Browsing the Internet on an Ebook Reader

A possible home for the Gopher and Gemini protocols

May 1, 2021

So a while ago during my casual browsing of the internet I came across Martin Chrzanowski's website. He doesn't have all that much on his site (since unlike me it appears he has a job) after reading one of the things he wrote I decided he was worth paying attention to. He wrote about how he often downloads blog posts and other worthwhile articles on the internet to his ereader and he reads them there rather than on his phone or computer like most people do. He accomplishes this by using pandoc to convert web pages into a friendly file format and he then puts them on his ebook reader to read later.

When I read this I thought about what it would take to do this myself, of course it is really a quite simple thing to do and it clearly works just fine for Martin, but I came to the conclusion that it would not be a practical thing for me to do since transferring files to my quite old ebook reader is a bit of a chore in my mind, (I have a very early model Amazon Kindle) so I didn't give it much thought. But of course this is still a good idea, phones computers and traditional tablets are not designed for us to read from like ereaders are, those of us who own them should be looking for more excuses to use them.

Of course the best way for this to happen would be if we could get something like newsboat running on an ebook reader, but since all of them are built off of proprietary software and are made by companies who don't have the best track record when it comes to respecting privacy (I never connect my Kindle to the internet since I am afraid of it phoning home) or software freedom this is unlikely to happen Then for some reason today a few pointless internet protocols jumped into my mind and I realized that Gopher and Gemini would be perfectly suited for use on ebook readers.

Gopher and Gemini are two HTTP alternatives that only nerds disconnected from the real world really care about. Gopher was an internet protocol developed in the 90s which would allow people to make websites that are completely plain text, Gemini is a modern iteration of that idea. There is a small collection of websites that use these protocols but normal people don't know anything about them because in order to access them a special web browser is needed, no normal person is going to download a strange piece of software just so they can view some website that some nerd set up, it is hard enough to get them to do it over HTTP with a normal browser.

I am of course an advocate for minimalist websites and while completely text based websites are desirable, things like Gopher and Gemini go too far to be practical to use on a regular computer or smartphone. However these protocols would be perfect for ebook readers. Almost all ebook readers have some sort of web browser on them but none of these browsers are any good because ereaders are simply too limited to be of any use when it comes to browsing the modern web because HTTP has way more features than an ereader could reasonably support. I don't even think that browsing a simple site like mine would be a remotely enjoyable experience using a browser built into an ebook reader.

Ebook readers are machines purpose built for presenting users with plan text, Gopher and Gemini are protocols purpose built for serving users plain text, these things are destined for each other. Unfortunately this is something that I doubt will ever happen. I'm sure Gopher and Gemini enthusiasts would be more than willing to help this sort of thing happen, but I would be incredibly surprised if they are ever successful in convincing any hardware manufacturers into putting these kinds of browsers onto their products. Then there is of course the obvious lack of content present on these protocols. Extensions to things like Wordpress and Squarespace would have to be made to get there to be content that normal people would want to consoom on these protocols.

Although I hope that my doubt doesn't make you think that this isn't all that great of an idea, my doubt only means that I don't plan to invest any time or energy into this sort of project. You're more than welcome to steal this idea from me (in fact I hope someone does, or I at least hope that I'm not the only one who has had this idea), if this is something that you have the time, skills, connections and most importantly passion to make happen then do it, don't let my pessimism regarding this topic discourage you.