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.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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