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What would a dedicated blog reader look like?

Jason Kottke wrote a nice concurring post (at least I think it was concurring!) to my look at single-use and call for integrated-use reading devices. Then in a follow-up, he expanded on his position that the correct single use [for an e-reader] isn’t buying and reading books, but READING, in all its forms:

I do a *ton* of reading, upwards of 100-150 pages a day when I’m working full-time. About 0.5% of those pages are from books. But the Kindle? I tried it and didn’t like it. The screen is still great…the rest of it didn’t work at all for me. And this is what is frustrating for me…the Kindle seemed right for buying books but not for what I want it for: reading all that other stuff. I know the functionality exists on these devices to read blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc., but they’re marketed as book readers (Arment even calls them “ebook readers” instead of “e-readers”), the user experience is optimized for book reading, and the companies (esp. Amazon and B&N) view them as portable bookstores.

Like Jason, any kind of single-use reading machine is pretty far from MY ideal solution. But I can imagine that it can be an ideal solution for some people. I don’t really need a dedicated digital camera anymore, but that’s partly because I’m at best an occasional photographer. The first (and last) person I recommended the Kindle to was my grandmother, whose reading of blogs and comic books is (ahem) light. I’d also recommend a Jitterbug cell phone to her. Me, I’ve got an iPhone.

Like Jason, too, a big chunk of what I read are blogs. If you add other online periodicals (whether web-only like Slate or web versions of mags like the Atlantic), we’re probably talking 60-70% of my total page count. I read a lot more books than Jason, because I’m a freaking literature professor — and still, books don’t begin to dominate, let alone exhaust, my reading.

But when I think about test cases for the mythical integrated-media reading machine of the future, I almost never think of blogs. Children’s books, comic books (and strips), textbooks, maps, pamphlets, restaurant menus, grocery store coupons — these are the text/image hybrids that I think 1) push the limits of what the Kindle can do and 2) are actually more central to the everyday experience of “reading” than full-length books. And I can start to think about how reading machines and reading software can best be designed and employed to perform those acts of reading.

But blogs? Is there a device, a software setup, a purchasing and subscription system, or delivery and commenting and reposting mechanisms, that are optimized for reading blogs — above and beyond what current exists for our PCs, laptops, and smart phones?

Maybe this isn’t really a problem. Blogs are web pages, and even though we haven’t figured out a good way for E-Ink devices or cheap cellular phones to display HTML, we’ve kind of got it figured out for computers and (increasingly) smartphones. To display and navigate HTML, you need 1) a decent-sized, decent-resolution color screen and 2) a web browser with a solid rendering engine, plus some minimal things like JavaScript support, bookmarks, and a way to select links and enter text. We don’t think about HTML because we feel like we’ve cracked it; we just haven’t gotten it on every device just yet.

To approach the books vs. blogs problem from the other side:

  • What would a reading machine designed and optimized for blog reading look like?
  • What would be the key differences between an electronic blog-reader and an electronic book-reader?
  • Likewise, how would the “marketplace” functions — purchases, subscriptions, advertising — differ on a blog-oriented reading machine?
  • How successfully would such a machine function as a general-purpose electronic reader? That is, how well could a blog-reading machine handle traditional books (and book sales), comics, newspapers, textbooks, etc….
  • Since I’ve talked about this recently — could a blog reader have a different kind of relationship to places and spaces — maybe coffee shops and internet cafés instead of bookstores? — or are we back to the Kindle’s view from nowhere?

It’s worth exploring the possibility! I mean, unless you’re sinking capital into these things, what do we have to lose?

October 27, 2009 / Uncategorized


I love the fact that you specifically mention “marketplace” functions. For all their limitations, one thing I love about both the Kindle and the iPhone is the way they make it so easy (too easy!) to pay for things.

The beautiful thing about RSS is that it’s a subscription — a relationship — not a one-off thing. What if you could easily layer a subscription payment on top of that, and make it as frictionless as payment on the iPhone?

Even if it was largely optional, I think it would be rather transformational. What if, next to Snarkmarket’s header on your blog-reading-machine, there was a little callout that said “donate $1 to Snarkmarket every month”? That would add up.

Subscriptions and friction-free payment. My reading machines must have these things.

Every now and then, the mask slips, and Robin Sloan, Creativist and Media Trailblazer, is momentarily exposed as Robin Sloan, Corporate Executive and Uber-Capitalist. I find myself scanning your Kickstarter updates for a casual mention of, say, an MBA program you just completed. 🙂

Tim Carmody says…

Robin’s like Barack Obama that way. Beneath all that gracefulness and feeling of hope and change lies his killer instinct. For Obama, it’s politics; for Sloan, business models for new media.

But wait, wait, wait, *why* is the Kindle so bad for reading blogs? I haven’t tried it, since I don’t have one. The reasons I think you might want a non-pc machine for reading blogs:

1) E-ink. Isn’t this still the true magic sauce of the Kindle? It’s simply much easier on the eyes, less energy-consumptive, no fan or heat block on your lap?

2) You queue up a bunch of stuff and then you want to crawl into bed, and you really just want to read,and you don’t want to have to shut down your computer thereafter, or be sucked into clicking on links. It’s self-contained.

What does a computer give you:
1) multi-purposeness makes it feel less like a one-off indulgence, especially for people who don’t live in the media gadget bubble.

