Saturday, March 07, 2009


I read a review this morning of the Amazon Kindle app for the Apple iPhone. Basically, the application lets you buy, download, and read Kindle books on the iPhone. So if you don't want to shell out $359 for the Kindle itself, you can still read Kindle-formatted e-books.

What that means is that, since the iPhone does not use the E Ink e-paper display, you don't get the e-paper experience. But that's okay, because a) the iPhone Kindle app is free and b) the iPhone display is actually pretty readable as it is. So I downloaded the app and bought an e-book (Charles Dickens' Sketches by Boz, which I don't have in print) and it's actually not a bad experience. I have mixed feelings about e-books (see below), but if one were to start reading e-books, the Kindle app might very well be the way to go. It's not perfect, but of all the e-book applications I have seen over the years, it's perhaps one of the best.

The Kindle app uses the same font as the proper Kindle. You can adjust the size of the type to one of five presets, and the text is dynamically reflowed, although the justification sometimes causes weird gaps between words. If the Kindle format ever incorporates a sophisticated H&J feature, this will look a lot better, but I don't know that that is even possible. They could also make the text ragged right, which might end up looking better, but I guess they really want to ape the typographic conventions of a printed book. (I can't speak to how the Kindle app handles images, but the review I linked to earlier says it handles most images fairly well.)

A page fills the iPhone screen, and tapping the screen once brings up the limited menu with which you can add a bookmark, access the ToC and all your bookmarks, change the type size, and scroll through the book. The page is turned by dragging your finger across the touch screen, and you can go forward or backward. Pages turn pretty quickly; once in a while it takes a couple seconds, but usually only when quickly flipping pages.

There are some iPhone-centric features I wish the Kindle app supported, such as squeezing the screen to resize the page, turning the display 90 degrees, etc., but those are fairly small points. The display is very crisp and while I have not read anything at great length on an E Ink display, this app seems remarkably comparable. (I have read many many things on the iPhone screen and have no problem with the display.) Interestingly, the iPhone display is color, while the Kindle itself is black-and-white only. While that is likely to change probably a few years hence, it does make a compelling case for bypassing the Kindle hardware reader and going straight to the iPhone.

Buying books is pretty easy; you buy them from Amazon either by computer or via Safari on the iPhone, although Amazon's idea of "1-click checkout" is a bit of a misnomer, since it takes about as many clicks as buying anything from any e-commerce site. Happily, you can register the Kindle app with a preexisting Amazon account, so you don't need to set up anything new. Kindle titles range in price from $0.99 up to $9.99 (or more), with $9.99 the going rate for new releases--not bad when you consider that most new hardcovers go for $25.99 and up. (Sketches by Boz was $1.99, even though it is in the public domain, but I guess someone had to take the trouble to convert it. But then while many classics are in the public domain, things like specific translations, annotations, introductions, and other supplementary materials are not.) You can also download free sample chapters of e-books before you commit to anything.

Once a Kindle book is purchased, it is automatically downloaded to the iPhone the next time the Kindle app is launched. Sketches by Boz downloaded in less than 15 seconds over my WiFi network. I wonder, though, if I ever do get a proper Kindle, will I be able to transfer books I have bought for the iPhone app to it? It would not surprise me if they made me buy it again. Not that I will, of course.

I will still always prefer printed books; they will always work, they don't need batteries, and they don't have annoying DRM technologies. I can drop a printed book (because I am a klutz) and it will still be readable. But the Kindle iPhone app is a good way to experience e-books. I can see using it when I travel and want to read books on planes, trains, buses, etc., but don't necessarily want to lug a printed book around. (I bought the new novel Drood in Florida to read on the flight home, and it's an 800-page hardcover. Lugging it around airports is good for building upper body strength, though.)

Here's what I would love, but you know it will never happen: buying a "book" will not only give me the print edition--so I can read it at leisure at home--but also the electronic version (at no extra cost), so I can take it with me elsewhere. That is staggeringly unlikely, just as a print/audio book "bundle" will never happen.

I do have certain reservations about buying e-books in general, and they're the same ones I have about buying iTunes vs. actual CDs: digital data can be far too ephemeral. Some years ago, I had a Handspring Visor PDA (it ran the Palm OS) and, since I have always been interested in e-book technologies, I had purchased several e-books designed to be read on it. When the Visor died a couple years later, my e-books were gone. Are Kindle books likely to suffer from the same problem? After all, hardware changes, I will likely get a new iPhone (or something) in a few years, and file formats change, god knows. Will the Sketches by Boz e-book I bought today still be readable on anything I am likely to own (or anything at all anywhere) in five years? 10 years?

Say what you will about print, it endures. That's why Sketches by Boz can still be read 173 years after it was written.

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