As I mentioned before, I love using my iPad as an RSS reader, and in particular I think Reeder is a great program. I liked it enough that I figured I might as well download the iPhone version, and I gave it a try when I was recently visiting my parents.

And I enjoyed using it. Some of the reasons for that were obvious: I only sporadically had wifi access during that trip, and the cell data access was quite slow. So having a device in my pocket with a program that would cache RSS feed content and images was obviously useful. (Incidentally: if you don’t have a strong reason to do otherwise, can you all please make sure that your RSS feeds include full text? I promise I’ll still visit your web site occasionally.) But some of the reasons for that were less obvious: even when we got home, I found myself using Reeder on my phone at odd moments, and, to my surprise, I found that I preferred going through RSS feeds on Reeder on my phone than through Google Reader on my laptop.

Which is pretty weird! In general, I think of Google Reader as a pretty good program—not as nice as Reeder, but pleasant enough to use—and while the iPhone’s screen is fine for what it is, it’s far too small to be ideal for serious reading. So what’s going on there?

I’m not sure that the issue is with Google Reader itself so much as with my manner of using it: on Google Reader, I generally use RSS feeds simply as a navigation aid to getting to the articles on the web sites in question, while when using Reeder, especially in a low-bandwidth environment, I ended up staying on the RSS feed most of the time. And the truth turns out to be: most people’s web sites give a less pleasant environment for reading the articles on them than a good RSS reader can provide.

So: why is that? Some of it is because most of us are awful at design. (And yes, I freely include myself in that category.) I will be happy if I never again see a website with tiny text, with columns that are 200 characters wide, with a white font on a black background. (Well, almost never: just don’t do those things unless you have a specific reason for it.)

Some of it is the whiplash of having every blog look different. When going through feeds in my old manner, my eyes would be confronted with a slightly different look every ten seconds; in retrospect, I’d discounted the mental load that that places on me.

Some of it is the amount of superfluous content on web pages. My blog is quite stripped down compared to most, but even so I’m now wondering: just what purpose is that right column serving? It’s there because it’s the sort of thing that a blog is supposed to have, but I suspect that, in 99% of the visits to this blog, it’s pure noise. I’ll have to think about it a bit more, but don’t be shocked if, a month from now, I’ve switched to a one-column layout, with the current sidebar content banished to separate pages that are linked to from the footer.

And a big portion of it is optimizing for a specific device, and for a device that’s the size of a book or (in the case of my phone) smaller. Which related to some issues that I struggled with the last time I changed this blog’s theme: at the time, my feeling was that different people have different preferences (in terms of font size, browser window size, etc.), so I should, for example, have the font size specified as 100% of the browser default instead of a fixed size.

But I had a hard time getting that to look nice on the different browsers I used and, poking around at different web pages, I wasn’t convinced that changing my own browser defaults would have improved my browsing experience. So I ended up changing to a fixed 14px, and I’ve been happy with the results. And the main reason why I was at peace with that philosophically was that I’m surrounded by thousands of books, and I’m just fine with the fact that they are laid out by a professional who has a good idea what leads to a readable book, and who has made decisions based on that knowledge.

And it’s the same thing with Reeder. The iPad is about the size of a hardcover book; so, when reading text on it, I’d like that text to be laid out in a manner that would be suitable for reading in a book. And Reeder does a decent job of that, with results that are much more soothing than a typical web page. I’m not against some amount of customization—e.g. it wouldn’t shock me if I started to prefer reading large-type books at some point in my life—but I don’t want unlimited personal customization of the appearance of text that I’m reading, and I certainly don’t want every article that I read to look different. (Imagine if a newspaper did that! It would be a nightmare.)

The iPhone isn’t, of course, the size of a normal book; but the main problem that I have with text on the web isn’t that it’s too narrow, it’s that it’s too wide. It’s no coincidence that large-format print forms such as magazines and newspapers generally use a multicolumn format; in fact, the iPhone’s screen is almost exactly as wide as the columns that my local newspaper uses. (Maybe I should change my screen at work to have a vertical orientation instead of a horizontal orientation? I continue to be skeptical of the current fetishization of 16:9 display ratios.)

The wild west of the web has many wonderful aspects, as does the fact that I have thousands of monitors to choose from when deciding what to plug into my computer. But there are form factors and designs that have stood the test of time over the centuries; I should spend a bit more time listening to their virtues.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.