Five Theses on Mobile Reading
1. Mobile reading is the new mainstream
At Read, we craft a reading tool. We do not disrupt an industry. We try to improve the experience of a very common thing: mobile reading. The act of reading is a daily habit, not an industry. Just like sending emails, or writing to-do lists. Books, blogs, articles, documents, class notes, newsfeeds, research papers, technical documents. People read, constantly, and reading will never stop.
One should be cautious when comparing the publishing industry to other cultural industries. (See Oyster’s misunderstanding over a Netflix for books.) The experience of reading changes with an electronic device. This is less the case for music: Listening to MP3s or an old vinyl doesn’t change anything when the music gets to your ears. The medium does not have a significant impact on the reception. It differs for e-reading since the medium (e.g Kindle, iPad, paperbook) directly affects our experience.
Today’s world reminds us of the time back in the XVIth century in Venice, when printing books was just starting as a business model. At the exact same time were 30,000 professional “manuscript copyists” working in the city. Two antagonist industries, the manuscript culture and professional printing, have shared a tiny bit of history together before one of the two eventually disappeared.
2. Reading apps manage either flows or stocks. Not both
The merge between blogs and books does not apply when it comes to short articles, from Buzzfeed to TechCrunch. In our framework, we only consider long blogposts and books as ‘documents’. Documents are often self-sufficient. (Included in documents are research papers, consulting white-papers, technical documentation etc.)
The distinction between flow and stock is at work here. Users manage (short) articles and (long) documents very differently. Apps like Feedly and Pocket focus on the lightness of crawling through content. Feedly and Pocket users want to skim the articles they save each day as fast as possible. Medium is a different challenge since it’s a platform where people both write and read articles. A community-based newsfeed like this is less customized than Pocket or Feedly — where users actually build their own feed.
A book reading app focuses on the way users organize content. iBooks and the like want to focus on bookshelves in order to insist on the “long-term” relation users build with their documents. Dropbox’s job is to manage stock, not flows. A job that’s far away from Pocket’s. (That said, some documents can be read into Dropbox itself, the question is: when will Dropbox implement an ePub reader in its native app?) We think that document reading apps of tomorrow will focus on how to organize content in the long run.
3. Readable matters more than portable
PDF means Portable Document Format. This is the old print world talking. When adaptive design didn’t matter. A PDF is a uniform file across every device which could be printed easily — as reading on a screen was indeed painful back then.
Remember the old “Fordian” economy. In order to scale fast, Ford’s solution was to copy / paste a standard experience. More than anyone Google showed us that software is able to scale by delivering a user-centric experience. We are now used to personalize our relation to content. Mass-consumption has changed. And PDF’s former advantage, too.
PDF comes from a world where desktop computers were the reference. Clerks had printers at the office and coworking spaces didn’t even exist. PDFs could be opened across every OS. Good old days. Mobile ate this world. And here we are, struggling to read PDFs on a 4,7 inches device. We spend the day scrolling, adapting our window’s size and changing our color theme to be more comfortable while working (on Sublime, Ulysses, Pocket etc.) And yet our Dropbox, Drive and Box are full of PDFs.
4. EPub will take over PDF
First of all, ePub is not only about ebook. More and more institutions publish both ePub and PDF versions of every document. The European Union’s and Microsoft’s own documentation was converted in ePub. Remember that a PDF is a digital copy of an A4 printed page. It has been a true innovation for graphic designers in the 90's. The same graphic layout would render the same way on any kind of OS. Since then, PDFs have been used for numerous use cases. For some reason, PDF became a standard for digital documents, e.g for mobile reading. EPub came along in 2009: a reflowable and mobile-friendly formatting.
The main advantage of ePubs lies in the adaptive formatting. Readers can personalize fonts, margins, colors, and more. EPubs are highlights-friendly.
Here’s what happens when you open an ePub file: First, the folder is unzipped and we access a root file containing the local adresses of every page. From there, the ePub engine works like a browser surfing between HTML pages — essentially, the sections (or chapters). Since ePub is based on CSS, readers can adjust every detail they want.
The IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum — supported by Google and every major actors except Adobe) originally invented the ePub and gathers a collective of programmers implementing features regularly. The last version, the ePub 3, conveys sound and video.
Remember the conflict between two “comparative” technologies to enrich web pages: HTML5 and Flash. Unlike Flash, native HTML5 is supported on all web browsers. And lastly, Flash CPU’s consumption has been criticized by many. Let’s only point out how DRMs didn’t help Flash succeed in its development. We feel EPub / PDF is very close from this debate.
5. Third party integration wins at the end
Sharing is already so 2010'. As users, we feel synchronization is the next step. And IFTTT, the new “share widget”. What does it tell us for readers? APIs suddenly show what the internet is all about. Connecting dots. Networking effect. It’s not about keyword-dropping. Connecting two services creates a brand new asset, more valuable than these two services used separately. APIs create value from connecting dots, literally. In this case: the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The future of reading will be impacted by API architecture, as it helps readers to be more efficient and productive. Note that the fixed layout of PDFs makes it impossible to extract data and therefore, to move it from one service to another. And that’s something readers value beyond reason. The obstacle is the relative complexity of starting to plug different services together. But we’ve seen more complex tasks becoming mainstream for the last twenty years.
Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)