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Better Reading through Technology

I've been meaning to write an article about the changing face of the newspaper business for many months now, but recent developments, including the events that inspired last week's Better Living through Technology article, have caused me to rethink things just a bit. I'm not sure that I'll ever write that original newspaper article per se, though parts of it appear here. Instead, I'm taking a broader look at reading in general, and the ways in which we acquire information.

I'm a lifelong reader and, I think, more voracious about it than many. As a kid, I began reading newspapers through the comic page but quickly moved on to more mature fare, back in an age when newspapers were primary sources of information and actually contained excellent, first-hand reporting. Since then, I almost can't eat breakfast, especially, without something to read. If not the newspaper, then a book or magazine. As a kid, I'd simply read the cereal box if there was nothing else available.

Reading is an important skill that is, I think, being lost somewhat as we move to more interactive and entertaining forms of information gathering. Video, of course, but also web sites, mobile apps, RSS feeds, and so on. But to rein this in a bit--after all, we read and consume other information for different reasons--let's just focus on two areas here: Reading periodicals (newspapers and magazines) and reading for entertainment or self-betterment (novels and non-fiction, or what we think of as "books").

As a life-long reader, I have spent considerable time, effort, and money acquiring books, books which I've dutifully lined up on various bookshelves like some literary trophy collection. Unfortunately, I've also moved back and forth across the country twice, which means that these books have been boxed up, stored (and in one sad case, partially destroyed by mold), shipped across the country, variously been unpacked or not, and then packed up and moved across the country again. These books have been a collective drain on our family both physically and mentally, and while I had the weird desire to collect them--and I mean really collect them, in the sense that having some or even most Stephen King books simply would not do--I also viewed them askance at times, wondering if they would simply provide the kindling for some future house fire.

We all know people like this, and many of us simply are people like this too. (And it's not just books of course. People ferret away other pointless things, stuff like DVD movies, electronics, and the like.) It's an easy thing to fall into, a common personality type. And I'm one of them. So it has been with considerable effort that I've spent much of my adult life trying to minimize the amount of stuff I have. It's a losing battle, as a constant stream of electronics enters my house, thanks to my career. And of course I have to fight my ongoing need (or at least want) to collect stuff.

Thankfully, ongoing technology trends are actually making this process easier. And even if you are a shameless collector with no desire at all to change this behavior, these trends will at least help ensure that your various collections don't cause or contribute to some home-based disaster (theft, fire, etc.). And let's face it, while paper-based books were once a huge innovation, responsible for bringing a measure of freedom and equality to people everywhere, that was hundreds of years ago. Today, paper is ecologically unsound and, as I've noted, a pain in the butt to manage.

Fortunately, we have options.

Audio books

Years ago, audio books were delivered in analog formats like cassette and then later on CD, but with the advent of digital audio technologies over the past decade or so, they're more accessible than ever and compatible with the portable devices you own. To the general population, the beauty of audio books is that it provides reading opportunities in places and times that are normally not conducive to traditional reading, such as while driving, working around the home, doing yard work, and so on.

The biggest and most recommended supplier of audio books, of course is Audible. (Disclaimer: Audible is a frequent advertiser on my podcast, Windows Weekly. That said, I have never been paid by Audible for any recommendation or service, and I recommend Audible independently of any perceived sponsorship.) Now owned by Amazon--a trend that will repeat itself throughout the recommendations I make in this article--Audible offers over 85,000 audio books as well as other audio content, including periodicals (newspapers and magazines), blogs, and the like.


Audio book access has gotten more sophisticated in recent years. Whereas Audible used to require the use of its own (pretty lousy) software to load books onto portable devices, or use iTunes with iOS devices, the company now offers excellent native apps on a variety of mobile platforms, including iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad), Android, and Blackberry.

Audible for iPhone

Audio books range in price, and while anyone can purchase individual audio books from Amazon or Audible at any time (or indirectly through Apple's iTunes Store), the company also offers a variety of subscription services in which you pay a monthly fee ($7.49 and up) for credits towards 1 or more audio book per month.

