When I ride the subway, I see a mix of paper and plastic. Invariably several passengers are lost in their ipods (there must be a higher ipod-per-square-meter concentration in New York than anywhere else). One or two are playing a video game of some kind. Many just sit quietly with their thoughts. A few are conversing. More than a few are reading. The subway is enormously literate. A book, a magazine, The Times, The Post, The Daily News, AM New York, Metro, or just the ads that blanket the car interior. I may spend a lot of time online at home or at work, but on the subway, out in the city, paper is going strong.
Before long, they’ll be watching television on the subway too, seeing as the latest ipod now plays video. But rewind to Monday, when David Carr wrote in the NY Times about another kind of ipod — one that would totally change the way people read newspapers. He suggests that to bounce back from these troubled times (sagging print circulation, no reliable business model for their websites), newspapers need a new gadget to appear on the market: a light-weight, highly portable device, easy on the eyes, easy on the batteries, that uploads articles from the web so you can read them anywhere. An ipod for text.
This raises an important question: is it all just a matter of the reading device? Once there are sufficient advances in display technology, and a hot new gadget to incorporate them, will we see a rapid, decisive shift away from paper toward portable electronic text, just as we have witnessed a widespread migration to digital music and digital photography? Carr points to a recent study that found that in every age bracket below 65, a majority of reading is already now done online. This is mostly desktop reading, stationary reading. But if the greater part of the population is already sold on web-based reading, perhaps it’s not too techno-deterministic to suppose that an ipod-like device would in fact bring sweeping change for portable reading, at least periodicals.
But the thing is, online reading is quite different from print reading. There’s a lot of hopping around, a lot of digression. Any new hardware that would seek to tempt people to convert from paper would have to be able to surf the web. With mobile web, and wireless networks spreading, people would expect nothing less (even the new Sony PSP portable gaming device has a web browser). But is there a good way to read online text when you’re offline? Should we be concerned with this? Until wi-fi is ubiquitous and we’re online all the time (a frightening thought), the answer is yes.
We’re talking about a device that you plug into your computer that automatically pulls articles from pre-selected sources, presumably via RSS feeds. This is more or less how podcasting works. But for this to have an appeal with text, it will have to go further. What if in addition to uploading new articles in your feed list, it also pulled every document that those articles linked to, so you could click through to referenced sites just as you would if you were online?
It would be a bounded hypertext system. You could do all the hopping around you like within the cosmos of that day’s feeds, and not beyond — you would have the feeling of the network without actually being hooked in. Text does not take up a lot of hard drive space, and with the way flash memory is advancing, building a device with this capacity would not be hard to achieve. Of course, uploading link upon link could lead down an infinite paper trail. So a limit could be imposed, say, a 15-step cap — a limit that few are likely to brush up against.
So where does the money come in? If you want an ipod for text, you’re going to need an itunes for text. The “portable, bounded hypertext RSS reader” (they’d have to come up with a catchier name –the tpod, or some such techno-cuteness) would be keyed in to a subscription service. It would not be publication-specific, because then you’d have to tediously sign up with dozens of sites, and no reasonable person would do this.
So newspapers, magazines, blogs, whoever, will sign licensing agreements with the tpod folks and get their corresponding slice of the profits based on the success of their feeds. There’s a site called KeepMedia that is experimenting with such a model on the web, though not with any specific device in mind (and it only includes mainstream media, no blogs). That would be the next step. Premium papers like the Times or The Washington Post might become the HBOs and Showtimes of this text-ripping scheme — pay a little extra and you get the entire electronic edition uploaded daily to your tpod.
As for the device, well, the Sony Librie has had reasonable success in Japan and will soon be released in the States. The Librie is incredibly light and uses an “e-ink” display that is reflective like paper (i.e. it can be read in bright sunlight), and can run through 10,000 page views on four triple-A batteries.
The disadvantages: it’s only black-and-white and has no internet connectivity. It also doesn’t seem to be geared for pulling syndicated text. Bob brought one back from Japan. It’s nice and light, and the e-ink screen is surprisingly sharp. But all in all, it’s not quite there yet.
There’s always the do-it-yourself approach. The Voyager Company in Japan has developed a program called T-Time (the image at the top is from their site) that helps you drag and drop text from the web into an elegant ebook format configureable for a wide range of mobile devices: phones, PDAs, ipods, handheld video games, camcorders, you name it. This demo (in Japanese, but you’ll get the idea) demonstrates how it works.
Presumably, you would also read novels on your text pod. I personally would be loathe to give up paper here, unless it was a novel that had to be read electronically because it was multimedia, or networked, or something like that. But for syndicated text — periodicals, serials, essays — I can definitely see the appeal of this theoretical device. I think it’s something people would use.