E-Book Readers on the iPhone? They’re Not Quite Kindle Slayers Yet

Well, this is the first time I’ve written my weekly column while wearing a tuxedo. No, I’m not on my way home from an inauguration ball, or campaigning for higher style standards among reporters. As I write this, I’m getting ready to emcee Xconomy’s Battle of the Tech Bands 2. Our preparations for the event have eaten up most of the day, which is why today’s column will be brief (by my own wordy standards, anyway).

I try to keep an eye on the e-book world, and some interesting stuff has been cropping up lately. First, Amazon has continued to experience surprising success with its Kindle e-book reader. I’ve panned the Kindle in the past, and wouldn’t even think about buying one myself until the company makes major design improvements. (Which it may be about to do—a new version is supposedly due this spring.) But a lot of people seem to like the thing, and after Oprah herself endorsed it in October, a pre-Christmas rush of orders cleaned out Amazon’s entire stock; there’s now an 8- to 10-week wait for Kindles. (And by that time the new one might be out.)

Which leaves an opening of sorts for competitors. So it’s no surprise to see iPhone app developers moving into that gap, given the attractions of the Apple device’s high-resolution display and touch-based interface.

But as much as I love my iPhone and dislike the current Kindle, I’m not sure Apple’s gadget will take hold as a serious platform for e-books. The main problem, as I see it, is that the iPhone’s screen is too small to hold much text, meaning readers have to turn a page every few seconds. If you want to try out the e-book experience on an iPhone, however, I do have two apps to recommend.

The Stanza Reader for the iPhoneFirst, there’s Stanza from Lexcycle, a free app for the iPhone or the iPod Touch that gives you immediate, over-the-air access to a very large collection of free public-domain works (I’m part of the way through Middlemarch) as well as new, paperback-priced works from the Fictionwise catalog. Stanza has a well-thought-out interface, including a Cover Flow-like title browser. What I like best about it is the way a simple tap on the right side of the screen takes you to the next page. Using the iPhone’s usual “flick” gesture to go to the next page, the way some other apps do, is actually overkill for this simple task, in my opinion—all that flicking will wear out your index finger surprisingly quickly.

Then there’s Iceberg Reader from ScrollMotion. Unlike Stanza, Iceberg isn’t a stand-alone application that’s able to load many different books; rather, it comes as part of an all-in-one package when you buy and download individual book titles from the iTunes App Store, such as the marvelous fantasy novel The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. It’s got an extremely nice look and feel. You almost get the sense that this is the e-book reader application Apple would have designed, if it had included such a utility as a native app on the iPhone. Iceberg Reader does use the flicking convention to scroll text along the screen, but it’s well-executed, without too much springiness or momentum imparted by each flick, so I don’t find it too annoying.

Meanwhile, there are more companies trying different takes on the much larger, E-Ink-based “electronic paper” interface that’s at the heart of both the Kindle and the earlier Sony e-book readers. The New York Times published a nice roundup of the current options just before Christmas . I’m intrigued by the eSlick Reader from Foxit Software, which seems to do almost everything the Kindle does for a lot less money ($229 compared to Amazon’s exorbitant $359), and by the uber-minimalist Txtr, a 3G/Bluetooth/Wi-Fi device that was panned yesterday by Crunchgear but has a much more elegant look (at least judging from the early product shots) than the other reading devices out there.

Txtr ReaderOf course, any new e-book reading device or program is only as good as the catalog of books that it can access. On that score, Amazon has a huge and perhaps insurmountable advantage over all of its competitors. If the Kindle 2.0 includes the right combination of improvements (meaning, if it’s a lot less ugly and clunky than the first one) it will probably cement Amazon’s lead.

Regardless of what Amazon does with the new Kindle, we can probably look forward to more improvements in display technology, both from E-Ink and from makers of standard LCD displays like the iPhone’s. In a newsletter just yesterday, David Pogue of the New York Times reported claims by LCD makers at the Consumer Electronics Show that their technology is “only 50 percent evolved,” meaning we should expect even brighter, sharper, more energy-efficient LCDs in the relatively near future. Happy reading!

Update, February 6, 2009: This week Google introduced an iPhone-accessible version of its Google Book Search service, meaning iPhone owners in the U.S. now have free access to the more than 1.5 million public-domain books Google has scanned at major libraries. As Greg has reported, Amazon immediately responded with an announcement that Kindle e-books will soon be available on mobile phones, presumably including the iPhone. All the one-upsmanship, as the big players in the online book space rush to make more content available on their preferred platforms but also free up content so that it can be consumed on rival platforms, can only be good for readers in the long run.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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7 responses to “E-Book Readers on the iPhone? They’re Not Quite Kindle Slayers Yet”

  1. Rush says:

    Hi Wade – what about eReader (www.ereader.com). I just finished Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check on the iPhone and I’m sold. They also offer over-the-air downloads and a vast library of contemporary titles.

  2. Joel says:

    If you already have an iPhone or an iPod Touch, the question is whether to buy a Kindle or something like it as well. For me, the answer is no. Why carry around two devices when one will do?

    I use Stanza. I’ve read two novels so far, and I love that you can adjust the font, its color, the background color, and the font size. It’s true that the iPhone screen doesn’t hold as many words as a standard book page, but I haven’t found this to be much of a drawback. In addition, it’s a delight to hold the “book” in the palm of one hand.

  3. Aaron says:

    Honestly, I don’t see how anyone who has experience with an true e-ink device could ever be satisified with a device like the iPhone. I don’t care what program you’re using on the iPhone, the bottom line is that LCDs, especially small ones, make absolutely terrible e-readers and no program will ever change that.

    Beyond the iPhone just being too small, LCDs are not easy on the eyes for extended reading and the battery life is simply pitiful in comparison. E-ink devices OTOH look a lot like actual paper, look great in bright light, and generally have spectacular battery life.

    The main, and pretty much only, advantage the iPhone has is that people are so married to their cell phones they’ll generally always have them around. But there’s absolutely no way I’d sit around at home and read on an iPhone. That’s just absurd IMO. Maybe the iPhone would be fine for reading a work document on a ride to work or something, but not for any serious reading.

    FWIW, we have an iPhone 3G, iTouch, and Kindle in our home. Actual reading beyond text on web pages or text message is never done on the Apple devices.

  4. Geoff says:

    I’ve read a half dozen (free) novels using Stanza on the iPhone, and I find it to be a terrific experience. Every aspect of the interface (font, text size, text color, background color, etc) is customizable, and page-turning requires almost no effort — it’s much easier than on the Kindle. Also it has other advantages: you can read it in a dark room, for example, which is great when your spouse is sleeping next to you. And battery life isn’t an issue for me, since I always recharge my phone overnight, and it always lasts through the day. Given that my phone works so well as an e-book reader, there’s no way I’d purchase, or lug around, a second device.