Three New Reasons To Put Off Buying a Kindle

I titled my January 23 column “E-Book Readers on the iPhone: They’re Not Quite Kindle Slayers Yet.” How quickly technology marches ahead. In the weeks since then, three very compelling new options have arrived for people like me who want to read e-books but balk at the price tag on Amazon’s Kindle 2, the best dedicated e-book reader on the market. As it turns out, the real Kindle killer may be Kindle itself—the iPhone version, that is.

Option 1: Google Book Search for iPhone and Android. On February 5, Google introduced a mobile-friendly version of its five-year-old book search utility. Google Book Search is the public face of Google’s massive project to scan millions of out-of-print books held at famous libraries, make their text searchable, and show all or parts of the books online. If you open a book in Google Book Search on a regular PC browser, you see the actual page images that Google captured. But for the smaller screens of mobile devices, Google came up with a way to show just the raw text, as extracted by optical character recognition (OCR) software. For mobile subscribers inside the United States, the new service offers access to the full text of a staggering 1.5 million public domain books.

Google Book Search Mobile Screen ShotThe huge up side to Google’s move is that it puts so many books at the fingertips of mobile users, wherever they may happen to be. The down side is that OCR technology is still imperfect, so the extracted text is often garbled. The older, fancier, or more unusual the typography in the original book, the more nonsense characters show up in the Google interface. But to counter that problem, the Google Book Search team has built in a nifty feature: just by tapping the screen, you can instantly download Google’s image of the page, to get a look at the original text.

I don’t think lots of people are going to read entire books using Google’s interface, which, even apart from the OCR problem, is marred by slow downloads (even on a Wi-Fi connection) and a tiny, non-adjustable font. But it’s a fantastic reference tool for people on the go.

Now, readers of this column will know that I’ve been critical of the settlement agreement reached last fall between Google and the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and several publishing houses. Those organizations saw the fact that Google was scanning copyrighted, but out-of-print books, as well as public-domain books, as a huge copyright violation. In the settlement, Google agreed to pay damages to the authors of books already scanned, while also setting up a way to share profits with authors when, at some point in the future, Google gives Book Search users the ability to purchase full-text downloads of out-of-print books. My concern is that thanks to the concessions the authors and publishers extracted, those downloads will be a lot more expensive than they would have been if Google had been allowed to go ahead with its scanning project unimpeded.

But none of that affects the mobile version of Google Book Search, which is limited (so far) to the free, public-domain books Google has scanned—generally, those published before 1923. Obviously, that covers centuries of great literature, from Juvenal’s Satires to Dante’s Inferno to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Option 2: Shortcovers. The Kindle isn’t available in Canada—or anywhere else outside the United States, for that matter. So on February 26, the Canadians took matters into their own hands, launching a mobile bookstore called Shortcovers. It’s the creation of Indigo Books and Music, the Toronto-based bookstore chain that also owns the Chapters chain. (If you wrapped together Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powell’s Books and put them north of the border, you’d have Indigo.) Shortcovers Screen Shot

You can buy Shortcovers e-books from the company’s website and then read them online or using the free Shortcovers app, which is available for the iPhone and Blackberry phones. Having tried it out on the iPhone, here’s what I like about Shortcovers: You can read the first chapters of all Shortcovers books for free. I if you prefer, you can buy subsequent chapters one at a time for $0.99 each, rather than spending $9.99 for a whole book and then finding out you don’t like it. You can access magazine articles, blog posts, short stories, poems, and other sub-book-sized chunks of content. And there are some neat community features built into the service that I haven’t seen from any other e-book vendor, such as the ability to publish your own e-books to the Shortcovers store for free, and the ability to create “mixes,” personalized compilations that you can share with other people.

