People Are Discovering that Reading on Their Phones Doesn’t Suck

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The publishing industry has noticed that a lot of us are reading on our phones. Not just BuzzFeed listicles and Facebook statuses, but real, wordy books. Many years ago I thought it was quite the novelty that I had managed to read all of Frankenstein on my iPhone 3G, and didn’t hate doing so. Today, I read almost all my books on my phone.

This is to the exclusion of tablets and e-readers, and very intentionally so. A while ago it dawned on me that owning three remarkably similar (and expensive) devices that all performed widely overlapping tasks seemed decadent and redundant. At the same time, I had become enthralled by phablets, a.k.a. big screen phones. With quad-HD displays boasting over 500 pixels per inch, and phone screens not too different in size from a mass market paperback, the phablet easily replaced my iPad and my Kindle for book reading.

I’m not alone! In a piece in the Wall Street JournalJennifer Maloney reports:

In a Nielsen survey of 2,000 people this past December, about 54% of e-book buyers said they used smartphones to read their books at least some of the time. That’s up from 24% in 2012, according to a separate study commissioned by Nielsen.

And tablet and e-reader use is down as well. And it’s not just phablet people, even normals with their smaller iPhones 6 are reading full-length books on their phones. (Maloney says that both iPhones 6 are “sharper” than previous models, but that’s not correct, as only the iPhone 6 Plus has a higher resolution.)

There obvious concern is that deep reading will now be lost to the universe of notifications our phones provide:

With all their ringing, dinging and buzzing, smartphones are designed to alert and distract users, notes Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.” Even when a phone’s alerts are turned off, your brain is still primed for disruption when you pick it up, she said. That could make a phone worse for reading than an e-reader.

But “could” is not the same as “will.” Sentient people have to decide for themselves what they are going to prioritize. During a busy day, one might grab snippets of reading, but leave their notifications fully armed, because life does go on. But at night, say, the pings can be disabled, the display backlight can be dimmed, and you have a wholly different reading experience.

And of course there’s still dead-tree books, which I’m trying to read more of in order to go easier on my eyes at night before bed. The biggest problem with them, of course, is that they don’t sync. The book I read in a codex format is stuck inside those leaves, and I can’t dig into it at will from my phone wherever I am. Thus, some books become relegated to the bedside table, and that’s more or less fine.

Because there are plenty of books waiting for me on that big phone. The very device I wrote this post on!

Hold On to Your Kindle (Exiled from the Everything Store, Part IV)

Here is the deal for an Amazon refugee in terms of the Kindle. (The story behind that is here, then part 2, and part 3.)
I continue to have access to any Kindle content I’d already purchased, which is substantial, and I have a lot of books still to get to.

I continue to be able to purchase Kindle content on my existing devices. I happen not to own an actual Kindle e-ink reader now, and do all my reading on my LG G3, though I might like to have a real Kindle e-reader again at some point. But.

What I can not do is register a new Kindle e-reader to my account, meaning that there’s no reason for me to ever buy a Kindle device because I wouldn’t be able to activate it and get my stuff onto it. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been told.

I sold the Kindle I used to have when Amazon kicked me out, because I assumed I wouldn’t be able to buy any new books on it. Wrong move.

So if you ever get the boot from Amazon, hold onto your Kindle. You can’t get another one. Well, I guess you can acquire one, but you can’t do anything with it.

And may whatever god you believe in have mercy on your soul.

Exiled from the Everything Store

Ha, banishment! be merciful, say ‘death;’ For exile hath more terror in his look, Much more than death: do not say ‘banishment.’

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene III

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What if one day you heard from some nameless representative at Microsoft, and they told you that you were no longer allowed to use any of their products or services? No more Office, no more Windows, and for that matter no Xbox or Minecraft. Or what if Google forbade you from using any of its services? It gets tougher, doesn’t it? Not only would you have to use a different search engine, but no more Gmail, no YouTube, no Google Maps, no Hangouts, oh, and don’t plan on buying an Android phone.

Even taking this out of the realm of the purely-digital, you can imagine how many walls you’d run into if, say, you were prohibited from using products made by Proctor & Gamble, or consuming anything made by Kraft or the Coca-Cola company. You’d find yourself constantly having to rejigger your thinking, and rule out items and services you’d never had to give a second thought to. Kraft foods, Google services, and all the rest, they were always just there.

