Three New Reasons To Put Off Buying a Kindle

3/6/09Follow @wroush

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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 contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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