Unfortunately, Shortcovers also has a few shortcomings. The iPhone app won’t start up at all if you don’t have a Wi-Fi or 3G connection—so forget using it to read on a plane. Once you’ve finished reading a sample chapter, Shortcovers doesn’t give you an easy way to buy the rest of a book: you have to navigate back to the app’s catalog-browsing area, find the book again, and then click the “buy” button, which then shoots you over to the Shortcovers website—it’s all very confusing. When you’re reading, the app’s title panel and control bar take up quite a bit of the screen’s scarce real estate. This leaves less room for text, meaning you have to spend more time scrolling. And there are formatting snags: In the book I bought to test the service (David Denby’s Snark), there were numerous typos, most often missing spaces that resulted in runonwordslikethis. Finally, the book prices can be a bit steep—many new titles are $9.99, but others are as much as $16.

Option 3: Kindle for iPhone. When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos unveiled the Kindle 2 a month ago, he said the company planned to make the 240,000 books that Amazon has converted for reading on the Kindle available for other devices as well, starting with the iPhone. But I don’t think anybody (except maybe Walt Mossberg) expected him to follow through on that promise so soon. Amazon’s “Kindle for iPhone” app, introduced March 3, is a little marvel. And this probably isn’t what Bezos wants to hear, but it came out just in time to stop me from spending $359 on an actual Kindle.

Kindle for iPhone Splash ScreenMy mouse finger hovered over the Kindle page‘s “Add to Shopping Cart” button all of last weekend. The devil on my left shoulder said “Go ahead, buy it—you write about gadgets, you need it for your work.” The angel on my right shoulder said, “Didn’t you just hear the guy on NPR? You’re supposed to be saving enough money to cover six months of living expenses in case the economy really implodes.” The ambivalent guy in the middle put off the decision.

Then the iPhone app appeared. To be clear, it’s not a substitute for the real Kindle, whose e-paper display is probably the most readable on the market (not to mention the most energy-efficient—it uses so little juice that battery life is a non-issue). But the iPhone version does include several of the other features that make the Kindle so hard to resist, including wireless access to all 240,000 Kindle editions, a flat $9.99 price tag for new bestsellers (and lower prices on many other books), and a beautifully stripped-down reading interface with none of the onscreen clutter that mars the Shortcovers screen. (Amazon’s interface designers seem to have paid close attention to Stanza, one of the iPhone e-book apps I reviewed in January.)

The app offers a nice selection of fonts and font sizes, a bookmarking function, and all the other e-reading basics. Turning pages is a simple matter of flicking the current page to the left (which is actually the gesture I tried the first time I got to play with a Kindle 2, only to remember that it doesn’t have a touch screen). I flicked my way through most of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers the other night and found the experience to be quite comfortable.

In short, Kindle for iPhone has slaked my thirst for a Kindle, at least for now.

Still, no matter what app you use, the iPhone will always be sub-optimal as an e-book reading device. Its small, backlit LCD screen can’t hold much text, drains the phone’s battery relatively fast, and causes eye strain for some users. So the people who will probably get the most pleasure out of the Kindle iPhone app are those who already own a real Kindle: a feature called “Whispersync” lets them use their iPhone as a more mobile substitute for the Kindle in a pinch. Whispersync keeps track of where you stopped reading a book on your Kindle and opens it at the same point on your iPhone, and vice-versa. So you could use your iPhone to read a chapter of the latest Grisham on the subway, then switch back your Kindle when you get home.

Which is pretty cool. In fact, maybe I’ll talk myself into buying that Kindle yet. Come on, you know you want one…

Update March 6, 2009 8:10 a.m.:
Another bookstore chain is getting into the e-book game. A news item yesterday indicates that Barnes & Noble has purchased Fictionwise, one of the longest-lived e-publishing companies around (it was selling e-books way back in 1998-99, when I worked at NuvoMedia, the maker of the Rocket eBook). Fictionwise has a very good e-book reading app called eReader; it works on the iPhone as well as Pocket PC, Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobile devices, not to mention Windows and Macintosh computers and even the OQO handheld PC. So make that Option 4.

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

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