2)You can comment really easily

3) You get color and the blog can link to all sorts of other things that you can then also explore on the same multi-purpose machine.

So a blog-tuned reading machine would keep the reflective ink and the low energy useage, be a little cheaper, get an ergonomic keyboard, color and a really good way of bookmarking things and syncing with your main computer so that you can note things and later go exploring with the full power of a PC . I think this latter point is key. I don’t see how any of these would hurt a reading machine that wanted you to read books. I do think there are ways it might hurt a reading machine that wanted you to buy books from only one particular source.

Robin, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the intrinsic sense of low spending friction is the combination of a device on which accessing your product is really pleasant (boils down to the reflective ink and good software on top of that) and having a really well stocked store to go shopping in. Seeing lots of products being sold for relatively small prices makes it easier for you to convince yourself that you’re getting a bargain and getting the perfect product for yourself, that you could have been much more of a spendthrift but you actually restrained yourself.

John Parker says…

You’ve described exactly what I want: A netbook with an e-ink screen. Seriously, that’s all I want / need. Light, portable, no touchscreen for me to sticky up with my fingers, full-size keyboard to create text, wireless internet and all-day use battery life.

Google Reader + enough local storage for offline reading.

Flexibile, open operating system to add browser-aids, multimedia as I see fit. A smartbook, as opposed to as smartphone.

What about… just streaming here… a hybrid software bred out of programs that scrape blogs for robo-google-rank blogs (some porn maestros have probably got this optimized) + some mobile subset of GoogleReader for a “Contents Screen?” (Keeps index and search function of all articles subscribed to resident in the cloud) Headlines delivered a la Gmail subject lines: Head + short Twitteresque excerpt. Radio buttons to stack selections plus read now or read all. Choices to read are funneled through a selection of custom CSS styles resident on your personal machine to optimize the screen for your preferred reading/glasses needs. Clips or articles you want to keep are pushed to Gmail or Google Docs or something like Evernote.

Graphics get converted to very small icon/thumbnails that display when tapped. And to converted to black and white for now since color + affordability won’t be along for awhile.

In the very late 90s there I saw a prototype called the Go Tablet that had a lot of this functionality — not touch screen, but stylus. Annotations done by stylus too. No web functionality at that time, but it was clearly implicit in the device.

A lot of the above I assume, based on no information at all, to be some of the functionality that would show up in the Apple Tablet. Why? Because if I wanted to kill the Kindle, that’s one of the areas I’d design into it.

moke says…

I envisage a phone that projects texts in light onto surfaces around us, there will be different people vying for the wall space at the same time , just like when you try and read a broadsheet next to someone else reading a broadsheet . There will be a textual mash up on the wall and it will look like Babel. Photographers will snap these textual interferences and post them on there accounts. All these devices will be redundant because everything will be light based , projected , broken out of the screens , and the beauty of it is we can throw anything at it and it wont break.
Im getting ready right now with masking tape on the pavement for the sun to sunbleach text onto it so the message will be clear when i rip the tape off next week.
The devices will get smaller , the text blown up onto walls or beamed directly into the eye. I suspect no one will notice it happening as they will be to busy reading the manuals.

Moke, I constantly fantasize about those projector phones.

The bleaching of one week will make enough contrast between what was taped and what was not for a message?? Will you post a link to a picture when you are done?

Pro­jec­tor phones? Pro­jec­tor phones!!!?

No. No. No. And NO!

Don’t you see? If that happens mankind will never break free from the shackles of POWERPOINT!

Tim Carmody says…

1) Blogs are organized by subscriptions. The basic interface would be something like an RSS reader. Folders, feeds, and posts.

2) Blogs are based on links, to both blogly and non-blogly sites. Even if most blogs would display just the text from the feeds, the reader would HAVE to be able to display generic web pages. Essentially, you need a web browser, at least a bare-bones one. (I.e., you may not need separate bookmarks, extensions, etc.)

3) Blogs are driven by feedback from their readers. You need either a software or a hardware keyboard, so readers can leave comments.

4) Blogs are supported by advertising. It might be obnoxious to some readers, but blogs and periodicals will be more willing to give their subscriptions away for free if the reader can preserve their ads. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a pay-per-blog fee like the Kindle is.

5) You need an online marketplace that also allows you to purchase content, for periodicals that would prefer to sell to subscribers rather than go 100% ad-supported. Right now, The New Yorker reserves some web articles for its print subscribers; I could imagine that you could become a “subscriber” of both print and web editions through the store. The reader would also need a keychain/password manager to keep up with these subscriptions and other login information.

6) Twitter is a kind of blogging. You need a microblogging client — preferably one that’s separate from the regular RSS reader.

7) Why only do blogreading when so many of us are also blogwriters? You need either a generic blogging client similar to MarsEdit or the ability to download specific ones for WordPress, etc.

8) You need cut-and-paste, and the ability to move quickly back-and-forth between reading, navigating subscriptions, commenting, and writing.

9) Some of this functionality could be performed by add-on apps or plugins, rather than being built-in by default. Then, of course, you need an app marketplace, plus the ability to install add-ons at the user level.

10) I consider the following open questions, but I’d answer yes to all of them:
* Do you need color?
* Do you need images?
* Do you need video?
* Do you need audio?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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