Over the past few months, readers of this blog (all seven of you) will know that I’ve been experimenting with smartphones, on a long and emotional quest to find The Perfect Device for me. I would buy a phone, try it out for a bit, and if it didn’t suit, send it on its way. Sometimes this meant selling again on eBay or Swappa or some such. But quite often, it involved buying devices from Amazon (either new, direct from Amazon itself, or from third party sellers on the site). And as you probably know, Amazon has a lenient and simple return policy – one of the many reasons I’ve been a delightedly happy Amazon customer since its beginnings in the 1990s – and I made liberal use of it. I would buy a phone off Amazon, give it a go, and when it didn’t work out, neatly send it back within the allotted return window for my refund.

I did this several times.

And you know that when you have a new phone, you want to protect it, right? Especially if you might return it. So I’d often buy cases for my trial devices, sometimes more than one in order to try a couple out and see what suited me. The ones I didn’t use, I’d return. If I returned the phone for which the cases were purchased, well, of course the cases would go back too.

Again, I would always return things in the condition I got them, and always within Amazon’s return window. No lines were being crossed that I knew of. Though I used to joke, “I bet the folks at Amazon’s returns department have a picture of me hanging up with a bullseye on it.” Ha ha.

A couple of months ago, I got an email from Amazon customer service telling me that they were closing my account, that I would no longer be able to make purchases from the site or purchase digital content. The reason: excessive returns. I had been exiled from Amazon.

It was dizzying at first. There was the internal flagellation I put myself through (Why couldn’t you just pick one phone and be done with it???), and the embarrassment I felt (My wife will leave me over this). But the most striking feeling was that of alienation, of feeling lost.

I buy everything off of Amazon. Since it first came into being, I found excuses to buy from them over any other outlet. The reasons should be obvious: price, selection, customer service, speed and price of shipping, etc. Over the years those things have only gotten spectacularly better, from having the most books of anyone to having the most of everything of anyone. My wife and I have a Prime account, of course, because why wouldn’t we? My Amazon wishlist is a sacred space for me, where I keep a carefully curated list of the things for which I pine.

I am also a Kindle aficionado. I have had just about every model since the second generation, and even owned the first Kindle Fire, and I kind of liked it! I own a glut of Kindle books that I’ve yet to even begin reading, and at the time of my exile, I had just gotten a Kindle Voyage.

But now, I can’t shop on Amazon, not for phones, books, movies, music, gifts for my family, anything. I can’t get free two-day shipping. I can’t get hassle-free returns. I can’t maintain my special little wishlist. I can’t buy Kindle books, and I can’t buy Amazon MP3s (which are usually priced better than Google Play or iTunes, of course). I can’t stream Prime movies or shows. A powerful, robust hub of not just my online life, but my life, was now inaccessible. Like I said, it was dizzying.

I tried to make my case to anyone at Amazon who would listen: I’d promise not to return any more items, I’d agree to have my account specially monitored, I’d go on a temporary probationary period so they could see me on my best behavior. I wrote emails to countless Amazon addresses, I called on the phone, I chatted online with representatives, and I even emailed Jeff Bezos himself.

Here’s part of the response I got to that email. I’m removing the person’s name:

I’m […] of Amazon.com’s Executive Customer Relations team. Jeff Bezos received your e-mail and asked me to respond on his behalf. [ … ] The decision to close your account is a final decision, and won’t be considering further requests to reinstate it.

I realize you’re upset, and I regret we’ve been unable to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we’ll not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters, and any further inquiries on this matter won’t receive a response.

We appreciate your understanding.

Regards, […]

And so there it is. I am exiled from the Everything Store.

In the grand scheme of problems one could have, this is certainly no crisis. But Amazon is one of those companies, like Google or Kraft, that entwines itself into your life to such a degree that you rely on it like it was a utility, like it was air. It’s one thing to decide to wean oneself off of a given company’s service, like deciding to avoid using Google or Facebook if you don’t like their stances on privacy, for example. But to be kicked out, to have the door slammed in your face, is quite another.

Now, to be clear, Amazon hasn’t taken anything from me. The Kindle books I own, for example, I continue to have access to. The same goes for music and movie content I’ve bought through them. Their system is smart enough, I suppose, to allow me the use of the things I rightfully own without allowing me to do literally anything else. But given the fact that I (finally) settled on a big-screened Nexus 6 for my phone, and given that I could never again purchase a new Kindle book, I quickly sold my Kindle Voyage. Why bother keeping it?

There are countless alternatives to what Amazon offers. Stuff can be bought anywhere. Alas, it means looking in lots of different places for stuff instead of defaulting to one site, and no shopping site is nearly as easy to use or as, well, familiar with me. But I adjust.

