Once upon a time, in 1986, Bill Gates commissioned a book, The New Papyrus, subtitled: The Current and Future State of the Art. I recall an animated conversation with Bill as we were having dinner on top of Seattle’s Space Needle. He was hard at work promoting the CDI, the interactive CD and pushing Japanese manufacturers to give momentum to the CDI-PC, a personal computer centered around the huge storage capabilities (seven hundred megabytes!) afforded by the new medium. Imagine: an entire encyclopedia would fit on just one CD-ROM. The New Papyrus was the future of paper. And, for a while, I thought Bill was right. I treasured the OED II (The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition) on CD-ROM. I had lovingly paid about $10K for the paper edition on night at the old Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park, happily loading the 20 volumes in my car’s trunk (boot for British readers). A few years later, the CD-ROM edition cost only $700 or so... This was the future.

Late March 2009, Microsoft announced they were discontinuing their own CD-ROM (now DVD-ROM) encyclopedia, the well-regarded Encarta.

This, as I’m sure you guessed, is a cautionary tale: today’s heated debate around the future of paper, or papers, might have the same kind of shaky foundation as Gates’ New Papyrus pitch. This isn’t to say the CD-ROM wasn’t a substantial improvement but, in 1986, unbeknownst to us, other technologies were already developing underground, the Internet was 17 years old, magnetic recording technology for disk drives was already making giant strides. We didn’t know it then but the CD and, now, the DVD were going to be displaced.

When it comes to paper and papers, what is it we don’t know?

A really difficult question. Before seeing a (computer) mouse for the first time, how could I ask for one? How do we deal we the unknown unknowns?

But, rather than being paralyzed by such conundrums, let’s explore a little bit and, in doing so, let’s see what the dog does. The dog? Yes, the dog in ourselves, the one who will or won’t come back to the dog food after the first (irresistible) try. For context, I remember being delighted when purchasing my CD-ROM OED and two encyclopedias – and, over time, rarely using them. In particular, I much preferred opening the OED II on the kitchen counter at dinnertime...

Follow me, please, to the Google Reader. I assume you have a Google account. If not, type www.google.com and follow the instructions to get one such account. Click one of the tabs on the upper left of the page and enjoy the “google-simple” instructions to get in. Once you have the free Google account, click on the Reader tab, also on the upper left of the page. If you’re a first-timer, you’re presented with a truly useable video tutorial and a few tips.

You’re in business.

What business?

The business of creating your own universe of news and information, live, always there, online or offline with the newer off-line synching feature, also delivered on your mobile phone. You need subscriptions, a.k.a. feeds. Let’s say you’re interested in cars. Click on the “Add a subscription button” on the upper let of the screen, a search field appears

Try “car” or “automobile” and, soon, you’ll stumble on one of my favorites, The Truth About Cars. (Note the number of subscribers next to each of the listed blogs; such number can be a problem as the same site could have multiple listings with different subscribers numbers.) Click on “Subscribe” and you’re done.
Soon enough, following your interests plus, perhaps, interests you didn’t know you had, you end up with 10, 20, 40 ‘feeds’. I like the latter term because, for me, it represents what happens, I see wires connected to source of news, information, knowledge, emotions, argument, entertainment, feeding into this one dashboard, my Google Reader page.

Note also I don’t emphasize the ‘blog’ word. Google itself doesn’t either: you’ll have trouble seeing ‘blog’ anywhere on the Reader page. The reason, I reason, is there is more to Reader subscriptions than just blogs in the ‘old’, original sense of Web log. Yes, we still find the musings if not the rants of individuals, but the cream continues to rise to the top – and you can edit, delete, your subscriptions, search for new ones. Today, most Web content can be subscribed to: look for this iconon the page, click on it and you’ll be offered to subscribe using your choice of reader, Google’s included

A word of explanation. RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication. The latter word, Syndication, refers to a newspaper, yes, tradition. Dave Barry is a syndicated columnist, Donnesbury is a syndicated cartoon, all meaning they’re published by any newspaper that subscribes to their content. (As a result, local newspapers have little original content, their business is, was, to carry ads.) RSS is a really simple way, using Internet, XML magic, to wire content updates, to syndicate a page to your reader. See the RSS feed button on the Monday Note main page.

Now, if you subscribe to “too many” blogs, as I do, you need to quickly fly through them, especially when they tend to repeat one another. This is where the keyboard shortcuts come in. I can’t memorize them all, I just use a few.

  • J/K for next/previous item.

  • Shift-N/P to move to the next/previous subscription.

  • Shift-O to open a subscription, ready to use J/K.

  • Lastly, V fully opens an item (as opposed to the summary) in a new window.

Also, the “Manage Subscriptions” link, at the bottom left, lets you group subscriptions by arbitrary topics, in folders: Gadgets, Cars, Windows, Valley, Apple...

Here are a few of the blogs I like, no accounting for taste:

And, of course, you can export your list of subscription as an OPML (a dialect of XML, itself the son HTML) file to share with your friends, to help them get started in this world.

I know you trust me when I say I could go on and on. But let’s move to the saving and the killing. The saving of trees and the demise of newspapers.

Going back to the dog, after more than two years, this one is going back and expanding his use of Google’s Reader. What I have is a magic window to the world, to facts, rants, mistakes, exaggerations, repetitions, great minds and shallow PR, opinions, emotions. A window I can change at will, cutting some wires adding new one. And, lest I forget, one I can search: rather than searching the entire Web on a general Yahoo!, Live or Google page, I can focus my search on any one or any group of my subscriptions. As a result, I can go back to a post I just skimmed through last week, it was about Wimax... Seconds later, the piece is back on my screen and pressing e gets it emailed to one of my colleagues. On my PC or my smartphone.
This, to me, is better than newspapers. Not just because when I open the NYT or the WSJ in the morning, I have already been alerted to the more interesting pieces, or read the paper directly online. But, more important, because I have an ever changing, always up-to-date feed of news and opinions newspapers don’t have access to, or too late. For example, The Truth About Cars tracks and rants about the Big Three’s bailout in more useful and timely way than the MSM (Mainstream Media). Or Silicon Alley Insider offers a better analysis of Google’s strategy and numbers than the WSJ.

This doesn’t mean newspapers are dead, I’m 65 and love them nostalgically, believing We The People, meaning us taxpayers, will be called upon to subsidize them, as it’s done already in places like France. A few months ago, I canceled the family’s subscriptions to the Mercury News and The Chronicle. Next year, our subscriptions to the NYT and the WSJ come up for renewal; I’ll have to regretfully decline to renew, saving trees and a few hundred dollars.

We have a new papyrus.

Unfortunately, the business models are still to be defined. As Frank Rich, the excellent NYT columnist, put its in his latest column. “If a public that thinks nothing of spending money on texting or pornography doesn’t foot the bill for such reportage, it won’t happen.” The whole piece is well worth reading – especially at the current price... It concludes: “But if a comprehensive array of real news is to be part of the picture as well, the time will soon arrive for us to put up or shut up. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for.” —JLG

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