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In defense of ebook readers

Marc and Clint are defending ebook readers from the categorical criticism and doubt in blogs over the last few days, sparked by remarks by John Gruber and Jason Kottke.

I got a Kindle 2 in February, mostly so I could make Instapaper work well on it. I expected it to be used mostly as a development device that I would occasionally use to read a book.

The following week, Tiff was packing lightly for air travel, and I made her take the Kindle instead of a handful of books. She thought it was weird and unnecessary, but she semi-reluctantly tried it for the trip.

I just got it back a few weeks ago.

Tiff plowed through more than 20 books on the Kindle. At one point in the middle, she read a book on paper (because it wasn’t available on the Kindle) and absolutely hated it. Her commentary was priceless: she couldn’t easily look up word definitions, she couldn’t change the font size, it was awkward and lopsided to hold near the beginning and end, and it would lose her place if she fell asleep while reading.

Most people won’t instantly jump to buy ebook readers after seeing them in TV commercials or liveblogged keynotes. They need to be experienced in person. (The ability to do this easily will give Barnes & Noble a huge advantage over Amazon.) And they’ll spread via good, old-fashioned, in-person referrals from friends and coworkers.

“Oh, is that the book reader thing? I heard about that… How do you like it? Can I see it?”

And how many Kindle owners have you met who didn’t love it?

This isn’t a recipe for explosive growth. They’re not taking over or killing anything. And techies don’t need to care much for them to succeed. Engadget and Gizmodo can keep obsessing over tiny LCD devices and foldable Acer tablet concepts and are safe to completely ignore this market once it’s no longer shiny and novel. But there are a lot of people — including, significantly, most people over age 40 — who don’t like reading tiny text on bright LCD screens in devices loaded with distractions that die after 5 hours without their electric lifeline.

And this is one 27-year-old with 20/20 vision (for now) who also prefers it.

Most of Kottke’s problem with ebook readers can be solved in software:

But all these e-readers — the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, et al — are all focused on the wrong single use: books. (And in the case of at least the Nook and Kindle, the focus is on buying books from B&N and Amazon. The Kindle is more like a 7-Eleven than a book.) The correct single use is reading. Your device should make it equally easy to read books, magazine articles, newspapers, web sites, RSS feeds, PDFs, etc.

And I’ve already solved part of that. Despite making an iPhone app optimized for reading magazine-length text, I mostly read long content with my very beta Kindle-export feature (which sucks, and is about to be replaced with a much better version) because it’s so much more comfortable — the e-ink screen really is much easier on the eyes, and much more text fits on the Kindle’s screen than the iPhone’s. (If the rumor consensus is to be believed, the Apple tablet unicorn will only solve the latter problem.)

Writing off an entire category of devices because of easily improved software limitations is invalid and unwise. I love reading on my Kindle, and I hardly ever read books. I’ll do my part to make blog posts, online magazine articles, and news stories just as easy to read as books.

I don’t expect the ebook-reader market to be the next hot thing. But it’s also not a fad, and it’s not going away. These are great devices for reading, even if you need to use one before you’re convinced, and any objection to their current software limitations is likely to be temporary.

Addendum on feed-reading and PDFs

I’m not including RSS feeds or PDFs in the discussion. RSS feeds aren’t reading: they’re alerting, discovering and filtering. My preferred workflow, which Instapaper embodies, places RSS-inbox-clearing entirely before the reading step as its own process that’s always done with high speed using a native feed reader on a regular computer.

For a variety of technical and practical reasons, I don’t consider PDFs to be a good reading experience on any platform. It’s also not possible to universally transform them well, or even acceptably, to any screen smaller than their intended print size: letter-sized paper, usually. The Kindle DX comes close, but it’s a large, specialized device that’s not as well suited for the mass market as ebook readers with screens in the 6” range.

There’s also always going to be a subset of web and book content that doesn’t work well on ebook readers, such as content with a lot of tables, diagrams, photos, or embedded source code blocks. This matters to some, but lack of good support for this type of content won’t prevent the category from being generally successful.

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