Of iPhones and e-books

Posted: June 30, 2008 in e-book, ebook, ebrary, iphone, kindle, netlibrary, smartphone
Tags: , ,

There are a number of posts floating around that try to compare Apple’s iPhone to Amazon’s Kindle as an e-book platform. The first one I happened across was on a CNET blog. Links to others are listed below.

As a frequent e-book user myself, I have a few opinions on the concept. Over the years I’ve seen several devices and listened to a number of programs that explored the options and applications for electronic books. I’ve seen small, medium, and large dedicated handheld devices that do nothing but e-books. I’ve seen library vendors who offer online e-books in HTML and PDF format for viewing on a regular computer screen. I’ve played with a number of e-book readers that run on Palm PDAs.

One of the most important aspects of any book (electronic or otherwise) is portability. You can easily carry it around with you. You can toss it in a backpack. You can easily carry it on a plane. For me this immediately rules out vendors that expect you to read their content on a desktop or even a laptop computer. (NetLibrary and ebrary, this means you!) For my use, these vendors just miss the point. I don’t care how good their search tools are, how good their annotation tools are, or what utilities they offer for researching within their collections. I. Just. Don’t. Care. If I can’t take it with me, they’ve lost me. That being said, I MIGHT be willing to use a proprietary reader with their collections if I can load that reader on my portable device of choice, but ultimately, if I can’t take the book with me, then just go away.

That turns the conversation to portable devices like the Kindle, Sony’s Reader Digital Book, or any of a host of smartphones. Now we’re getting somewhere. Portability.

For many users screen size (and more importantly, font size) are the deciding factors in whether they can even get comfortable with e-books. I’m currently reading my books on a Treo with a screen that measures 2.5″ diagonally. (That’s just a shade over 1.75″ wide and high, or320 x 320 pixels). This is fine for me. I have an e-book reader I truly enjoy, and I’ve read many, many books on this device. However, that just won’t get it for some people. The screen is simply too small for them to be able to read comfortably. Apple’s iPhone offers a nice improvement over the Treo. This phone’s 3.5″ (diagonal widescreen) design gives more space to screen real estate, and therefore more reading room. Again though, this just may not cut it for some users. Jumping up to the Kindle, users get a 6″ (diagonal) screen that probably jumps more into the realm of readability for a lot of users.

So if you really, really, REALLY want to read e-books, chances are you can find a reader somewhere out there that will suit your style. Great for the end-users, but what about libraries? If libraries want to offer e-books to their patrons, which technology do they go with? Do they use a vendor that offers books that are online viewable online? Do they invest in dedicated readers? Or will the growing smartphone market presage a new wave of readers and e-book formats?

I’m not sure, but I’m holding out for new readers on smartphones. Increasingly people are doing more and more with their phones, and the more they can do, the more they WANT to do. For awhile I carried both a cell phone and a PDA, and I was glad to reach the point where I could carry a single device that combine both functions. (That being said, I do still have three e-book readers on my device, or four if you count a PDF reader. Yeah, I REALLY like e-books). If this is the emerging model, then libraries need new options from vendors in terms of both readers and formats. Or better yet, why not standardize on some of the formats that are already out there? A number of readers already support standard HTML files. Whatever the solution, vendors would do well to make it as easy as possible for libraries to purchase and provide access to e-books. Likewise, vendors should pay attention to smartphone users and find out just how they want to read content on their portable devices.

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