internet connection. No monthly fees. Runs for months on two AAA batteries.

TIRED Dim, low-contrast screen. No graphics in encyclopedia entries. No easy way to jump from heading to heading within articles. Updating requires a subscription, or a microSD card reader.

Originally published on Wired.com

Tiny Reader Puts Wikipedia in Your Pocket