Miniature books and a phone-size Kindle

Things that have already been tried, and things that could be

Miniature books and a phone-size Kindle
The Light Phone 2

Miniature books and a phone-like Kindle

There was a story in the New York Times a few months ago that showed a new ‘tiny’ book format being trialed in the US.

A box-set of John Green books would come in a ‘flipback’ format, allowing the books to still have a lot of words on each page, while also using thin paper and a much smaller profile.

New is probably not the right word for the format, already existing under a number of other names, like dwarsligger in Amsterdam. You’ve probably seen a Bible or other religious text in the size too. But the idea of delivering mainstream novels in English is relatively fresh.

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In the article there were the normal references to teens being more used to holding smartphones than traditional books, which isn’t at all an indictment on anything. I think the superiority complex that exists around reading is pretty shallow and lame, but the meat of the observation is still interesting from a ‘hardware’ perspective. These new mini books:

can be read with one hand — the text flows horizontally, and you can flip the pages upward, like swiping a smartphone.

Really, it made me think about my recent book-reading habits. I’ve been using my iPhone X and the Kindle app for reading for a while now, helped by the OLED screen, which makes white text really pop on a black background. Used in the dark, the OLED’s ability to produce a really dark image, while reducing battery usage of said screen variations, meant it felt kinda natural and Kindle-like to read on the screen.

Which made me wonder: is there way more potential for small books, and maybe even a small Kindle? Are books suffering from a size identity crisis in the same way that news did, as reported by Bloomberg under the headline ‘The iPad Lost Years for Apple’s Media Partners’:

In hindsight, [the iPad] was a waste, and Jobs led them all on a costly detour. While the publishing companies focused on the iPad, people were slowly starting to embrace smartphones. About 300 million smartphones were sold worldwide in 2010, according to research firm IDC, and Apple sold 7.5 million iPads in the first few months the device was for sale. Last year, Apple sold 44 million iPads, and people bought about 1.5 billion smartphones. The iPad is important, but it never became the ubiquitous, world-changing computer that Jobs pitched in 2010. Instead, the smartphone — including Apple’s own iPhone — changed the world.

Despite the fact that the iPad is more visually similar to a traditional magazine or newspaper in size, people preferred the portability of the smartphone. And maybe they didn’t even prefer it, as much as they just ended up being able to use it more.

And yet if you look at the Kindle, every model still is the size of a real book.

Maybe this serves as more of a review of the current Kindle Paperwhite, which is the size of a paperback and is just wide enough to make one-handed use uncomfortable. The bezels also mean that it’s hard to get a grip without a full clasp of the device, and gripping the sides leaves you prone to presses of the touchscreen.

The smartphone is a great reading device, but it still fails when it comes to distractions, occasional heat, and maybe battery life? Overall I find it’s the best read-anywhere device, but if you look at it in bright sunlight you might as well just be looking directly into the sun or gouging your eyes out.

There have been some attempts to fix this problem, like the InkCase, which puts an e-ink display on the back of your smartphone, but it wasn’t that well received and newer models don’t exist for anything beyond the iPhone 8.

Paper books like the John Green flipback collection can help too, in terms of being more traditional attempts at a phone-size book, but as an experiment you can’t really find that many other titles out there in the format.

The Light Phone 2, an e-ink phone which was ‘kickstarted’ on Indiegogo last year, has yet to ship, but does try to bring the more readable Kindle-style screen to an phone-style size. Yet even with the screen technology being used, the device doesn’t appear to support ebooks or any kind of reading. It’s one of those ‘phone and SMS only’ concepts that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t really feel possible for most people who actually need a real phone.

Recent project updates also reveal the likely real reason why there is no phone-sized e-reader, mainly being that awfully huge bezel. I don’t think this phone even has a backlight either, meaning it’ll be as useless as an original Gameboy as soon as sunset approaches.

Which leaves me wondering whether there is any future path forward for my hypothetical phone-sized book. Basically right now the answer is a smartphone, but I don’t know if that’s even right. Maybe there’s space for a dedicated pocket reading device, or maybe not. Maybe I’m being silly and the smartphone is already everything it needs to be, or maybe people just like proper books.