As sad as it may be, many people just don’t have the time to read these days. When we say ‘read’, we don’t mean 140-character-long rants on Twitter, or 150-word news nuggets on the BBC. We mean books, magazines and long-form articles.
But just as technology has distracted us from perusing prose and getting stuck-in to a good book, with the likes of social media, video games, music and movies all providing alternative forms of entertainment, technology is also working to counteract this shift by helping us filter through the cacophonous crackle of the white-noise Web and get to all the good words.
There’s Long Reads for starters, which presents a hand-picked selection of some of the best storytelling on the Web. And for those who do still find the time to read actual books, GoodReads serves as a nifty tool for separating the wheat from the chaff. Then there’s Pocket, which lets you bookmark anything you find on the Web to read at a later point – when you have time.
But what if you never quite have the time to read at-length? Well, ReadQuick for iOS taps third-party services such as Pocket and Instapaper to train you to speed-read all your saved articles one word at a time. And then there’s Blinkist.
Now, Blinkist is an interesting one for sure. The whole premise behind the service, which currently takes the form of a Web and an iOS app, is to let you get to grips with non-fiction books in fifteen minutes. But this doesn’t take the ReadQuick approach by training your eyes to read like Superman. No, it’s more about curation and condensing – pure human brainpower and field experts with a passion for explaining complex matters is the name of the game here.
Blinkist launched its iPhone app for the German market a year ago this week and, following a phase of iteration that resulted in version 2.0 of the app landing in September, November heralded the international release of the service alongside an all-new responsive Web app.
Today sees a new version of the iOS app go live with a brand new highlights feature, which lets readers highlight snippets of text within the reader and place them in a certain order in a separate view, to help eke out the facts and quotes they wish to remember. Now seems like a good time to dig a little deeper into the company and see where things are at and where they’re going from here.
The Berlin-based company counts 14 employees in its Kreuzberg office, which includes four co-founders. Given the time-consuming nature of the service, vis-à-vis the manual nature of producing abridged versions of sometimes-complex matters, the platform still only counts 152 books at the time of writing – 80 in English and 106 in German, though some are in both languages (hence only 152).
While the company’s adding, on average, 20 books a month, Holger Seim, co-founder and CEO of Blinkist, says they’re ramping things up. “We’re planning to increase the monthly release capacity to 50 until the mid of 2014, to be able to cover all relevant releases, and then step-by-step we’ll start building up a back-catalogue,” he says.
To give you an idea of what kind of books you can read in 15 minutes, there’s everything from Popular Science and Business & Career, to Entrepreneurship and Health & Happiness. In terms of specific titles, well, there’s Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, and the 2005 classic Freakonomics, from University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner.
Once you’ve found the book you wish to read, click, and you’ll see a series of chapters condensed into around 250 words each. Then there’s a ‘Final Summary’ chapter that basically sums up the key points from the whole book.
The iPhone app works much in the same way, and you can save titles to your library and sync your content across both platforms.
The new Highlights feature that’s landing today will be for the mobile version only, though it will be arriving on the Web-based incarnation at a later point. Much like other e-reading apps, this new feature lets you choose specific sections and save them to their own dedicated folder to revisit later.
A natural target audience for Blinkist would, of course, be students who have ‘forgotten’ to read key texts and books in preparation for a class. But it also serves as good insight for anyone wishing to get the gist of a title in around 15 minutes – give or take a few. If they don’t have the time to read the entire, original book, fine. But if they do, this will give much better insight into what to expect compared to the preview texts you often get with the likes of Kindle and Kobo.
The one downside here, if you can call it that, is the service isn’t free. Following a free trial period, you’ll be asked to pay €4.49 ($4.99) a month, or save a little cash by agreeing to sign-up for a year and pay €44.90 ($49.99) in total.
Looking to the future
Though the founders wouldn’t reveal any specific user numbers, they did say that their user-base doubled in November alone following the launch of the international version which, well, isn’t entirely surprising. But there are a few more things on the horizon for 2014.
“We started working on an iPad-optimized app, which should be released within the first quarter,” says Niklas Jansen, co-founder and CPO. “We translated our learnings of the user behavior into the app and deliver a nice and simple experience for those more ‘laid-back’ moments.”
And what about Android, the perennial missing-link in many companies’ arsenal of offerings? “Android will be our priority right after we’ve released an iPad-optimized app,” chimed in Seim. “If things go to plan, we will have an Android app ready by around the middle of the year.”
Other things coming up relate to feature enhancements, including making it easier to read and retain information. Plus, plans are afoot to personalize content more based on interests, and motivate users to keep up with their reading goals. “Our vision is to build a smart companion that helps you to learn something new, easily,” says Jansen.
While Blinkist is perhaps a glaring indictment of where we’ve headed as a society – “No time to read? No problem…” – where there is demand for something, supply is never normally far behind. But what Blinkist really needs to do now is ramp up its content and push towards thousands and tens-of-thousands of titles – until then, it may struggle to find people willing to part with their hard-earned cash.
Blinkist is one to watch though, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. We’ll be sure to revisit things a little further down the road.