I buy books over Google Play, for now anyway. I’m looking at the latest e-reader offerings from Kobo with some interest, but it’s a very grudging interest. (I could consider a Nook…kidding! I’m kidding. That’s ridiculous.) The selection will be lower, the price will be higher, the long-term viability will be questionable. But once again, I’m not really wanting for anything. It’s not really that big a deal.

But I can’t help it. As stupid as it sounds, my feelings are hurt. This seemingly-benign juggernaut of the digital age has shunned me for an infraction I wasn’t even aware I’d committed. The rest of the world will go about their online lives, breathing the air of Amazon, taking for granted that it will always be there. As they should, as it is supposed to be. But I’ll be that one guy at the party who’s allergic to everything he’s offered. No, thank you, but I’m not allowed to have any. (Come to think of it, I often am literally that guy.) Whatever services or products Amazon might offer up, I’ll be that one guy who doesn’t get to play. And it feels crappy.

But it’s also fine. It is disorienting, certainly, and I’m still working on getting all my digital bearings. I try to remember what Friar Laurence says to Romeo as the young lover panics and tantrums over his banishment from Verona.

Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.

And so it is. Goodbye, Amazon. I’ll be moving on, now. Jeff, if you change your mind, you know how to contact me.

And hey, Kobo folks, I’d love to take a look at a review unit. I promise I’ll return it.

UPDATE May 9:I’ve got a new post with some clarified points and a little tiny itty bitty smidge of decent news.

UPDATE: Lee Cutrone’s artistic rendition of me outside Amazon HQ:

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Original unmodified header image from Foter.com

Adapting to Reading on Screens (or, Nostalgic for the Smell of AMOLED)

Turns out that the young folks these days prefer to read longform material in print, not, as one might expect, on the screens of their devices. In fact, they seem to be the demographic that most prefers print to digital reading. I find it a tad baffling, but as one of the subjects of Michael S. Rosenwald’s piece in the Washington Post notes, unlike a smartphone or a tablet, a print book asks nothing more of you than to be read. No Twitter streams or YouTube distractions to be found there. I do get that.
I’m sympathetic to a lot of the warm feelings people have about print books. I share many of the attachments to dead-tree books, probably none more so than the smell of old mass market paperbacks. I also completely understand that there is (apparently) greater comprehension and engagement to be had from reading on print versus screens, but it seems that much of that comes from raw physical and visual associations that are more or less incidental artifacts of the form. (E-ink devices like Kindles fall somewhere in between these paradigms, not being as built for distraction as phones, but lacking the individual physical quirks of books.)

So what I’m wondering is whether we’ll just adjust. We’ll find other associations and hangups about our digital reading, maybe even nostalgia! Instead of the feel or smell of paper books, we’ll miss the eye-scratching low-res displays of our first devices, or the feedback (or lack thereof) of a physical button a previous device had that the new one lacks. (Maybe there’s a smell to AMOLED versus LCD?) I don’t think that kind of thing will improve comprehension, but I do wonder if our brains, individually and societally, will just adapt to the pixels.

Because it’s not as though we are evolutionarily optimized for ink-on-codex. There’s nothing about humans biologically that would favor reading in print versus reading electronically. We’re not “designed” to read it all! (Reading is kind of the ur-lifehack.) So as one form of reading becomes less ubiquitous, I don’t see why we won’t simply glom on to the newer way. It may take a couple of generations to shake off all the old baggage, but reading off a screen is no more “unnatural” than reading off a page, a scroll, or a (stone) tablet.

Amazon Embraces the E-reader’s Niche Status with a Premium Kindle

Last week I wrote about the recent spate of predictions about the coming demise of the dedicated e-reader, and I predicted that rather than go away, the e-reader would probably embrace its niche status in two ways. I wrote:

…[E]-readers are not doomed, but … they’re going to cease to be an explosive category of mass market technology. Instead, I think we’ll see them continue to be honed and improved for a slightly niche market of frequent book consumers. And since they don’t require frequent upgrades on par with phones, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see two general categories of e-reader devices:

1. Free or nearly-free commodity e-readers that Amazon may just give away to Prime subscribers, for example, because they encourage e-book purchasing, and

2. High-end “luxury” e-readers (like the [Kindle] Paperwhite) with advanced, ever-more-readable e-ink screens, improved lighting, and premium builds.

Well mere days later it looks like I’m at least half right. Yesterday Amazon announced a new line of Kindles to join the Paperwhite: a standard “Kindle 5” updated with touch controls instead of buttons, and more to the point, the Kindle Voyage, which is, well, a high-end luxury e-reader with an advanced, ever-more-readable e-ink screen, improved lighting, and a premium build. Gizmodo is saying “damn, it’s beautiful,” and The Verge is calling it “shockingly good.” Even Marco Armentdoes not hate it on site.

