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The Current State of Mobile Reading & News Feed Readers

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 03/20/2012


This article is just a rumination over the state of electronic reading. I’ve been a reader all my life, going through many trees, consisting mostly of SciFi and technical manuals, with a smattering of of the business success hero genre—and forests-worth of magazines, like Popular Science going back to 1982. It’s all mostly thrown out and given away now, leaving me with the residual experience in my head, and no pulp trophies. With the exception of a few bookcase showpieces, and the books you want to bring your kids up with, that’s the way it ought to be.

Today I am reading an O’Reilly book about “Learning the vi and vim Editors” on my iPhone 4s. Usually, I buy the $5 iPhone app version of O’Reilly books, then repack them as the standard ipub’s that they actually are, and load them into iBooks for reading. But this one was never put in the App Store, so I bought it from the O’Reilly site. With the sxsw2012 discount code (thank you Tanya), it was a nearly reasonable $13 (only 2.5x as expensive as iPhone versions) for the electronic version. So, my techie books are now ePub in iBooks. It used to be in Stanza, but iBooks started supporting ePub, and has a really good reading interface.

Tech books like I read have become remarkably more usable on the iPhone, thanks to the Retina display. They have a lot of code examples and formatting that you would imagine would never work on a phone. They do. I can only imagine them on the “resolutionary” new iPad. Not sure if I’m getting one yet. The iPhone is always on me, which is what makes it such a bookish platform for me. I travel light, the only thing I’m carrying in the morning is a coffee. On the train, it’s the coffee in one hand and the iPhone in the other, and I might be reading OR writing (such as I’m doing now).

It’s worth noting that all my ePub files are kept on Dropbox, so I can read them on any platform I sit down at or pick up. All my ePubs are also on any iPad I own, and on the rare occasion I want to read them on a desktop (remember, I use Ubuntu, OS X and Windows), I can just pull them up in the surprisingly good Calibre ebook reader, which is free and open source software available on all platforms. I’m starting to think of Calibre similarly to Gimp, Inkscape and Blender—a must-have always-there FOSS app, no matter what platform you’re on.

So ePubs and iBooks satisfies my “long-read” book fix. But I’m also a tech and science news junkie. So on a daily basis, I also have such a diversity of things to read: the Slashdot / Techmeme newsfeed zeitgeist of the world via the Reeder iPhone app, and the top HackerNews full-articles via the Byline newsreader app—that is, if I remember to update both before I get on the train! I’m sort of pissed that subscriptions can do unattended scheduled downloads of the latest stories, but these apps can’t. That has to be by design to help the subscription services. I couldn’t consolidate on one news reader, because full-article reading is so different than headline skimming! So currently, I’m defeated into using two readers and having to trigger two updates in the mornings, when I remember.

I also have my sizable Instapaper offline web articles, which I pop things of interest into throughout the day. This is critical, because it is less “random” than the daily news feeds. It’s chock-full-‘o Wikipedia articles I need to read, and subject-matter of particular interest for work and the projects I’m engaged in. There’s a lot of computer science and programming language stuff in there. Length-wise, these are similar to Byline full-articles. It creates quite a backlog of reading material, but you have to treat it all as a big consideration list for further evaluation and filtering. I scan a lot of headlines and spot-read. Instapaper won out so far incidentally over Apple’s Reading List, because I can add to Instapaper with a bookmarklet on my desktop browser.

Everything is competing for the deep-read, which really must be reserved for important stuff. It’s got to put me into the correct state of mind to work or do whatever my next task is. Rarely do I just read for pleasure anymore, but the Steve Jobs autobiography finally get me doing it. After that, I was in a susceptible state to picking up some SciFi again, but not just any. Fate conspired to corner me into understanding Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age as the Wizard of Oz / Alice in Wonderland genre with a young girl coming of age in a nanotech wonderland future with a “Primer”—an adaptive educational story-book—irresistible to me, planning my 16-month old’s educational future. I ate it up… as a illigit epub, which I made good on by buying the $35 audio version.

Probably my only weak-spot right now is well-rounded daily news. I’m just such a tech junkie that it’s what I WANT to read every day. It directly and indirectly helps me with my work. But I’m actively looking at how to incorporate the top headlines or must-reads of world and local news into my daily routine without making it too complex. I have often experimented with just including the feeds on Reeder, but then it’s just a matter of discipline. I’ve experimented with the “new wave” of rss news feed readers that just sort of do it all for you, like Google Currents and Zite, but they just don’t do it for me yet.

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