I've had an Audible account for years, and I happen to utilize the AudibleListener Gold plan, which provides access to one audio book per month. And audio books are typically my second choice after eBooks (see below) because of the nature of my schedule: I don't commute and only have limited opportunities (while flying, for example, or when working out) to listen to this kind of content. If I needed to drive to work, I'd probably opt for a higher-end plan.


While Sony and other smaller companies unsuccessfully tried to sell eBook readers for years, it wasn't until Amazon entered the market in 2008 with the first Kindle that the category took off.  I had been on the fence with eBook readers previously simply because I didn't believe any of them were good enough to succeed, but Amazon's entry put me over the edge. As we understand today with successful products like the iPhone and iPad, Amazon's success with eBooks is simple: It's all about the ecosystem. And while others have tried to one-up the Kindle in various ways--iBooks via tight iPad and iTunes Store integration and Barnes & Nobles' Nook with a dedicated color device--none can match the overall Kindle platform and ecosystem.


The Kindle is amazing because Amazon correctly understood early on that it wasn't just about the device. That said, if all you're looking for is the very best possible text reading experience, you cannot do better than the Kindle devices' e-ink screen, which faithfully replicates the paper reading experience and provides battery life that can be measured in weeks, not hours as with an iPad or other color device. While the Kindle devices don't offer the same layout opportunities as larger devices, let alone color, any dedicated reader will tell you that these features are simply fluff. When it comes to reading, the Kindle is it.

Kindle device, latest generation

That said, everyone has different needs. There are certainly color needs or wants, even in books. But that's why the Kindle platform really pays off: Kindle eBooks are not stuck on Kindle devices. Instead, Amazon has extended the platform with excellent clients on virtually every portable device imaginable. You can get Kindle apps for Windows PCs (including multi-touch support with "page turning" on tablet PCs and other touch-compatible devices), Macs, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Blackberry, Android handsets and tablets, and Windows Phone. And other clients are coming in the future, including a general web client.

Kindle app on iPad (no menus)

Kindle app on iPad (with menus)

This means that eBooks you purchase through Amazon's amazing Kindle library--with over 900,000 eBooks, 550,000 of which are $9.99 or less--won't become obsolete or orphaned if you later decide to jump from the Kindle device to an iPad or other gadget. And this is what I mean by ecosystem--the Kindle isn't an eBook reader, it's a platform, one that works on a variety of devices. And its ecosystem of books and other content--Kindle offers newspapers and periodicals as well, and works with Audible-based audio books--is much vaster than any of the competition. And because it comes from the world's biggest retailer and seller of books, it always will be. (Barnes & Noble claims there are over 2 million books available for its Nook platform, but that number is inflated with out-of-copyright, publicly available eBooks. More problematic, B&N's overall business is shrinking.)

When I buy a book--and I buy plenty of books--the Kindle is always my first choice. If a title I want is not available on the Kindle, I'll examine whether it makes sense to get it on Audible. Only in extremely rare situation would I ever buy a paper-based book at this point, and in such instances where I have done that, I later donate the book and remove it from my home.

Digital periodicals

When the Kindle debuted, one of the first things I did was subscribe to a Kindle version of "The New York Times," and I've been reading this paper on the Kindle ever since, every single day. The Kindle is a near-ideal newspaper reading experience, especially given the layout improvements Amazon has made over the past few years. But while this is how I prefer to read the news, it's not the only choice. And in the case of the NYT in particular, which has been very aggressive in adopting new sales models, there are many, many choices indeed.

In fact, there may be too many choices. The NYT made headlines of its own earlier this year when it announced plans to scale back its free web site access and put its content behind a pay wall. (Albeit one that would not really impact casual and occasional readers.) It made further news when it announced the details of this plan, which include a dizzying and confusing array of subscription options.

