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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

The Web Is Now the Last Place You Should Read Anything

Reading on the Web has never been a very satisfying experience–new tools mark the beginning of its end.

  • January 21, 2011

If browsing the web on a traditional PC is a satisfying experience, why did Apple just have a record fourth quarter in which it sold 7.33 million iPads? Of course, not everyone’s a fan of even the iPad’s somewhat bloated form factor, which is why Kindles and iPhones have also posted record sales figures too.

Now, the inevitable is happening: Developers have figured out how to instantaneously migrate the material we would normally read on the web onto these eminently more portable and–dare I say it–more book-like devices. Previously I’ve covered Instapaper, one service that accomplishes this feat, and while it has its adherents, it has one major weakness on the Amazon Kindle, arguably the most-book like (and least webby) reader out there: getting material onto a Kindle via Instapaper requires waiting for the service to deliver a bundle of stories, something that only happens at user-determined intervals.

Now, however, there’s no need to wait: users of the Google Chrome web browser can install an extension that instantly formats a story to the Kindle and sends it to the device for “off-line” reading. It’s functionally identical to the “Chrome to iPhone” extension that does the same thing for any iOS device – i.e. iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

Clones for Android devices and tablets will inevitably follow. What does this mean for reading on the web?

It means that soon, there won’t be any reason to read anything but the shortest material on a computer screen. The same screen that is the one place that is, in terms of ergonomics, eye strain and even how well we retain the material we’re reading, demonstrably the worst possible place to read anything. Tablet devices are an implicit acknowledgement of this shortcoming, but the fact remains that we spend most of our day finding information on our computers. As tools that transmit that information, intact, to other, more paper-like devices proliferate, the act of reading that information will become uncoupled from the act of finding it.

And that’s all to the better–who doesn’t find the act of reading, rather than simply scanning, material on a computer screen to be antithetical to the act of comprehension? This can only raise the bar for material transmitted on the web: already content creators are noticing that longer and more-in depth pieces do better on the web–exactly the sort best consumed anywhere but a computer screen.

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