moleskinephoneEverything old is new again.

Jennifer Maloney at the Wall Street Journal has just noticed that more and more people seem to like reading on little tiny pocket-sized devices. Of course, those devices are now smartphones rather than Palm Pilots or iPod Touches, but the principle remains the same.

A December 2014 Nielsen survey reveals that 54% of e-book buyers read their books on smartphones at least part of the time—up from 24% in 2012. The percentage reading primarily on phones went up from 9% to 14%, while people reading mainly on e-readers declined significantly (from 50% to 32%) and even those reading on tablets went down from 44% to 41%.

So it’s not that people have found phone-sized screens useful all along so much as that they’re suddenly rediscovering them now. Maloney speculates that the reasons might involve more people than ever use smartphones now, and the bigger and clearer screens that came in on recent models. Even Amazon notes that smartphone users are its fastest-growing segment, thought it doesn’t provide any numbers.

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.

Feels like a flashback, doesn’t it? The “distraction” issue has been an e-book bugaboo for basically as long as the smartphone has existed, though it became a bigger thing with the tablet. (But hey, guess what? It’s possible to turn off your alerts, which they’re also reporting as if it’s a new thing. But “your brain is still primed for disruption”? Really?) Someone even uses the expression “the best device to read on is the one you have with you,” which I’m just sure I’ve heard before.

And some people say they feel “caught off guard” when they reach the end of a book because of the lack of physical indicators like book thickness and amount of pages. I was a little surprised the Journal article brought that up as a drawback, given that it’s endemic to the e-book format as a whole and has been as long as it’s existed—it’s often been given as a complaint against the Kindle, for example. But then I realized, it sounds like those people have never read e-books any other way and are only just getting into them now. So even this late in the game, pocket-sized screens are still some people’s first e-reading experience.

Not that this should be surprising, really. People talk about smartphones being distracting, but the entire purpose of a smartphone is to make it as easy and convenient as possible to consume information—any information, as much information as possible: voice calls, e-mail, social messaging, web browsing, news reading, and so on. That kind of information overload is why it’s so distracting—but e-books are information, too, and can be consumed as easily and conveniently as any other kind. And of course smartphones can, like tablets, have programs installed to read pretty much any format of books, with DRM and without—even iBooks if they’re iPhones.

The article is replete with examples of people reading on the phone while holding a baby, or while on the way to or waiting for appointments, or keeping books on it for their kids to read. (“No games, but you can read a book.”) These are all things people have been doing for years. It’s kind of neat that so many people are rediscovering them, though.

Another interesting thing is that this seems to be the first time a small screen has been so popular in an era when they were so fully-connected to the Internet. Back when the Kindle came out and hogged all the attention, the iPhone was just getting started (even then, some people thought it was a better e-reader than the Kindle, but apparently not enough to matter) and there weren’t any really good Android phones yet. The tiny screen people had been using prior to that was the largely-Internet-free Palm Pilot and its ilk. (I have a friend who still mourns the obsolescence of his old Palm TX, which he thought was the perfect e-reading machine.) But now that people are turning back to pocket-sized gizmos that are fully Internet-connected, publishers are fully taking notice:

To engage readers, publishers are now experimenting with ways to make the mobile-reading experience better. They are designing book jackets with smartphone screens in mind. (Handwritten scripts or small fonts may not be legible.) They are customizing their marketing materials—email blasts, Facebook posts and websites—to be read on phones. And some are trying to catch people on the go, offering free access to e-books in airports, hotels and trains.

“How do I serve something up to somebody who perhaps wasn’t thinking about a book two minutes ago?” said Liz Perl, the chief marketing officer at Simon & Schuster, which has teamed up with Foli, a mobile-distribution platform, to offer free e-books at specific GPS coordinates. “The read-anywhere option is amazing. It’s an obligation for us as publishers to find those people.”

For that matter, I even designed my own e-book, the Indianapolis tour guide, to be used on smartphones or tablets (mostly smartphones) rather than just e-readers, incorporating links to useful informational resources such as Google Maps location indicators or businesses’ web sites. Publishers could very well do that, too.

A nice thing about smartphones is that the e-reading solutions for them are fully mature, as they’ve had years to be developed. There are apps of every description out there already, so people can download one and dive right in. The Amazon Kindle app will let people read all the books they’ve already bought for their Kindle, re-downloaded right out of Amazon’s bookshelf in the cloud—and Nook, Kobo, and (for iOS) iBooks have their own phone apps, too. There’s no barrier to move over and pick up your e-book on your phone right where you left off on your e-reader or tablet.

It really says something about the magic of ludic reading, doesn’t it? You can open up a book on your smartphone thinking you’ll just read a few paragraphs because you have a free moment—you don’t expect to enjoy it much, but it’s something to do. And then suddenly you’re walking along like a zombie with your phone held in front of your face, trying not to get hit by a bus or something, and then it’s hours later.

In the end, what it boils down to is that pocket-sized screens are great for reading. They were great for early adopters back in the Palm Pilot days, when they had the approximate resolution of a pocket calculator and could hold three or four books at a time if you were lucky, but they were the only thing available. With sharper screens, faster processors, and more memory, they’ve only gotten better with every iteration since, Now they’re good enough for more and more ordinary people to use them.

Everything old is new again.


  1. Sharper screens, faster processors and more sophisticated eReaders are certainly accelerants but there are human factors at work as well. For one thing, more people have learned from direct experience that screen size is relative to distance. I can hold a 5g iPod touch close enough that its screen comprises almost all of my field of view (FoV) – more FoV than a CineMax theatre screen. That realization can be quite liberating.
    In my case, being myopic is an advantage.

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