updated 12:05 pm EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
New service brings Netflix-like convenience to readers
We're not sure that there's any debate about the future of subscription services for digital content. Between Netflix, Amazon Video, Next Issue, and a few other services offering near-unlimited consumption, our appetite seems voracious for digital offerings. A subscription service for e-books has recently launched for iOS called Oyster -- it purports to allows users access to over 200,000 titles offline and online. How well does it accomplish that goal, and does it give the reader a positive reading experience?
The service isn't universal -- it offers titles from only one of the "big four" publishing houses, HarperCollins, and also content from Disney Publishing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Rodale, Open Road, Melville House, Workman, Algonquin, Smashwords, and other smaller houses. The service requires iOS 7, and is universal, with user interface differences between the iPad and iPhone or iPod touch. The app itself has a light footprint, and individual books are very small, so the app fully loaded with a maximum complement of 10 offline-stored e-books occupies 250MB or less on a device.
The interface is slick with usability in mind, as one would want. Skeuomorphism is mostly absent, with a notable lack of page-turning animations. We're not fond of the top-to-bottom scrolling of text on the iPad, but like it on the smaller screen of an iPhone, so that's a wash for us, from a user-interface perspective.
Users can select from a large variety of background and text colors, with some more suitable for bright environments and daytime reading. Night-time readers aren't ignored either, as there are many selections for the midnight set so as not to blind (or prevent sleep for) anyone not reading nearby.
Social media integration is complete, but optional. If you want to barrage your friends and acquaintances with what you're reading, you can, but you don't have to. Annotation features help students and book scholars digest content. Notes can be shared across applications, shared on social media, or emailed, which is a nice feature if a key phrase needs to be shared with others not Oyster-equipped.
We like the organization of the collections, including a children's book section. Unfortunately, the recommendations engine is a little shoddy even now, six months after launch -- with a few jarring suggestions not even remotely close to what we were reading. We understand the service is about discovery as well as comfortable reading, but we'd like some intelligence in the selection, or a slider asking us if we want discovery or more similarity to what we've read.
Oyster is new, and it shows. The book library is loaded with self-published content, offering a varied reading experience, and is bad and good at the same time. Disney, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and HarperCollins being the only significant houses in the service limits selection somewhat. New print releases are all but absent from the service, which isn't surprising given the publishers' attitudes toward e-books in general.
For $10 per month for iOS users only, avid readers can read until eyestrain kicks in, and that's a good thing. The cost per month is worthwhile, assuming that users would have otherwise purchased two e-books that can be found on the service every month. But the small selection compared to all the books that can be read can be a problem sometimes, if users have a specific literary itch that needs to be scratched.
We'd like Oyster to survive, alongside its main competitors in the flat-rate e-book buffet market, Scribd and Amazon's more limited book-lending service. We'd like to see support for older devices running iOS 5 (but know it won't happen), as well as an Android version (which might) -- but for now, there's nothing wrong with an iOS-only release. We're primarily concerned that the heavy focus on publishers' back catalogs and the absence of other publishing houses will turn off readers, as many public libraries with e-book lending services offer the same content for free.