Thoughts on a reading, sharing & archiving solution

Music's pretty much done, right? It's fairly easy to hear any song you've ever liked, anywhere you happen to be. As a bonus, those songs can be stored, shared, tagged, rated, and linked to lyrics and album art.

Movies and TV... their delivery is not quite perfected, but the general outline seems apparent. Already I can watch the WKRP Turkey Drop episode in the kitchen on my iPad's Hulu app, and mirror it to my TV (via Apple's set top box) when I'm ready to sit on the couch. Other shows or films require more effort, though the combination of Netflix, iTunes, and for the remainder, torrents plus the Air Video server app, make it easy enough.

But reading? The written word, for whatever reason, still lags behind. While strides have been made, a simple and universal, Apple-like solution to the problem of reading, sharing and archiving remains elusive.

It seemed for a while that RSS was going to solve reading, but despite this, for a while, I resisted the call of RSS aggregators. I wanted to experience sites as the bloggers wanted them laid out -- if it was just uniformly presented text, I feared I'd lose some of the author's personality and voice. I had a hierarchy of bookmarks that I perused.

But I found, even with Grand Rounds, that I was missing out on new voices. Using bookmarks to visit older blogs that were sputtering out was frustrating. Messing with my bookmarks was not as simple as adding or rearranging RSS feeds. And so, at some point in 2006, I made the leap to Google Reader.

And for a while, things were great... I could efficiently consume the blogosphere, as never before. Until I came to regard catching up with RSS feeds as a chore.

So I muddled along, using a combination of bookmarks, Google Reader, and increasingly, Twitter feeds, to keep up with old friends and new sources. Good stuff I came across was starred, or retweeted, or bookmarked, or cut and pasted into Google Notebook Evernote for future reference. Or Instapaper'd. Or posted to Facebook. At one point set up FriendFeed to aggregate all my commenting activity, but it was no way to absorb new information.

Then the iPad came along, and with it, Flipboard, Pulse, and the Kindle app. Flipboard hooked into my Google Reader feed but never made catching up on blogs seem like work -- instead, it felt like I was browsing through a magazine that featured all my old blog friends and twitter buds. Flipboard also let me retweet, or post links to my Facebook page. Pulse is a little less slick than Flipboard, but they make it easier to plow through more content, add new feeds, and share or save material. Kindle's app is pretty great, and lets me take notes that can be shared publicly. It's a little work, though, to turn that public notes page into an RSS feed or Evernote folder. Currently, the Newsstand periodicals don't offer any sharing or notes archives, which has really limited my use of them (though they're still fun to read).

That the iPad should be a superior device for browsing and sharing RSS, books, Twitter and Facebook feeds is not surprising -- there's been surprisingly little demand to bring Flipboard and its like to the Desktop; Kindle has a desktop version that I've only used for novelty's sake.

I just wonder if Google knows what it's lost, by neglecting the Reader experience (which has only gotten worse lately)? I think so. Sources say they've got something in the works to compete, for tablet browsing. And many expect Google+ to come out with the APIs to make this kind of sharing and logging possible. Just not yet (and maybe too late).

In the meantime, I'm starting to make use of ifttt (if this then that), a simpler version of Yahoo Pipes that monitors feeds, tweets, and calendars and carries out pre-programmed actions for you -- so my starred Tweets are automatically sent to Evernote, for instance, or Facebook photos tagged with me are sent to Dropbox.

Ifttt makes Twitter and FB more useful, but it only makes clear how limited these social networks are for archiving, by themselves. It seems there ought to be a universal browsing / sharing / archiving app, for Tweets, Facebook wall posts, RSS, eBooks, and magazines, that looks as slick as Flipboard but has more capacity and flexibility. The fact that I can imagine this means it's too obvious for Apple to be working on (and probably not profitable enough, either). I worry that Google's solution may not adequately incorporate Twitter and FB (because if it did, why use Google+?) Maybe Amazon will surprise us again, or maybe Flipboard, Pulse, Evernote, Instapaper, or another startup will make it happen.

Until then? It's surprising but the simple, ancient act of reading has failed to adapt, technologically, to the extent that music and video have.