It’s got touch controls and haptic “buttons” for page turns, it has a glass display that sits flush with the bezel, the back is made of magnesium instead of plastic, and it’s still lighter and thinner than the Paperwhite. Amazon itself describes it as “passionately crafted for readers.” It’s going for $200, and it really is just as I suggested, a true premium Kindle e-reader for the relatively small number of people who really care about this sort of thing (like me — birthday coming up!).

So while I already got #2 of my predictions right, #1 hasn’t yet come true. If anything, Amazon made the Kindle harder to get by raising the base model price by $10. Seems to me they could have kept on selling the “Kindle 4” for a lot longer, and at ever lower prices. Any reason this couldn’t be made available for, say, $40?

It’s still very possible that a free or almost-free Kindle is in the cards, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be. If you own a tablet or a smartphone, you already have the “free Kindle” in the form of the Kindle app. Maybe that’s as far as they’ll ever go.

Okay can I have a Kindle Voyage now please?

The Less-Than Doomed E-reader

 
Image by Shutterstock.

I’ve been seeing more and more writing lately about the allegedly imminent death of standalone e-readers (and really, Kindles, because no one is buying Nooks or Kobos). It seems that sales of the devices year over year have been trending downward, spurring many to wonder if the entire category is in its death throes.

But as I noted in 2012, e-readers aren’t as perishable as the more rapidly-changing category of phones and tablets. I wrote:

Think about your TV set. If you’ve bought one in the past eight years or so, you probably have a perfectly good flat-screen LCD or plasma HDTV set that you have no reason to upgrade, unless you’re dying for a bigger screen than you have. But chances are the change in the performance of the device itself is not something you’re probably even thinking about.

I think this is what it’s like for Kindles and the like. You use your TV to watch video content, and that’s about it. Very little has changed fundamentally in recent years to compel frequent upgrades. Likewise with e-readers: you’re buying one to read books, and that’s, again, about it. … My wife has a Kindle 2 from 2009, and isn’t the least bit interested in upgrading. She loves it.

(I should note, she only this past week upgraded to a Kindle Paperwhite, but she had her original Kindle for five years. Almost no one keeps a smartphone for five years.)

Todd Wasserman at Mashable recently made this same point:

Unlike smartphones or tablets, e-reader models don’t really evolve, so there’s no need to upgrade. A Kindle you bought in 2011 is pretty much the same as the one you’d buy in 2014. [And] if you own a tablet, a single-function e-reader is also a luxury.

Interestingly, a few months ago I sold my own Kindle because I was reading so much on my iPad. And now I regret it, so presuming I can scrape together the scratch, I’ll eventually be in the market for a new one again.

Kevin Roose echoes the idea of the Kindle as an unnecessary luxury, writing, “The death of the standalone e-reader might be good news for consumers, who will have one fewer gadget to buy and lug around.” But I think that’s overthinking it. Kindles are too small and light for the word “lug” to apply to their transport. But there’s no denying that the pressure to buy an additional device that largely mimics the functionality of something you already have (presumably a high-resolution tablet or large, hi-res phone) is something most folks can do without. Especially for those who aren’t voracious readers.

Roose also understands why smartphones and tablets don’t quite cut it for devoted book readers:

[T]here’s no getting around the fact that smartphones aren’t designed for focused, sustained reading. … [They] breed short attention spans. On a phone or a multi-function tablet, e-books have to compete for attention with Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Angry Birds, and everything else you do. It’s the difference between watching TV intently, and watching TV while folding laundry, talking on the phone, and doing the crossword puzzle.

All of this leads me to think that e-readers are not doomed, but that they’re going to cease to be an explosive category of mass market technology. Instead, I think we’ll see them continue to be honed and improved for a slightly niche market of frequent book consumers. And since they don’t require frequent upgrades on par with phones, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see two general categories of e-reader devices:

  1. Free or nearly-free commodity e-readers that Amazon may just give away to Prime subscribers, for example, because they encourage e-book purchasing, and
  2. High-end “luxury” e-readers (like the Paperwhite) with advanced, ever-more-readable e-ink screens, improved lighting, and premium builds.

And that would be fine! Amazon alone could sustain that kind of market, and even other companies like Kobo could carve out their own corner of the market with their own takes on the luxury e-reader.

So while the adoption of e-readers may be flattening out, I think the device category itself isn’t going anywhere. You just may have to pop your head into coffee shops and libraries to find them in the wild.