Those who wish to subscribe to the NYT can do so in various ways, which run the gamut from expensive to very expensive. First, there's the traditional paper-based subscription choices, which include daily delivery ($7.40 per week in my area), a Friday-Sunday option ($5.20 per week), a Sunday only option ($3.75 per week), and a weekday (Monday-Friday) option ($3.70 per week); anyone who subscribes any of those plans also gets access to any of the many NYT digital access choices (described below).

But maybe you're like me and don't want newsprint dirtying up your house and fingers, and don't want to deal with paper disposal. Or perhaps you simply can't get home delivery where you live.

In these cases, you can try one of the NYT's many digital access subscriptions. These include smart phone app access (Blackberry, iPhone/iPod touch, Android, plus full web site access) for $3.75 per week, tablet app access (iPad app, NYTimes web app for Google Chrome, or Times Reader 2.0 for Windows or Mac, plus full web site access) for $5 per week, e-reader app access (Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo Reader, plus full web access) for $5 per week, or all digital access, which provides everything listed above (except for the e-reader options), for $8.75 per week.


Confused? You're not alone. But it gets worse. Aside from the e-reader subscriptions, virtually none of the digital options listed above corresponds to the daily newspaper. Instead, each is more like a custom version of the NYT web site, configured to look and work in a way that is consistent with the underlying device or platform (iPad, Chrome, whatever). And while that's somewhat understandable, it's also confusing and inconsistent. And if what you're looking for--as I am--is a digital version of the daily paper, most of those digital options will not provide that.

New York Times app for iPad

This, of course, is why I continue to read the paper on the Kindle, and not on a larger, color device like the iPad which offers superior layout possibilities (via the iPad NYT app). Well, that and the fact that navigation is often more difficult on these other platforms as well.

The problem is that the NYT is competing for the ever decreasing attention spans of a disinterested public. So they have to provide color and sound and flash, and the digital apps often bear a closer resemblance to a cable news channel like CNN than to a newspaper. And while this may be of interest to some people, I find it distracting and unfortunate. But at least there's a choice.

What will likely help is that Amazon is working with the NYT and other papers to bring their content to the Kindle platform, and while some clients (like those on Android) are already compatible, most are not. So there are limited choices for reading the NYT on Kindle right now--pretty much the Kindle devices and Android), but that will change. And I'm hoping that Amazon gets it right with the iPad version in particular, because the combination of the layout possibilities there plus Amazon's superior navigation (and app) would put that right over the top.

Another confusing area right now is that of digital magazines. Thanks to ongoing negotiations between Apple (maker of the only media tablet worth considering, the iPad) and various publishers, we're in a weird transition period where only certain magazines are available digitally, and a smaller subset is available for per-issue purchases or ongoing subscriptions. This is something that needs to change, and while I understand why the publishers want users to see different apps on their device for each digital publication, what I'd rather see, as with newspapers, is the integration of these works into popular e-reader platforms like Kindle. (And since this is Apple, they'd have to happen within iBooks as well.)

Fortune Magazine app, iPad

Until that happens, we have a mishmash of content out there, content that is often hard to find. For example, if you're using the iPad and want to find Time magazine or Fortune, you need to look in the App Store, not in iBooks (or within the Kindle Store). And the App Store doesn't even have a dedicated Magazine category. (Fortune Magazine is under News; People Magazine can be found in Entertainment.) Come on, guys: What we need here is a virtual newsstand.

As with books and, increasingly, newspapers, what I'd prefer is the ability to tie magazine subscriptions to my Kindle account so that I could access them wherever I wanted and whenever I wanted. (Apple-centric people may prefer iBooks.) This will evolve over time, and get better. But it's not there yet, because those subscriptions, like those of newspapers, are currently locked out of most Kindle clients.

But that's how technology works. Even though the content we're discussing is in many ways old-school, legacy, and paper-based, as it transitions to digital form, there will be growing pains and hiccups. I've made a big bet on Kindle across the board and generally recommend that to others as well. But we can't really tell yet where this will all end up. What I do know is that the future of reading is, of course, digital. And as I make my own transition to this future, the best part, in some ways, is jettisoning all the paper. And if you can get over outdated notions about ownership and paper, I suspect it will be for you as well.

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